- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2005

Washington is rarely Hollywood’s first choice as a world-premiere site.

An exception was made for “The Great Raid,” a classic new war movie directed by John Dahl based on two recent books about a gallant episode of World War II, William B. Breuer’s 1994 “The Great Raid” and Hampton Sides’ “Ghost Soldiers,” published in 2001.

An invitational premiere at the Loews Uptown on July 28 was preceded by a ceremony at the National World War II Memorial on the Mall and a day of press interviews at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Georgetown with several cast members as well as Mr. Dahl and Mr. Sides. Advertised sneak previews will be held tonight at area theaters, anticipating the national release Friday.

It looks a bit suspect when any quality movie is released toward the end of summer, when the audience pool tends to subside and a cynical tradition prevails that titles are being unloaded rather than proudly showcased. It remains to be seen whether “The Great Raid” can defy this exaggeration. The movie missed a tentative opening date in fall 2004 while the management of Miramax was involved in corporate divorce proceedings with its distribution partner, the Walt Disney Co.

Mr. Dahl, born in Billings, Mont., in 1956, began his feature directing career in the early 1990s as a specialist in crime thrillers. The earliest examples, “Red Rock West” and “The Last Seduction,” were critical favorites that remained marginal to the mass market. Many people probably discovered them on home video or cable television.

“Unforgettable” in 1996 remained within the mystery genre, albeit more flamboyantly. “Rounders” in 1998 took a different tack. It immersed Matt Damon in the semisinister world of competitive poker several years before the game achieved a fashionable comeback on television.

Unassuming and soft-spoken, Mr. Dahl seems to regard himself as one of the industry’s stealthier pros. “I’ve lived in Hollywood for over 20 years,” he reflects, “but I don’t think most people know I’m even there.”

That evaluation will need an upgrade after “The Great Raid,” an exemplary blend of historical evocation and sensational battle spectacle with an ominous, three-sided human-interest scenario. All three subplots converge on a mutual destination, the Cabanatuan prisoner-of-war camp in the Philippines, in late January 1945.

About 500 Allied inmates, the remnants of the troops that surrendered to the Japanese on the Bataan peninsula in 1942, are still within the compound. Because of fears that they may be slaughtered as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s 6th Army advances south toward Manila, a rescue mission is entrusted to about 120 Army Rangers and a somewhat larger group of Filipino guerrillas. Despite being improvised on short notice, the mission proves a stirring success.

A first-draft screenplay reached Mr. Dahl in August 2001. Pre-production began about a month later, with everyone in a profoundly somber mood as a result of September 11. Mr. Dahl had been interested in the subject because his father, now 82, was a combat infantryman who fought in the Philippines in the wake of the Cabanatuan mission.

The director’s sense of both past and present impelled him to urge considerable rewriting. “I met Bob Prince, who had been a young captain when he led the raid,” Mr. Dahl says. “I met several of the surviving POWs. Once you do that, it becomes very important to recapture the historical moment that they experienced. There were fictionalized elements in the first script that had to go. For example, Bob got killed, which was certainly uncalled for. There were only about a dozen Rangers, and they kept having firefights all along the way. By sticking to the facts, we have a great battle sequence where it belongs, and it culminates everything.”

The film was shot for the most part in Queensland, Australia in 2002. Queensland doubled for all the settings in the Philippine countryside. Shanghai provided the backdrop for Manila in episodes dealing with the anti-Japanese underground in the city. Editing consumed all of 2003. Encouraging previews in 2004 seemed to anticipate a fall release. Then the Miramax-Disney feud put several movies on hold. You’ll be seeing many of them this August and September.

Hampton Sides, who wrote for both Washingtonian magazine and the City Paper during the middle and late 1980s, has lived in New Mexico for the past several years. He was attracted to the Cabanatuan saga while covering an annual marathon at White Sands for Outside magazine.

Called the Bataan Memorial Death March, “it’s held on the missile range,” Mr. Sides explains. “I wrote about a veteran who planned to walk the course to commemorate his fallen buddies. He was 79. I walked it with him and soaked up a lot of anecdotal history about the war. By the time it was over, I had to do a book.”

Mr. Sides says he was surprised that the subject had never been appropriated for Hollywood re-enactment. “After 60 years went by,” he says, “there were suddenly rival Cabanatuan projects. Miramax had acquired the Breuer book. Mine came out a couple of years later, and Universal picked it up. Tom Cruise was keen on it. So was Steven Spielberg. It was all very exciting to be the flavor of the week.”

Eventually, negotiations led to a merged project. Miramax also acquired the option on Mr. Sides’ “Ghost Soldiers.” Many elements of his account were added to the final screenplay, the work of an uncredited British writer, Hossein Amini.

“So you might say that [Miramax’s] Harvey Weinstein won the standoff,” Mr. Sides concludes.

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