Director John Dahl’s “The Great Raid” is a World War II film that is in turns an old-fashioned war movie and a realistic depiction of a military action that actually took place. Written by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, “The Great Raid” depicts a successful U.S.-Filipino raid in early 1945 on a Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camp to free 500 American survivors of 1942’s infamous Bataan Death March.
Based on the books The Great Raid on Cabanatuan by William Breuer and Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides, “The Great Raid” stars Benjamin Bratt, Connie Nielsen, James Franco, Joseph Fiennes, Marton Csokas, Motoki Kobayashi, Gotaro Tsunashima, Sam Worthington, and Dale Dye.
“The Great Raid” starts on a gruesome note by depicting the massacre of American POWs by Japanese forces on the island of Palawan in late 1944. The Japanese were not signatories of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, and their military code, called Bushido, taught Japanese soldiers that surrender meant dishonor. As a result, the Japanese treated Allied prisoners with great contempt and often killed them out of hand.
The film then segues to January 1945. Gen. Walter Krueger’s (Dale Dye) U.S. Sixth Army has landed in Luzon’s Lingayen Gulf as part of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s campaign to liberate the Philippines. Spurred on by reports of the massacre of American POWs on Palawan Island by enemy forces, Krueger orders the 6th Ranger Battalion to carry out a raid on Cabanatuan Camp to free 500 U.S. soldiers. According to U.S. and Filipino accounts, the Japanese plan to round up the POWs, secure them in one place, then douse them with gasoline and burn them alive.
The Sixth Army orders Lt. Col. Henry Mucci (Bratt) and his exec, Capt. Robert Prince (Franco) to plan and carry out a daring raid to rescue the POWs before the Japanese carry out their nefarious plans. They come up with an operation that requires speed and stealth in order to achieve surprise and liberate the POWs without great loss of life to the Americans and Filipinos.
“The Great Raid” intercuts the story of the 133 Rangers and Alamo Scouts under Mucci’s command with those of the fictional Major Gibson (Fiennes), the senior POW officer at Cabanatuan and real-life nurse Margaret Utinsky (Nielsen). Utinsky risked her life helping the Filipino resistance to smuggle black market medicines into the POW camp. “The Great Raid” creates a fictitious romantic history for Gibson and Utinsky, a bit of creative license intended to increase the film’s appeal to viewers who like a little romance mixed into historically-themed tales.
In spite of this Hollywood embellishment, “The Great Raid” gets kudos for being a movie that shows a realistic view of war. It eschews flashy action sequences full of cinematic sound and fury. Instead, director Dahl (“The Last Seduction”) and writers Bernard and Miro place their emphasis on the story and characters. They even manage to pull off a scene where the rescue plan is laid out in a detailed step-by-step briefing. By the time the scene is over, the on-screen American and Filipino troops know the mission by heart, and so does the audience.
The film also earns admiration by reminding viewers that the raid on Cabanatuan was not an Americans-only show. “The Great Raid” makes every effort to show a diversionary attack on a bridge by Filipino troops that delayed Japanese soldiers sent to reinforce the garrison at the POW camp.
“The Great Raid” is probably not a great war film on the same level as, say, Darryl Zanuck’s “The Longest Day” or Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” It is slow-paced at times, the tacked-on love story doesn’t add much dramatic content, and it sometimes spends too much time in the POW camp rather than on the Rangers and Alamo Scouts.
Nevertheless, “The Great Raid” is still a watchable, even inspirational war movie that deserves a larger audience than it got in its disastrous 2005 theatrical run. (It cost its studio, Miramax Films, $80 million to shoot, mainly in Australia. It only earned $10 million at the box office, which makes it one of the biggest flops of the 2000s.)
Blu-ray Specifications (Special Unrated Director’s Cut Edition)
- Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
- Resolution: 1080p
- Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
- Original aspect ratio: 2.39:1
- English: LPCM 5.1 (48kHz, 16-bit)
- English: Dolby Digital 5.1 (640 kbps)
- English: Dolby Digital 2.0 (192kbps)
- English SDH, French, Spanish
- 25GB Blu-ray Disc
- Single disc (1 BD)
- UV digital copy (expired)
- Digital copy (expired)
- Region A
- Studio: Miramax Lionsgate
- Blu-ray Release Date: April 26, 2011
- Run Time: 132 minutes