"What is harder to escape-a prison camp or the Miramax shelf?"
In recent years, films about World War II have tended to either be about either the folly of War (such as “The Thin Red Line”) or War Movies (“Saving Private Ryan” was less the ultimate WW II film and more like every WW II film thrown into a blender set to “Oscar Grab”). John Dahl’s long-delayed “The Great Raid,” on the other hand, is a simple and straightforward war film that has a story to tell and does so with a minimum of fuss or bother. For those used to their war films being about the tragedy of warfare, it may come as a bit of a shock at first but the story is compelling enough that even the most virulently anti-war types will find themselves caught up in it.Unlike the majority of WW II films, which tend to focus on the European theater of battle, “The Great Raid” is devoted to one of the most decisive victories of the Pacific theater–the liberation of the Cabanatuan POW camp of over 500 sick and malnourished American soldiers, survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March, before they can be executed by their captors. As the film opens in January, 1945, word reaches the American high command that similar prison camps are being “liquidated” and Cabanatuan appears to be next on the list. As the prisoners (led by Joseph Fiennes) struggle to survive their hellish conditions, the 6th Ranger Battalion, led by Lt. Col. Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt), race against the clock to reach the camp in time to rescue them. This is not as easy as it sounds as the battalion is outnumbered by the Japanese and the camp itself is located at the end of a thirty-mile hike behind enemy lines.
“The Great Raid” follows in the footsteps of such works as “The Longest Day” and “A Bridge Too Far,” films that realized that the nuts and bolts of a military operation were far more interesting than the hokey dramatics that others might have indulged in. This is not the kind of film where the actors stop to deliver long-winded speeches about the Folly or War or Why We Fight–it is too busy getting down to business to waste time on such things. And since the history buffs in the audience already pretty much know going in how things are going to turn out in the end, the procedural approach allows the material to generate a genuine dramatic tension from the accumulation of details. As for the battle scenes themselves, Dahl stages them in a manner that is exciting to watch without ever letting the pyrotechnics overwhelm the proceedings. The performances are all strong and sure–this is one of the few WW II films in recent years where the characters actually look like genuine soldiers instead of actors playing dress-upAlthough there are some hints of post-production tampering (mostly found in the dreadful opening narration and a subplot involving pretty nurse Connie Nielsen that appears and disappears at random), Dahl, who usually does neo-noir dramas like “The Last Seduction” and “Rounders,” does a pretty good job of telling his tale in a direct and unapologetic manner that doesn’t pop up too often in war films these days. In fact, the meat-and-potatoes approach reminded me a little of Sam Fuller’s classic “The Big Red One”; while “The Great Raid” isn’t quite as memorable as that film, it is a strong and sturdy example of a type of genre narrative that seemed to have all but disappeared in the last few decades