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Scouting Out the Truth: John Dahl on The Great Raid

John Dahl back when he was promoting Joyride.
by U.J. Lessing and Dan Lybarger

Director John Dahl has faced some intimidating audiences in the past. He’s dealt with festival crowds, distributors who didn’t understand the commercial potential of his better films and critics who were happy to lambaste his 1996 thriller Unforgettable.

The audience he faced on Saturday, June 18 at the Crown Center Cinema in Kansas City had the potential to be the toughest yet.

The small multiplex theater was hosting an exclusive early screening of his latest movie, The Great Raid. Unlike most screenings, plugging the film was secondary. A group of veterans and their families had gathered there from across the country for the annual reunion of the Alamo Scouts.

The Scouts were a forerunner of the Army Special Forces Green Berets. As of this writing there are 20 surviving members of this elite group that once numbered 138. To be a member of this crew, a soldier had to be a combat veteran, and the ability to swim for miles in the ocean was only one of the strict requirements.

So imagine Dahl’s dilemma of presenting a movie about one of the greatest acts of heroism in World War II and then having to address a crowd that included:
•one man who took part in the mission depicted in the movie (Galen Kittleson)
•a historian who’s been studying the Scouts for years
•a former POW from a Japanese camp
•dozens of war veterans with their friends and family in attendance

Judging from the audience’s reaction at the screening and this review by historian Lance Zedric (Silent Warriors of World War II : The Alamo Scouts Behind Japanese Lines), it’s safe to say that Dahl and The Great Raid won them over.

The Real Battle
The Great Raid dramatizes one of the most successful incursions of World War II. Late in the war, a Japanese massacre of American prisoners-of-war at Palawan in the Philippines prompted the hasty planning and implementation of a raid and rescue behind enemy lines on the Cabanatuan POW camp.

The camp was located deep behind enemy lines in the Philippines and held 513 prisoners. These captives were too weak or ill for the Japanese to exploit for slave labor, and with American forces steadily recapturing ground, their execution at the hands of the Japanese was imminent.

Many of these soldiers had surrendered when General McArthur’s forces were expelled from the Philippines and had been POWs for over three years. Others were survivors of the notorious Bataan Death March. Fast intervention was imperative.

On January 28, 1945, despite the lack of planning time, hostile terrain, hundreds of enemy troops stationed within the camp and thousands of them stationed at a camp less than two miles away, 121 US troops with the help of Filipino rebels, achieved the daring rescue with American casualties that could be counted on your fingers.

Part of the reason the casualty numbers were so low was that the Alamo Scouts provided comprehensive intelligence that helped the mission’s leaders—Lt. Col. Henry Mucci (played in the film by Benjamin Bratt) and Captain Robert Prince (James Franco)—plan the attack.

The Hollywood Version
Because The Great Raid deviates from record, Dahl’s introduction was modest and almost apologetic. “I just want you to know, there's only so much I can fit into a two-hour movie, so you're going to see parts of the story,” he explained. “Parts of it have been kind of condensed. Parts of it have been fabricated. For example, when we were working on the movie, we could only get permission to use so many real names, and we couldn't use the real names of the Alamo Scouts. I think on the raid where there 14 Alamo scouts? Is that right? Well, in the movie, you are only going to see three.”

Fortunately, the Scouts are at least mentioned favorably in the film, and viewers have Dahl to thank for preventing even more heinous alterations. If the earlier scripts were anything like Dahl’s description, they’d be better suited for Chuck Norris.

Dahl recalled, “The one thing they kind of wanted to keep in was the romantic subplot. So I said, ‘I'll keep the romantic subplot (involving POW Joseph Fiennes and Danish actress Connie Nielsen) in, but I want the military part to be as accurate as I can make it, and to (Miramax’s) credit they said, ‘Okay. We'll do that, but we went from having twelve actors to having a hundred actors. Every time the Rangers were there we had to have one hundred people.

“I also had to explain to Benjamin Bratt, who had signed on to do the movie. And he was the guy who ran into the camp and killed the bad guys. I had to explain to him that a (Lieutenant Colonel) would never actually be in the camp.”

He added, “But to Benjamin Bratt's credit, he went from being the gun toting action hero to playing the part of an army (Lieutenant Colonel).”

While the $60 million The Great Raid is the biggest movie Dahl has ever directed, it is in many ways his most personal. He explained, “My father was in World War II. He was in the Philippines, and so for me it was kind of a great opportunity to learn more about what my father had gone through and what he had experienced.

“My Dad would always tell me, ‘That's Ben Steele. He was in the Bataan Death March.’ As a kid I didn't really know what that was. Once I started working on the film and realized what Ben had gone through, it took on a little bit different meaning for me. I've shown it to Ben several times and ultimately we wanted to get as many things right as we could.”

In a later roundtable interview he recalled, “I remembered seeing Saving Private Ryan, and thinking I couldn't imagine my dad at the age of 20 years old getting shot at. It just freaked me out. I've met a lot of World War II veterans. I have so much respect for anyone who puts their life on the line.”

The conditions of the Death March and in the camps led Dahl and credited screenwriters Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro to portray the Japanese atrocities in an unflinching light. At the screening a former POW even thanked the director for how he portrayed conditions in the camp.

“For me it was a real eye opener looking at how the Japanese were represented in (my) film,” Dahl told the audience. “One of the things is that I was home on Christmas, and I saw Ben (Steele) at Church. And I had just watched The Bridge on the River Kwai, and I was saying to him, ‘How come in all of these Japanese war movies, the Japanese are seen as sort of benevolent or whatever? I was watching that movie, and based on what I know, they would have machine-gunned Alec Guinness five minutes into his standing there. They wouldn't have let him stand there for 24 hours defying them.' It was absurd. I notice that in a lot of movies.”

He added, “I guess that one of the things that I'm pleased with is that most of the veterans who've watched it are pleased with the way the Japanese are represented in the movie. We really didn't sugarcoat it too much.”

During the roundtable interview, we asked Dahl about why he condensed three years of Japanese atrocities into three days. “World War II history buffs are going to be sort of disappointed. Like for example, Palawan happened almost a month before the rescue, but we sort of show the same officers there. That didn't happen. They did execute 10 men for every one that escaped. That was the traditional camp policy. There were escapes at the beginning, and they did kill people that way. They didn’t do it like that at the end, but we were looking for ways to increase the stakes, if you will, in this story, and that was kind of a way to show that…So we took dramatic license with all these things,” Dahl explained.

After the screening, Dahl quickly pointed out. “I looked at all these World War II movies, and I didn't understand why the Japanese had always been portrayed in a very sympathetic way. Hollywood has never had any problem pulling punches with the Nazis. I couldn't understand why the Japanese had not been treated the same way in the movies. This is my opinion, and my feeling about it is that the leadership of Imperial Japan basically took over this country. The Emperor was just a puppet of the generals. It was very militaristic, very dark. If you look at Japan in 1938, it was a very dark and kind of disturbing place, very similar to Nazi Germany. To the credit of the Japanese, once the country was laid in rubble, just like Germany, it’s been able to be built back up into the democracy that it is today, which I think is pretty remarkable.”

Dahl recalled having to find an unknown Japanese actor to play the camp’s leader because the established performers were skittish about the role. “The one thing is that we wanted to try to find a major Japanese actor to play the part of the lead officer. We couldn't find anybody. The one guy who was willing to do it said, 'I'll portray that part to be insane. I'm crazy. That's why I'm doing that.'

“But that's the whole point, you were doing that because you're an officer in your army. If you don't do it, you'll either be put in jail or killed. Ultimately, the guy we ended up casting, that's the first movie he's ever been in, and he did a fantastic job.”

In the later roundtable, when Dahl was asked how he thought the current war in Iraq compared with the era depicted in his movie, he replied, “I think people have a lot of feelings about it. I think it's important to support the military. And people say, ‘Would you send your son there?’ I guess what I've realized about the military is they're not political at all. They can't be. They just can't be.

“People join the military, and they're willing to defend this country. But they don't get to pick the fight. And that's very important to remember. The military doesn't get to pick the fight; the politicians do.”

Dahl hoped that current soldiers wouldn’t face the same outcome as Vietnam veterans. “If a better lesson isn't learned by looking at Vietnam, this (was) a war where politicians sort of stuck our men in an incredibly dangerous situation, in an incredibly inhumane and hostile environment and then didn't support them. And then the public sort of like turned against them. These poor guys, they deserve better.”

Dahl’s admiration of the soldiers in his film and the soldiers in the room was both obvious and sincere. No matter how The Great Raid with all of its flaws fares at the box office or with critics, Dahl has cleared a hurdle by acknowledging the real Alamo Scouts over their Hollywood counterparts. “We tried to as much as we could to stay as true at least to the military part of the story, so with that in mind, remember it's only a two hour Hollywood movie. The real story is much more amazing.”

Getting to Know John Dahl
Most of Dahl’s movies have been small, tight little thrillers that would do Edward G. Robinson proud. He’s been stuck with the label of a neo-noir filmmaker. “I'm waiting for someone to say, ‘Is (The Great Raid) a film noir World War II movie?’ I remember after I did Rounders, people were saying, ‘So this is a film noir poker movie?’ Yeah, I guess so.”

We recommend the following:
Red Rock West: Nicolas Cage stumbles into the wrong town and runs into Dennis Hopper playing the same kind of role he always plays. But since Hopper plays that sort of role better than any other performer could, that’s not a problem.

The Last Seduction: Linda Fiorentino makes monkeys out of every man in the movie and did the same thing to us.

Rounders: Matt Damon and Edward Norton are typically fine as a couple of card players who may take themselves out the way they do their opponents.

The Real Great Raid
Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides: Not only is this book a comprehensive and intelligent history of the events of January 1945, it’s an intense page-turner and a profound work.

Silent Warriors of World War II : The Alamo Scouts Behind Japanese Lines by Lance Q. Zedric: We haven’t read this book, but judging by Mr. Zedric’s breadth of knowledge and insightful comments at the screening, we’re guessing this is one hell of a read.

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originally posted: 08/08/05 07:27:01
last updated: 11/05/07 10:48:01
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