A Movie Review

of The Great Raid (2005)

 

By Lance Zedric

In many Hollywood war movies the first casualty is often the truth. But despite the occasional errant bullet, Miramax Studios and Director John Dahl, were right on the mark with The Great Raid.

The movie, based on William Breuer’s book of the same title, takes place on Luzon in the Philippines in late January 1945, and recounts the daring raid in which 121 Army Rangers of the 6th Ranger Battalion, two teams of Alamo Scouts, and Filipino guerrilla units combined to liberate 513 POWs from Cabanatuan POW Camp thirty miles behind enemy lines.

The film begins with dramatic period footage and narration, which is needed given many Americans’ limited understanding of the war in the Philippines, but the opening runs about ten minutes too long before segueing into a powerful scene portraying the Japanese massacre of American POWs at Palawan. This scene clearly demonstrates the possible fate awaiting POWs at Cabanatuan, many of whom were survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March, and establishes the raison d’etre for the mission.

The story is told from the view of Captain Robert Prince (James Franco), a Ranger company commander and subordinate to Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt). Mucci is rightly characterized as a dynamic, ambitious, and charismatic leader, who, through force of will and indomitable personality, races against time and overcomes all obstacles in preparing for and accomplishing the mission.James Franco  as Captain Robert Prince

At the heart of the secondary plot is real-life hero Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielson), an American citizen who passes herself off as a Lithuanian nurse working for the Red Cross in occupied Manila. She smuggles food and medicine through the guerrilla resistance to the beleaguered POWs inside Cabanatuan, and faces certain torture and death if discovered by the Japanese secret police. Margaret, the widow of an American POW who died in Cabanatuan in 1942, is driven by the desire to help and by an unrequited love for POW Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), who will die without the medicine she provides. While the love interest with Gibson is arguably a necessary element for broadening the movie’s appeal and selling tickets to a mixed audience, it is clearly Hollywood.

From an historical standpoint, the most glaring omissions were at the expense of the Alamo Scouts. Not only were fictitious names used for the Alamo Scout team leaders (Lts. Able and LeClaire for NELLIST and ROUNSAVILLE), but the role that the Scouts played in obtaining vital pre-raid information, and the subsequent evacuation of the seriously sick and wounded a day after the main body of prisoners arrived at American lines, was diminished or omitted all together. Also, the details surrounding the Alamo Scouts hastily constructing an airfield five miles from the camp during the night for the evacuation of the mortally wounded Ranger, Dr. James Fisher (Robert Mammone), were omitted, possibly due to Mucci inexplicably having failed to send the aircraft.

At times the dialogue, mostly by the POWs, was stiff, manufactured, overdramatic, and violated the cardinal rule of “show not tell.” However, it was useful in further informing the audience about the three-year plight of the POWs at the hands of the Japanese Army. And in keeping with Hollywood tradition, the attack on the POW compound, which purportedly killed 250 Japanese, was exaggerated. “We didn’t approach the camp in a service line,” said Galen Kittleson, a member of the Alamo Scouts who participated in the raid. “We would have been detected and slaughtered. We approached the camp in a single line on our bellies heel-to-toe like a long snake. And there wasn’t that much fighting at the compound, and there certainly weren’t any tanks. We caught them by surprise and hit them so hard and fast that they didn’t have much of chance to fight back.”

True historians and sharp-eyed aircraft aficionados were also disappointed in the unavailability of vintage Army Air Corps P-61 Black Widow aircraft needed to recreate the buzzing of the camp as a diversionary tactic prior to the raid. Instead, modified C-47s were used. But given the enormous expense and difficulty in obtaining real P-61s, Miramax should be allowed to keep its artistic license with just a slap on the wrist, that is, if it promises never to repeat such an historical faux pas in the future.

Benjamin Bratt  as Colonel Henry MucciThe cinematography was realistic, with good use of light and shadow, which was effective in conveying the harsh and brutal conditions which existed at Cabanatuan. Equally impressive was the recreation of war time Manila, filmed at Shanghai Film Studios in China, and the relatively accurate use of extras. “We tried to be as accurate as possible in casting extras,” chuckled Dahl. “Japanese played Japanese, Filipinos played Filipinos, and Australians played Americans!”

One of the strengths of the movie was the outstanding and authentic newsreel footage of the POWS that chronicled their journey from Cabanatuan a few hours after liberation to their emotional homecoming to the United States. In concert with an excellent musical score, it provided a powerful and emotional ending to the movie, one that clearly made an impact with the veterans in attendance.

Had several minutes of narration and over-explanation been sacrificed on the cutting room floor, the dialogue tweaked, and the role of the Alamo Scouts expanded, The Great Raid could have been heralded as one of the more accurate and entertaining war movies of the last generation. But it falls just short of joining Patton, Saving Private Ryan, and few others on the pantheon of elite movies. Despite minor flaws, The Great Raid is a valiant and stirring attempt at recounting a heroic event in our nation’s history—one that should not and will not be forgotten. Go see the movie. You’ll be glad you did.

NOTE: A special thanks to John Dahl and Miramax Studios for the private screening of The Great Raid at the Alamo Scouts Reunion in Kansas City on 18 June 2005. Dahl is a credit to his craft and should be commended. He was refreshingly humble, forthright, and reverent of the Alamo Scouts and the role they played in the raid. Kudos for his passion in such a noble project; for having the talent to balance the realities of the movie industry with the truth; and for having the courage to depict the horror of war for what it is.

 

The Alamo Scouts participation in the Raid.

 

View the trailer.

Connie Nielson as Margaret Utinsky

Joseph Fiennes as POW Major Gibson

Cesar Montano as Guerilla Laeder Juan Pajota