The Great Raid (review)
“I just wanted to do my part and go home to my wife,” James Franco’s army captain announces in his voiceover right as The Great Raid kicks off, and there’s the photo of the wifey and everything right there next to the letter home he’s writing. And you’re like, Ohhh-kayyy, this is gonna be one of those WWII flicks, where you’re gonna be able to peg who lives and who dies by who shows off a picture of his sweetheart before the big mission.
But you know what? This isn’t one of those WWII flicks, and when you think about it later, you remember that, Hey, director John Dahl didn’t linger on that moment or on that photo like he should have if this was gonna be one of those WWII flicks — the photo was just barely there in frame, and Franco didn’t actually show it off to anyone else, either. And you realize that that was the flick’s method of sorta getting the cliché on the table and off again in an impudent way, as if to say, Hey, this is not your father’s war movie.
But The Great Raid loves your father’s war movie, too — it’s deliciously old-fashioned in the best kind of way. Like in how Dahl (Joy Ride) assembled a cast of perfectly 1940s faces that pop off the screen with a suave anti-Technicolor urgency: Franco (Spider-Man 2, The Company) with that James Dean thing he’s never gonna escape; Benjamin Bratt (Catwoman) as his commanding officer, with his Boston Blackie moustache; Marton Csokas (Kingdom of Heaven, The Bourne Supremacy) as one of the POWs they’re out to rescue, and damn if in his rangy, lean desperation he doesn’t look like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape; his pal Joseph Fiennes (The Merchant of Venice, Sinbad: Legend of the 7 Seas); and Fiennes’s gal Connie Nielsen (The Hunted, One Hour Photo), running a resistance group on the outside that smuggles in food and medicine to the prisoners. It’s more than just haircuts and costumes, which go a long way, of course, to setting the scene — these actors, their characters radiate a sense of purpose that we can’t appreciate today, when we’re told our contribution to our own war effort is racking up our credit cards on useless, instantly disposable made-in-China junk. When CO Bratt says, “Nothing in our lives will ever be as important as this” — meaning the POW rescue he and Franco and their men are about to embark upon — it’s not just some bucking-up bullshit to embolden the grunts. He means it. And it hits you right in the gut to realize that these were people with a kind of conviction and tenacity that we could have today, too, if only someone could figure out where we all should focus it. It’s all only more poignant the more you realize how little we’re being asked to sacrifice today.
So while there could have been a kind of Saving Private Ryan mawkishness to this apparently hopeless mission launched for no good strategic reason, just that Americans don’t leave Americans behind to rot in stinking Japanese POW camps, there isn’t. It’s based on a true story — that of the rescue of the survivors of the Bataan Death March in the last frantic days of the war with Japan, when the enemy was, er, “liquidating” its prisoners. And so in the last days of January 1945, the “best trained, least proven battalion” in the U.S. Army set out to liberate the five hundred sick, crippled POWs at Cabanatuan, near Manila, in the Philippines. So screenwriters Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro — working from the books The Great Raid on Cabanatuan by William B. Breuer and Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides — may have been forced not to indulge in clichés — there was probably no way all those sickly POWs could be induced to attempt a daring but plausible on-screen escape attempt, and probably the real-life nurse Nielsen plays was not saved by dint of her gender from horrific treatment at the hands of the enemy. But the zesty lack of sentimentality is all the film’s own. Dahl, recalling a movie era in which shit blowing up was considered an appropriate climax for a film, not random punctuation to be indulged in every ten screen minutes, saves his explosions for the very end of the flick, and they’re all the more effective for the waiting — it’s actually startling when shit starts blowing up in a way you’d never imagine a movie could be now that Michael Bay walks the earth. And not only is there no metaphoric flag-waving, there’s no literal flag-waving either — there’s nary a stars-and-stripes captured on film at all, in fact, until the very end, when one flutters briefly into frame, almost as if accidentally, almost as if out of the corner of our collective eye.
It’s almost the last sucker punch for The Great Raid, a smack at today’s showy nationalism that reminds you that patriotism is not flying a flag or slapping a magnetic ribbon (made in China) on your SUV but what you do as an American that matters. And then the credits run over actual footage of the aftermath of the Cabanatuan raid that quietly says, Real people, real Americans did this amazing thing because it had to be done, the costs and the sacrifices be damned. And that’s the last sucker punch, the one that sticks with you.