“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-
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-
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.