The movie is based on The Great Raid on Cabanatuan by William B. Breuer and Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides. This is a great and inspirational story of bravery and suffering. The movie doesn't hold back in depicting the evil brutality that the Japanese inflicted on both the captive peoples of Asia and the captive POWs. That might not be a diplomatic thing to portray, but it is the truth. There was almost no atrocity that the Japanese were incapable of perpetrating during the war. And relatively few movies have really depicted their viciousness. The great majority of World War II movies deal with the European theater. It is almost surprising that this is the first time that this raid has been portrayed in film. It seems like such a natural. But, other than those who are experts in the Pacific war or who have read those two books, I bet few people had heard of this raid.
I thought the movie was extremely well done. Some of the reviews criticized it for not developing the characters more. But I think that would have dragged the movie down and it would have subtracted from the focus on the Ranger unit. Stephen Hunter pointed this out in his review of the movie in the Washington Post.
The best thing about the film is its -- no phrase existing, I'll make up a barbaric neologism -- "World War IIness." That is, both generically and at the level of execution, it has far more to do with '40s movies than with modern ones, which is to its benefit, not its disadvantage. By subcategory, it's what's called a "unit tribute," in which the organizational entity itself is the hero, not the individual members of it. This was a staple of immediate postwar moviemaking, all but gone now save for throwbacks like this one....He's so right that there is something about this movie that is reminiscent of the great World War II movies of the 1940s and 50s. These aren't soldiers who are second-guessing their purpose in the war and wondering why they are there. These are men who all volunteered for this mission because they wanted to rescue their fellow soldiers. They knew the dangers going in and were willing to take the risk.
That, as much as anything, explains why the movie is essentially starless, with its cast drawn mostly from television or from film supporting roles. It is indeed strange to see a production as big as this, as expensive as this, as detailed as this, and as long as this (almost 2 1/2 hours) without a Brad or a George or a Matt or even a Harrison anywhere around to advance its fortunes on mag covers and talk shows. In fact, as a commercial proposition, the nearly anonymous nature of the cast may still prove to be a marketplace disaster.
But the lack of a star frees the screenwriters and the director, noir specialist John Dahl ("The Last Seduction" was his biggest), to tell the story as it happened and to put an emphasis on group ethics, teamwork, loyalty and stamina, not individual derring-do
From my untutored viewpoint, they seemed to get the military aspects right. And I thought they did a very able job of keeping it clear to the audience what was going on during the raid. So many times in movies it just seems like so many explosions and mayhem and I can't tell really what is going on. But prior to the battle, the battle leaders are given their orders in a map drawn in the sand and that map serves as a guide to the audience to follow the action.
I also was very glad to see the Filipino resistance shown in the movie. The Filipinos suffered terribly during the war and many brave Filipinos fought back in the Filipino underground. Without their help, this raid would most likely have been unsuccessful. Gateway Pundit, who has been eagerly pumping for this movie, has linked to stories of how excited the Filipinos are for this movie to open. It's about time that we recognized their heroic efforts during the war.
Several reviewers have criticized the fictional romance between the Joseph Fiennes POW character and the real-life Margaret Utinsky, a brave American nurse who remained in Manila throughout the war and smuggled medicine into the POW camp. Since most of the rest of the movie is true to history, it is indeed a shame to graft on this fake story as if Americans wouldn't watch a war movie without a romance included. The romance serves to tie together the part of the movie showing what was happening in Manila to the Filipinos and foreigners working together with Utinsky to fight against the Japanese. However, by implying that Utinsky was only doing what she did in order to help the man she loved, it actually detracts from her truly selfless heroism. But, this isn't a reason not to see the movie and the rest of the film more than makes up for this drawback.
The reviews have been rather lukewarm for the movie. Joel Selvin in the San Francisco Chronicle is typical is his dismissal of the movie.
"The Great Raid" tells its story without irony, perspective or any leavening that would make it something other than an ordinary military-action caper. The story line is telegraphed from word one and the meticulous unfolding plot plods ahead inexorably without the slightest bit of suspense. It doesn't help to have characters spouting dialogue that sounds like War Stories comic books: "I'm talking about the kind of glory you carry inside you for the rest of your life."Well, I'll admit that it isn't Shakespeare's Henry V at Agincourt, but the point that the soldiers should risk their lives not for fame, but for the nobility of the mission. Isn't this actually a brief summary of one of the points of Henry V's stirring speech? These soldiers will not have to hold "their manhoods cheap" because they were there at this great moment of trial. My daughter and I both liked that line from the movie. I guess we're just suckers for stirring speeches before the big battle.
The only thing missing is the word balloons.
A couple of reviewers (for example, see the Selvin quote above) thought that the movie wasn't very suspenseful. Huh? Full disclosure: I can't bear suspense in movies and books. I'm one of those reading sinners who turns to the back of the book first. I checked to see who died at the end of this Harry Potter before I read the first chapter. It's a bad habit, but I can't bear the suspense. In the middle of this movie, I whispered to my daughter that it was a good thing that I knew how the raid came out or I'd be jumping out of my skin from the suspense. I think that the movie does as good a job of any historical flick of keeping the suspense even though the viewers all know how the history turned out.
Roger Ebert rather liked this movie, but I wish he didn't need to seize any available opportunity to bash the war in Iraq. This is his opening and closing paragraphs.
Here is a war movie that understands how wars are actually fought. After "Stealth" and its high-tech look-alikes, which make warfare look like a video game, "The Great Raid" shows the hard work and courage of troops whose reality is danger and death. The difference between "Stealth" and "The Great Raid" is the difference between the fantasies of the Pentagon architects of "shock and awe" and the reality of the Marines who were killed in Iraq last week....His cracks seem rather gratuitous to me. I had a different take on the movie - that it reminded us again of the tremendous courage that our soldiers are showing all the time. I was thinking that the men and women in Iraq today are living up to the many examples of other brave soldiers from our past. And the portrayal of the Japanese brutality reminds us that there are people who are truly evil in this world. The Japanese soldier who shoots a defenseless nurse or POW is no different from the terrorist who beheads a defenseless hostage or blows up families as they go about their daily lives.
....The history of the movie is interesting. It was green-lighted by Harvey Weinstein of Miramax just a few days after 9/11; perhaps a story of a famous American victory seemed needed. It was completed by 2002, but like a lot of Miramax inventory sat on the shelf (Miramax won a "shelf award" at the Indie Spirits one year for the quality of its unreleased pictures). Now that Disney and Miramax are going separate ways, Miramax is releasing a lot of those films in the final months of its original management. "The Great Raid" is perhaps more timely now than it would have been a few years ago, when "smart bombs" and a couple of weeks of warfare were supposed to solve the Iraq situation. Now that we are involved in a lengthy and bloody ground war there, it is good to have a film that is not about entertainment for action fans, but about how wars are won with great difficulty, risk, and cost.
I hope more and more people will go to see the movie. I'm afraid that the lack of real support from the studio plus the reviews will depress turnout. Sadly, this movie seems to have gotten caught up in the whole Miramax/Disney split and was held over for several years and now isn't getting the big publicity push it deserves. You'd think that a well-done movie that covers a courageous and successful raid would be a natural in this time when we're thinking about soldiers and remember the end of the war in the Pacific. I like to support movies like this in the perhaps vain hope that they will do well and the studios will make more of them and fewer of the Deuce Bigelow variety. Go see The Great Raid. It's a perfect way to remember the 60th anniversary of the Japanese surrender and the end of WWII.
Gerry Charlotte Phelps also has up her own review of the movie.