The Great Raid
- More than 500 American soldiers remain as Japanese POWs at Cabanatuan POW prison camp in the Philippines. For three years, they've been regularly tortured, overworked and starved. The infamous Bataan Death March is over (approximately 15,000 prisoners—both Filipino and American—died during it) but the future still looks bleaker than the past.
That's partly because it seems that the U.S. has abandoned these POWs, at least until the war's over. But that may be too late. Even if the Allied forces win, it's known that the Japanese plan to annihilate all prisoners rather than see them freed.
These men are not forgotten, though. As the sun sets on the evening of Jan. 27, Lt. Col. Henry Mucci leads 121 hand-picked Rangers on a two-day trek toward the prison camp. Joining forces with local Filipino guerillas, they infiltrate Japanese lines and, on the night of Jan. 30, begin their multi-pronged rescue offensive. Their only advantage is the element of surprise.
This isn't fiction—it really happened. And it's referred to as the most successful rescue mission in Unites States military history. It's an unforgettable and inspiring story that—with a little creative license and added element of romance—is now being retold to generations far removed but forever indebted.
The Great Raid is packed with noble characters and shining examples of pure heroism. American soldiers risk their lives throughout the movie to save their imprisoned countrymen. (As the movie's narrator, Capt. Prince states, "We were going to rescue them or die trying.") In addition, a troop of Filipino guerillas willingly face the same risk and join forces with the American battalion on the rescue mission.
Within the ranks are wonderful examples of leadership. Mucci reminds his personally selected group that he's accompanying them because they're the finest breed of soldiers. By his side is Prince, who, despite their differences, faithfully encourages and reaffirms his superior during moments of doubt. Mucci returns the accolades by telling Prince he's proud of him and also offers him a powerful description of what true glory entails ("It's not about recognition ... it's knowing you've done something worth remembering").
Amid the heroics of the actual raid, Prince makes a point to rescue every prisoner unable to walk. He assures a POW keeping watch over the bedridden, "We won't leave them. I'll take them myself if I have to." And indeed he does, carrying a man in his arms to safety while instructing others to do the same.
Maj. Daniel Gibson, who's been at the Cabanatuan camp for three years, is largely responsible for keeping hope alive among the remaining prisoners. He's a true leader and is respected by all—especially his good friend, Maj. Redding, who admits that Daniel is the only thing keeping him living and sane.
We discover that, despite sharing feelings for a heroic nurse named Margaret, Daniel refrained from acting upon his emotions because she was married. "I thought if I did the right thing, some good would come of it," he explains. Add to this the fact that while Daniel faces death (he has malaria) he remains more concerned with the health and morale of his men than with his own wellbeing.
Margaret is just as honorable. Though she could leave the Philippines, she remains because of her deep-seated passion to help people (and, it's assumed, for the hope of seeing Daniel again). Her goodwill is shown on various occasions, but most outstanding is a moment in which she pays for the freedom of a poor mother and child who were initially turned away for lack of funds. She continually risks her life trying to get medication to Daniel to keep him alive.
Joining Margaret are foreigners and locals who compose a secret group determined to defy the Japanese while rescuing helpless locals. Among the underground is a Filipino family that refuses to desert Margaret and the others even when given the option to leave.
When a POW recovers his friend's dead body and briefly prays over it, another prisoner cynically remarks, "The poor son of a b--ch still believes in God." Though Daniel is known for his kindness and faith, he comments that he "wasn't always a saint." Later, when a Japanese commander offers to free him if he'll turn over names of those in the underground, Daniel boldly responds, "My future isn't in your hands." On two occasions, members of the underground take refuge in a church, where they are sheltered by priests. One father reminds Margaret, "You have to trust in something stronger than yourself."
Several locals and prisoners make the sign of the cross. Though not referring to anything overtly spiritual, Mucci reminds a calculating captain planning the raid that, ultimately, "It isn't always about the arithmetic ... sometimes you gotta rely on faith."
Margaret keeps a picture of Daniel in her Bible, which causes a Japanese interrogator to question the nature of their relationship. Before going off to fight, a soldier reading his Bible takes out a bookmark with the picture of Jesus on it and kisses it. When his friend asks him what he was doing, the man says he figures, "We're gonna need a little miracle."
Upon finding food and drink, a famished POW expresses his elation with a vulgar comment. Another soldier ribs a friend by insinuating that his mother could be "bought" for $10. While commending Daniel for being a man who "doesn't fool around with another man's wife," Redding gloats in the fact that "I, on the other hand, might." A Japanese interrogator asks Margaret if Daniel is her lover. A Filipino woman wears a dress that's especially low-cut for the time and culture.
Though director John Dahl doesn't go as far as Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List or Black Hawk Down did in depicting raw wartime carnage, it's virtually impossible to maintain a body count during The Great Raid. POWs, civilians, even nurses are rounded up, lined up and shot in the head one by one. Others are shot point-blank by captors as object lessons for survivors. On several occasions, victims are shown collapsed with bullet holes and blood splotches. A Japanese massacre of a Filipino village leaves behind a pile of more than 100 charred bodies (the camera zooms in on the remains of one in particular). Real-life historic footage shows similar atrocities in graphic detail.
Early in the movie, we watch as American prisoners are led into a trench, doused in gasoline and set ablaze. Those who manage to climb out while still on fire are quickly gunned down. A POW is caned and hanged, and his body remains in several scenes as a reminder to those who've been captured. Prisoners and locals—regardless of age or sex—are frequently beaten, punched, slapped and pushed around.
During combat action, several camera shots include soldiers' bodies riddled with machine-gun fire. A man is shot through the chest (we get a close-up). Another gets bayoneted in the leg during a struggle. A group of Americans pick off unsuspecting enemy soldiers walking through a stream. Filipino gang members engage in a shootout that kills several locals. Buildings, barracks, trucks and tanks explode in spectacular fashion, and those nearby are shown running and screaming while burning alive. A wounded soldier is operated on, with plenty of blood shown.
One especially disturbing scene has two soldiers grappling in a death match. It's a minute or two during which tension runs high, and you're relieved when the struggle ends (the American manages to fire his pistol and kill his enemy). But just as you think the moment is over, the American walks over and fires several shots into his foe's already-dead body.
Crude or Profane Language
A single f-word and a couple uses of the s-word. (A low count for an R-rated war movie.) God's name is abused three times (each in combination with "d--n"), while Jesus' is misused once. A soldier uses a crude term to describe a part of the female anatomy. And there are around 30 other mild profanities.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Mucci smokes a pipe several times. Filipino soldiers puff cigarettes during downtime, as do a Japanese interrogator and commander. A Bible-toting American soldier also smokes while resting from action. Daniel tells a fellow POW planning an escape to "have a drink for me when you get there."
Other Negative Elements
Margaret lies on several occasions to her oppressors. (It should be noted, however, that she does so to spare the lives of numerous others.)
Add one more war movie to an ever-growing list. As many in the past have done, this one recounts a powerful story of soldiers risking their lives to save others. The Great Raid doesn't veer too far from the facts as we know them, facts we would do well to never forget.
What I find more than a little interesting is the public reaction thus far to The Great Raid. Many critics are calling the film boring, stagnant and dull. Some even add that it fails as an attention grabber. I understand that movies are essentially art, and therefore elicit varied responses. But since when did rescuing 513 POWs from the grip of sure death become less of an "attention grabber" than a couple of desperate cads crashing weddings or—help us all—a pair of seedy good ol' boys eluding a crooked small-town sheriff? (Both sordid stories grabbed all kinds of attention in the weeks leading up to The Great Raid's release; see our reviews of Wedding Crashers and The Dukes of Hazzard, respectively.)
Granted, The Great Raid isn't full of suspense (obviously, we know the ending). And it isn't necessarily on the level of a Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan when it comes to Oscar-worthy acting or cinematography. But it is a visual memorial of sorts, a powerful reminder of both the best and the worst of the human soul.
Being mindful of the film's inclusion of foul language and its depictions of gore and violence, it's not something I can easily place on any sort of "recommended" list. (And it could actually be dangerous for young viewers to see it.) Still, I'm only being honest when I write that it is powerful even with its flaws.
Probably more than two-thirds of the moviegoers I saw sitting around me as I reviewed the movie were visibly connected to the armed forces. Many were undoubtedly sacrificing much to serve our country right now. By the end of The Great Raid, I wanted to stand up and applaud each and every one of them for being willing to put his or her life on the line for our great country—for me. Because somewhere in each soldier (both now and in World War II) lies the courage to selflessly serve to the death. And that deserves our full attention and appreciation.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Benjamin Bratt as Lt. Col. Henry Mucci; James Franco as Capt. Robert Prince; Joseph Fiennes as Maj. Daniel Gibson; Marton Csokas as Maj. Redding; Connie Nielsen as Margaret Utinsky; Logan Marshall Green as Lt. Colvin; Cesar Montano as Capt. Pajota; Nikko Mackintosh as Nikko; Motoki Kobayashi as Maj. Nagai