The Great Raid
Directed by John Dahl

Written by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, based on the books "The Great Raid on Cabanatuan" and "Ghost Soldiers"

Starring Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, Connie Nielsen, Joseph Fiennes


The Great Raid

No doubt there's greater accuracy in John Dahl's account of a U.S. Army Ranger raid on a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines to rescue American prisoners of war than there was in those old John Wayne epics in which we were the supermen and the hated Japanese were the slant-eyed comic-book villains. But accuracy doesn't make good movies; those old virtues character and plot, and those old skills script and direction, do. And much as I've admired Mr. Dahl for his deliciously subversive films "Red Rock West," "The Last Seduction" and "Rounders," the new one is slack and dull. (The film was made more than two years ago by Miramax, which apparently realized that it was going nowhere and held it until now, to be dropped into the garbage pail of August releases.)

The film is the story of how five hundred survivors of the Bataan Death March, held for three years in a prison camp where they were systematically starved and otherwise maltreated, were the targets of an assault through the Japanese lines by a hundred Rangers in January 1945, after the American forces had retaken part of the island of Luzon but were still thirty miles away from the camp. The raid was, we are told, the largest and most successful rescue of Americans ever attempted.

So far, so good. But it takes people - human beings - to accomplish great, or even good, deeds; and "The Great Raid" barely sketches in even one human being. Trying to tell its one story it bogs itself down with three related stories, each exemplified by a different character. There's Lieutenant Colonel Mucci (Benjamin Bratt), bold but unbending, who leads the Rangers; there's Captain Prince (James Franco), the Stanford-educated strategist of the raid; there's Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), highest-ranking officer of the prisoners, now sick with malaria; and there's nurse Margaret Utinsky, leader of the Manila underground resistance, who had a near-miss with Major Gibson when she was married to someone else but still carries the torch, as does he for her (Connie Nielsen, who seems dismayed to be finding herself in this movie). There's even the Filipino Captain Pajota (Cesar Montano), demeaned by the bigoted Colonel but who of course helps save the day because Captain Prince trusts him.

All those stories would be a lot to juggle in any case, but for a film about a daring wartime raid the pacing is slack, the plot is contrived and the film withholds its action until the end of the movie. There are crosscuts among the three stories: the raid as it develops and moves closer to the camp; the prisoners and their captors in the camp; and the resistance in Manila (shot in today's Shanghai) which seems devoted only to getting quinine to the sick prisoners at Cabanatuan. In fact Mr. Fiennes, on his sickbed, is more interested in finding out whether Ms. Nielsen is still interested in him than he is in either recovering or caring for his men.

It's understandable why the story of the raid has been so little known until recently; it lacks the kind of cinematic drama that pumped up so many World War II films. The Rangers came, they assaulted the camp, they returned with minimal losses. Fine. But in dramatizing the event, the writers and Mr. Dahl have served only to fill it with hot air.