A gung-ho WWII picture in 1945 style

Posted: August 12, 2005

It's not difficult imagining William Holden and Henry Fonda in The Great Raid - a deliberate, unabashedly patriotic war movie about a bold POW rescue mission in the Philippines in the final months of World War II.

Based on the books The Great Raid on Cabanatuan, by historian William B. Breuer, and Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides, this smart, unhurried drama plays out like a retro version of Saving Private Ryan - only there are about 500 privates (and other ranks), imprisoned in a Japanese camp. In the wake of the Bataan Death March, in which thousands of POWs died on a brutal forced trek, and a "kill all" policy issued by the Japanese war ministry, it was clear that the U.S. and Allied prisoners of war, captured in 1942, would not survive.

And so, in January 1945, an elite but untested group of Rangers and Alamo Scouts - only 121 men - and a small sortie of Filipino resistance fighters set out to liberate the Cabanatuan camp. The film chronicles the risky five-day mission, from planning through execution.

John Dahl, who revisited B-movie noir with the '90s films The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, directs The Great Raid with old-school tools: voice-over narration (by James Franco, playing Capt. Robert Prince, the brainy ROTC officer who orchestrated the mission); an introductory black-and-white newsreel; a glamorous, heroic romantic interest (Connie Nielsen, as a nurse who looks as if she stepped from the pages of a '40s Vogue); and a stirring musical score (Trevor Rabin).

But the throwback touches work to the film's advantage, neutralizing whatever cynicism a modern-day moviegoer might bring to a gung-ho war picture, and also - to some extent - muting the film's harsh portrait of the Japanese. The Great Raid depicts the Japanese Imperial Army officers, and the criminal acts they committed against U.S. and Allied soldiers, not only in a literal historic context, but in a stylistically historic context as well.

Along with Franco, the cast (and the rescue) is led by Benjamin Bratt, as Lt. Col. Henry A. Mucci, a charismatic commanding officer with one eye on the details of the operation and another on the history books; Joseph Fiennes as an Army major succumbing to malaria and malnutrition inside the prison camp; and Cesar Montano as a Filipino guerrilla captain eager to join the mission, but not exactly fond of Mucci's imperiousness. A troop of actors fresh from war-movie boot camp reenacts the historic extrication with vigor and vintage weaponry.

The Great Raid, which documents the largest rescue mission in U.S. military history (and ends with archival footage of many of the real soldiers portrayed in the film), lacks the visceral sweep of Saving Private Ryan. But Spielberg's story, for all its gut-wrenching intensity, was a fiction. Dahl's movie, slower in pace and conscious of its own artifice, addresses the same issues of courage and sacrifice - and tells a true story.

That's worth something. In fact, it's worth a lot.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea

at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

The Great Raid

*** (out of four stars)

Produced by Marty Katz and Lawrence Bender, directed by John Dahl, written by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, photography by Peter Menzies Jr., music by Trevor Rabin, distributed by Miramax Films.

Running time: 2 hours, 13 mins.

Lt. Col. Mucci. . . Benjamin Bratt

Capt. Prince. . . James Franco

Maj. Gibson. . . Joseph Fiennes

Margaret Utinsky. . . Connie Nielsen

Pajota. . . Cesar Montano

Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes)

Playing at: area theaters

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