Spoiler warning: this review reveals some of the film’s outcomes.
The biggest problem with John Dahl’s The Great Raid is that there truly is nothing very great about the actual raid.
The Decent Raid
Following a true story, this war picture takes place in the Philippines during WWII, in 1945. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt), the 6th Ranger Battalion undertake a daring rescue mission to save 500 American POWs who are to be executed from the Cabanatuan Japanese camps.
The Battalion is made up of around 120 soldiers, and in a surprise attack against the camp, they will be fighting 300 Japanese. Bad odds, right? Sounds like it would be a thrilling fight?
Nope. The 6th just kick the crap out of them; end of story. The raid is so cleverly planned and executed, there really is no chance for the other side.
Don’t let the title confuse you. Indeed it was great that the raid happened; and it was great that the 500 soldiers survived; but there was nothing “great” about the battle. This isn’t some climactic assault that throws you on the edge of your seat, but more of a skimpy skirmish that lasts way too short and has too little peril to be thrilling.
A Very Long Engagement
There is more to The Great Raid than the actual raiding. The film focuses around three stories that are told simultaneously; the first follows Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) who is a starved prisoner at the soon-to-be-raided camp. He tries to keep high morale and has a girl on the outside whom he loves and will stop at nothing to see again.
Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen) is his love interest. She resides in the Manila, heading the Filipino underground and often sneaking quinine into the camps. She is a cynical and unlikable protagonist, who seems too heartless at times to be stealing medicine for the POW’s.
The third story centers around the 6th Ranger Battalion, mostly around Captain Prince (James Franco) and Lt. Mucci. First, they talk about the raid; then, they recruit a band of rebel Filipinos to help the raid; and then, finally, they raid. That’s about it, really.
The three stories are intercut with each other, right up until the battle. Although rather short and seemingly pointless, the action at the raid is a delight to watch. Dahl (Rounders) hasn’t touched anything on this scale before. He films the action very up-close and personal, obviously taking his cue from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
Intensity in Ten Cities
Although bland and dull at times, there are a few scenes that had me at the edge of my seat. For instance, the rule at the camp was, if any prisoner tried escaping, the punishment would be death, along with the execution of nine other innocent prisoners. Someone does try to escape, and the rule is carried out. It plays grippingly, even if it is unoriginal for a war film.
Or consider the scene when the Japanese army discovers someone is sneaking medicine into the camp. They line up all the doctors and nurses from the hospital, and have an inside man point out who he thinks is stealing and aiding the prisoners. Margaret is there, standing a foot taller than everyone else, and we know she did it. The man points out people all around her, and they are executed, but she just stands tall as her friends are marched out to be shot, not admitting it was her, even to save the others.
The screenplay, written by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, is pretty bad. There were so many bad lines, I was compelled to jot a few of them down. Here’s a ridiculous conversation two soldier’s have: One of them has a picture of the Virgin Mary, given to him by his mother, and the other solider wants to buy it from him.
Solider #1: My mother gave this to me.
Solider #2: How does your mother feel about ten bucks?
Solider #1: Oh yeah? How does your mother feel about ten bucks?!
Solider #2: ....Hey!....
All in all, the film accomplishes nothing that earlier World War II films haven’t already done. It has its moments, some good and some bad, but not enough to impress. It’s hard to care about the leading roles, and by the end, I was hoping that one of them would just die just so something sentimentally important would happen.
If you are easily excited by this type of film, then it shouldn’t disappoint you; but I think most of us, looking for a “great” raid, will be let down.