The Great Raid, based on books by William Breuer and Hampton Sides
This film has a promising tagline and a few superlatives for the real story on which the screenplay is based- “the most daring rescue mission of our time”, after the worst defeat in the history of American interventions and a cast with appreciated actors and a few very good actresses.
The attack on Pearl Harbor is well known and has been presented in a number of motion pictures, but the events leading to this narrative and the tale in this film have been ignored before and it is a pity that this production does not make a better retelling of what is a compelling episode.
In the introduction to The Great Raid, we learn that the advancing Japanese in the Philippines, without support, have pushed American soldiers back until they had the sea at the back and the enemy in front and General Douglas MacArthur had to sail to Australia, vowing to come back.
The Japanese have been very cruel with their prisoners of war, in the Philippines and elsewhere, in large part because they were very harsh on themselves and in battle they would inflict upon themselves the ultimate penalty, if caught they would commit seppuku aka hara-kiri.
Therefore, they did not regard with any respect enemy troops that surrendered and exposed them to humiliation, starvation, torture and execution in incredibly large numbers, many dying on the way to the Cabanatuan Camp.
Another explanation would add light to this behavior and we can find it in a psychology classic called Influence, written by the outstanding Robert Cialdini, who lists the principles of determining people to act- one of them is respect for authority that leads participants in tests to inflict pain on innocents, just because a figure with authority says so.
The Great Raid reminds one of The Bridge on the River Kwai, because in that much better, acclaimed masterpiece, we also have the Japanese imposing various cruelties on Prisoners of War, British in The Bridge and with a plot that is somewhat explained in the title- it is not about freeing POWs, but about cutting an important piece of infrastructure off the transportation grid.
In 1945, about five hundred American prisoners have been interned and maltreated for three years, under terrible conditions, after many of their comrades have died on the way to this infamous camp.
Many are sick and dying, medicine is unavailable and this means slow death for a good number, including Major Gibson aka Ralph Fiennes, who is kept alive only through the efforts of the resistance and the beautiful Margaret Utinsky, who smuggle some desperately needed pills in the camp.
All this comes to a near final end, when the Japanese find an informant who points out the members of the underground operation, all of them taken out and shot with the exception of Margaret, who has some time left before she is also taken into custody, first pressed to talk and receive some advantages and then, as she does not give in, she is tortured and made to see all the bodies of her dead comrades.
The enemy military police turn to Major Gibson, whose photograph they had found in the bible owned by Margaret Utinsky, trying to convince him to give all the information he has, in exchange for the release of the beautiful woman and the medicine he so badly needs, without which he will die soon.
The dying officer is proud, brave, resilient, loyal, and strong- in spite of the weakness of the decaying body, his spirit is still fearsome and formidable-and he refuses the offer to collaborate and send others to death, saying that his fate does not depend on the man who tries to push him to lose his soul.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci aka Benjamin Bratt and Captain Robert Prince aka James Franco are making plans for their 6th Ranger Battalion to push behind enemy lines and rescue the prisoners of war kept for the last three years in awful conditions in the Japanese camp.
They have the cooperation and support of the Philippine resistance forces that are first assigned a rather less important role in the plans, but faced with superior forces, more enemy soldiers and tanks that were not expected, the locals are given crucial roles and indeed, they prove quintessential in the fight.
The Japanese have had a superior, arrogant and racist attitude in occupied territories, including on these islands, where the commander of the local forces is smart and uses this attitude of inconsideration to his advantage and he would eliminate many enemy combatants and their heavy equipment, near a vital bridge.
Long scenes are dedicated to the preliminary moves and then the attack itself, which is well organized, but it involves fierce clashes, the Americans and their Philippine allies do not have tanks and they are exposed in their attack, while the enemies benefit from some cover, in their admittedly vulnerable, light structured buildings.
You can imagine a lot of machine gun fire, some anti-tank, and hand held bazookas, light bombardment, battle scenes that are fought hand to hand, with knives and feasts used to kill opponents, explosions and the heroic extraction of wounded, unable to walk prisoners, some of whom have to be carried away.
The reasons why this motion picture has passed rather unnoticed could be listed, ranging from unexceptional acting, in spite of the presence of talented artists, to the lackluster adaptation for the screen and, perhaps, the familiarity of the subject, even if this particular operation had been unrelated, we have all seen quite a few war movies and the feeling can be that they resemble each other, from a certain point on.