The Great Raid is a rousing, patriotic war movie—or at least it tries to be—but beneath the heroics, you can sense a more subversive and resentful sensibility. The film, which takes place toward the end of World War II, is about the largest successful rescue mission in American military history, but every now and then it reminds us that the men who were saved on that occasion were only a fraction of the thousands who had been "abandoned" by their country three years earlier, when General MacArthur fled the Philippines and the soldiers who stayed behind surrendered to the Japanese. These prisoners of war may not have the most unbiased opinion of Allied strategy, but the film insists that they are in their situation partly because their own government broke its promise to support them.

Benjamin Bratt and James Franco star as soldiers on a rescue mission

Benjamin Bratt and James Franco star as soldiers on a rescue mission

Like the soldiers who have languished in a Japanese camp for three long years, this film has sat on the shelf for so long that the people who made it could be excused for wondering if they, too, had been abandoned. The Great Raid was shot three years ago, and is being released to theatres only now—possibly because this summer marks the 60th anniversary of the war's end, or possibly because the Weinstein brothers are leaving Miramax next month and want to flush a few more films out of their system before they go.

At any rate, the film has been given very little fanfare, and it's not too hard to see why. While the historical events depicted here were unusual and cause for genuine celebration, the film that depicts these events is a dull, by-the-numbers set of war-movie clichés—or, worse, since the story concerns three protagonists in three very different circumstances who only barely ever meet each other, the film is more like three sets of war-movie clichés.

First, there is the rescue mission. Early on, Lt. Colonel Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) tells his elite rescue squad that it is up to them whether their mission will be a success, and thus remembered, or a failure, and thus quietly left out of the history books; but while this sort of line might motivate people as they deal with the uncertainties of real life, in a movie it lacks any suspense, and it feels self-conscious, besides. Obviously, we know they are going to succeed, because otherwise there wouldn't be a movie about them! Later, as the team sneaks into enemy territory, a Japanese soldier happens to cross their path. Will the Americans be absolutely silent while he passes by? Will one of them accidentally make a noise just before he leaves? Will he come back for a look? What do you think?

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Logan Marshall Green and Joseph Fiennes play the roles of prisoners in a Japanese camp

Logan Marshall Green and Joseph Fiennes play the roles of prisoners in a Japanese camp

Second, there is the POW camp. The Japanese, in their determination not to allow any Allied prisoners to escape, have removed the usual guards and replaced them with a special unit whose job it is to kill all the captives, preferably by packing them all into a small space and then setting them on fire. But the prisoners are unaware of this; while the new Japanese guards wait for the supplies necessary to carry out their orders, the Allied officers—particularly the idealistic Major Gibson (Luther's Joseph Fiennes) and the much more cynical Captain Redding (Kingdom of Heaven's Marton Csokas)—debate whether it is better to stay put or to escape, knowing that those who stay behind will be punished in their place.

Third, there is the resistance movement. Gibson, we are told, is not-so-secretly in love with Margaret Utinsky (Gladiator's Connie Nielsen), a nurse who is deeply involved with the Manila underground. She was married when they met three years ago, but her husband has died since then, so while her story has nothing to do with the raid, per se, it offers an extra level of suspense. When the Japanese hold her for questioning, or when she is rounded up with other hospital workers so that a snitch can finger some of them for immediate execution, we cannot help but wonder: Will she still be there for Gibson when his rescue comes?

Connie Nielsen as Margaret Utinsky, Major Gibson's love interest

Connie Nielsen as Margaret Utinsky, Major Gibson's love interest

Alas, despite the constant cross-cutting between these storylines, and despite occasional side-trips to devastated Filipino villages and the like, the film is directed (by Joy Ride's John Dahl) in a ploddingly straightforward manner and follows a trajectory that is all too linear. Shortly before the squad makes its climactic assault on the camp, there is a scene in which Captain Prince (Spider-Man's James Franco) draws a map in the dirt and explains each soldier's role, and this lengthy bit of exposition isn't particularly informative, dramatic or necessary—especially since, when the attack happens, everything unfolds pretty much the way he said it would. (The attack does get off to a nicely humorous start, though, thanks to a sniper's nervous procrastination.) The rescue squad is given a goal to achieve, and then they go and achieve that goal, but we don't learn anything deeper along the way.

Worst of all, unlike truly great prisoner-of-war movies like The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Raid never tries to get under the skin of the Axis captors. Sure, the Japanese committed some terrible atrocities, but even the worst offender, deep down, shares some sort of humanity with the victim against whom he commits the offense; you'd never know it, though, from the paper-thin treatment the Japanese receive here.

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Marton Csokas is the cynical Captain Redding

Marton Csokas is the cynical Captain Redding

On a more positive note, this movie has a very Christian—specifically, Catholic—sensibility. Mucci speaks vaguely about taking things on faith, but the script, by newcomers Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, becomes significantly more explicit as the story progresses. Margaret keeps a photo of Gibson in her Bible, and when Gibson is taunted by a Japanese officer's Pilate-like remark that he controls the prisoners' future, he replies, "My future isn't in your hands." The Manila underground meets in a church, and one priest tells Margaret she needs to "trust in something stronger than yourself." American soldiers cross themselves before going into battle, or when facing execution; and one gives a card with a picture of the Virgin Mary to his fellow combatant, before the final assault.

In this light, it is especially interesting to note that The Great Raid is virtually free of profanity, beyond the occasional "hell" or "damn." This is a rarity among World War II movies these days—even those, such as To End All Wars, that are produced by Christians! I began to wonder if the filmmakers had been hoping to get a PG-13; but the violence, in which most gunshots are accompanied by a spray of blood, was apparently too intense for that, so the film received an R rating anyway. (Last week, Harvey Weinstein said he was lobbying the MPAA to reduce the rating, but this came across like a half-hearted attempt to generate free publicity for a film nobody was going to see anyway, not unlike the kerfuffle a few years ago over George Clooney's naked bottom in Solaris.)

The rescue mission depicted here certainly deserves to be remembered, and thanks to its relative lack of obscenity and its consistent message of faith against hopeless odds, the film would probably make a handy resource for high-school history classes and the like. But for those who don't like history already, that will be just one more strike against the film.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What do you make of the film's depiction of the relationship between Major Gibson and Captain Redding? Is Redding too cynical, or selfish? Is Gibson too idealistic? Does the film encourage us to identify entirely with one man, or does it allow us to identify with both?

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  1. One character says the rescue mission was motivated more by idealism than by any strategic value. What place does idealism have in a military mission, when other people's lives are being put on the line? How does this compare to, say, the mission in Saving Private Ryan? To paraphrase Lt. Col. Mucci, when does "faith" outweigh the "arithmetic"?

  2. When the Japanese commander asks Gibson if he has a reason to survive the war, Gibson replies, "I'd like to be here for your surrender." Is that his real reason? If not, then what is? What do you think you would have said? What would your real reason have been?

  3. This film was made because the mission was a success. What if it had not been a success? What do you think we could learn from a film about a mission that failed, at least as far as the "arithmetic" is concerned? Why are such films almost never made?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Great Raid is rated R for strong war violence—including charred corpses, soldiers being burned alive and machine-gunned, various explosions, the occasional stabbing, and numerous bullet wounds—and brief language. One character talks about his willingness to flirt with married women, but he is also the most selfish character in the film. Numerous characters cross themselves, carry Bibles, or make references to their belief in God.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 08/18/05

World War I is often called "the Great War." But if movies were our only record, World War II would have the edge. The list of critically acclaimed films about WWII just keeps growing. This week, Christian film critics are raving about director John Dahl's new rescue adventure called The Great Raid. And when they call it "old-fashioned," they mean it as a compliment.

The Great Raid stars Benjamin Bratt (Catwoman) as a brusque colonel, James Franco (Spider-Man 2) as a captain, Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love) as a prisoner of war suffering from malaria, and Connie Nielsen (Demonlover) as a courageous nurse.

But Phil Boatwright (Crosswalk) says it's "the best film I've seen so far this year. … The Great Raid … concerns a moment in history that helped clarify the American spirit. … It's about that indefinable something that spurs men and women on despite the high cost of their actions. … There's a religious element where we see men praying and speaking of the need for faith. There's a sacrificial element as both men and women are seen putting others first, giving their lives for what they believe to be more important than themselves. And there is a good versus evil element hard to come by in politically correct times."

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Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) says, "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."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) isn't enthusiastic, but he's not upset either. "As far as moviemaking goes, The Great Raid falls short of the adjective in its title. But it is a good film, a throwback to the type of unabashedly patriotic movies churned out by Hollywood studios during the 1940s. … [It's] a highly watchable tale of tremendous heroism and sacrifice."

Andrew Coffin (World) raves without flinching. "While cynical critics may chide Mr. Dahl for his very unhip 'literal-mindedness,' he has in fact created a film that stands shoulder to shoulder with other modern war classics like Saving Private Ryan and We Were Soldiers. The Great Raid is remarkably free of political correctness: unabashedly admiring of the American soldier, critical of Japanese brutality, and—here's the real shocker—overtly appealing to an idealism that transcends the pathetically base motives assigned to soldiers in most modern war films."

Meanwhile, Willie R. Magnum, Jr. (Christian Spotlight) cannot recommend the film because he counted "three instances of the vulgar, profane use of God's name."

Mainstream critics are divided on The Great Raid, but most find it too familiar, too formulaic.

from Film Forum, 08/25/05

Matt Wiggins (Relevant) writes, "The Great Raid is a hard film to mess up with such a powerful story undergirding it. While the performances and cinematography are competent but not groundbreaking, skillful and faithful presentation make this movie worth seeing."

The Great Raid
Our Rating
1½ Stars - Weak
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for strong war violence and brief language)
Directed By
John Dahl
Run Time
2 hours 12 minutes
Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes, James Franco
Theatre Release
August 12, 2005 by Miramax
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