Official Website for the film: Miramax.com

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The Great Raid (August 12, 2005)

This movie is one of those "coulda, shoulda" films for me. It could have been so much better. It should have been so much better. The story itself--the rescue of POWS--is a great one, but the movie ends up being far too dull. A shame.

Here's my column, which appeared in newspapers the weekend of August 12, 2005.

Saving POWs in The Great Raid

Popular interest in World War II has surged in recent years. Thanks to Steven Spielberg's searing Saving Private Ryan, HBO's gritty Band of Brothers, and Stephen Ambrose's best-selling books, D-Day and Citizen Soldiers, events and personalities of the war in Europe are deeply engrained in our collective psyche.

But what of the war in the Pacific? Millions of American soldiers waged a bitter struggle there against the Japanese for over three years. Yet their collective stories seem like a neglected stepchild in popular attention lately.

A new film, The Great Raid, hopes to change that. Set in the Japanese-occupied Philippines in early 1945, it depicts a group of Army Rangers who penetrated deep into Japanese territory in an attempt to rescue over 500 American POWS. Survivors of the Bataan Death March, they had been held in horrific conditions in the Cabanatuan camp for close to three years. From a high of 50,000, their numbers had dwindled through disease, abuse, and deportations to slave labor camps in Japan. As the American forces slowly regained control of the Philippines in early 1945, these prisoners were in very real danger of being slaughtered by their captors. The Rangers were charged with saving them before that could happen.

It's a tale of nobility, and heroism. A story that's almost too good to be true.

But it is true. Well, mostly.

Q. Were the film's main characters actual historical figures?
A. The rescue operation was led by Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci and Captain Bob Prince, both real people. And as played by Benjamin Bratt and James Franco, the characters look and act a lot like the real Mucci and Prince.

But Major Daniel Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) the key figure in the camp, is mostly fictional. His character, though, helps embody the most noble characteristics of the prisoners (he fights to get medicine smuggled into the camp) as well as the most despairing (he's succumbing himself to malaria, a huge killer among camp inmates.) Whether or not he'll survive is one of the key subplots of the film.

Q. What about Margaret Utinsky. Was she real?
A. Yes. Margaret Utinsky's husband had died serving in the Philippines, and though widowed, she elected to stay there. Passing herself off as Lithuanian, she helped organize an underground, which smuggled medicine to the prisoners, and spied on the Japanese. But pictures show that she wasn't quite as beautiful (nor so tall) as the statuesque Connie Nielsen, who plays her. Nor did she have a secret lover inside the POW camp. The producers apparently decided to follow Historical Film Rule #3: Thou shalt inject a romantic subplot, whether or not it actually existed.

Q. The film opens with a POW massacre at a Japanese camp. Did that happen?
A. Yes, and was even more gruesome than depicted, as the Japanese systematically hunted down any survivors who managed to escape the burning trenches where they were confined. A handful of Americans miraculously got away, and on finding the American lines again, warned them of the new Japanese "policy" to exterminate remaining POWs.

Q. Were the Japanese POW camps worse than German POW camps?
A. They were. The death rate for Allied prisoners in German POW camps (a different thing than Nazi concentration camps, mind you) was around 4%. For Japanese camps, it was 27%. In other words, one of every four Japanese-held prisoners died.

This was in part because the Japanese military viewed surrender as a deeply dishonorable act, and thus treated surrendering enemies with contempt and abuse. Cases of American POWS being beaten, deliberately starved, or even beheaded were not unusual.

But not all deaths were due to cruelty. After their 1942 victory in the Philippines, the Japanese had three to four times as many prisoners as they had anticipated. Their hastily constructed POW camps became horribly overcrowded. In the weeks after the surrender, diseases ran rampant among the American and Filipino POWS, and some three to four hundred died every day.

Q. In the film, Colonel Mucci seems reluctant to allow Filipino guerillas to help in the operation. True?
A. Actually, no. The assistance of Filipino insurgents was vital to the operation's success, and Mucci knew it. The guerillas knew the countryside intimately, as well as the position of all Japanese garrisons. Filipinos were also crucial in attacking Japanese reinforcements during the actual camp raid.

Filipino loyalty to the American army was intriguing, though, since relations between the two were often strained under American occupation (the U.S. ruled the Philippines as a colony from 1902-1946.) But after the Japanese takeover, the Filipinos apparently decided that, as landlords go, the Japanese were infinitely worse than the Americans, and began waging a fierce insurgency campaign against their new occupiers.

Q. Did one American soldier panic at the last minute, and almost ruin the raid?
A. Apparently not. But that's Historical Film Rule #4: In any (historically accurate) dramatic situation, inject a little more (fictional) tension.

Q. What's a good book for more info?
A. Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides is a terrific read, as is The Great Raid on Cabanatuan by William Breuer.

These books are also, to be brutally honest, better than this film. The Great Raid tries hard, and means well, but never really captures the captivating drama of this real-life event.

But if we're still waiting for a great movie about the Pacific War, one that can help reawaken popular interest in it, it's nice to know we've got some great books to help fill the gap.

Malibu Times, 8/11/05

James Franco and Benjamin Bratt:
"Damn; I wish we could have been in a better movie!"

© 2004 History in the Movies