The Great Raid (2005)

The Great Raid

The Great Raid, starring James Franco, Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes and Connie Nielsen, tells the story of the raid at Cabanatuan, on the island of Luzon, Philippines, in January 1945. The story is based on a true story.

The movie begins with original footage and a voice telling us what had happened before. In 1944 when the US closed in on Japanese-occupied Philippines, there were 500 prisoners of war held at a POW camp at Cabanatuan. They were some of the survivors of the notorious Bataan Death March, in 1942. The Japanese made 80,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war after the Battle of Bataan. Forcing them to move, caused the death of over 10,000 people. The men died of abuse or because they were shot when they tried to escape.

Since the Japanese had the order to fight to the last and not leave any POWs behind, they killed many before the arrival of the US in 1944.

The movie follows three different plot lines. One line focusses on the men of the 6th Rangers Battalion, assisted by Filipino guerilla, who were assigned to free the soldiers held captive at Cabanatuan, the second line tells the story of the prisoners around major Briggs, and the third follows the Filipino resistance headed by nurse Margaret Utinsky.

The Filipino resistance’s main concern was to smuggle medicine to the men in the camp. Most of them had malaria or suffered from various injuries because they were beaten and tortured.

I wasn’t familiar with the story and I think it was well worth telling. It was the biggest US rescue mission ever and took great courage and careful planning, both of which are illustrated in the movie.

The camp scenes were not very original. They had a small-scale Bridge of the River Kwai feel but were, of course, not as good. I didn’t think Joseph Fiennes was the best choice for the major but that’s because I have a bit of a personal aversion. I find the way he plays often melodramatic. It certainly was in this movie.

The resistance scenes were quite typical as well. What made the movie worthwhile in spite of a lack of originality were the actors who played the soldiers of the 6th Rangers and the combination of the three plot lines.

There’s a love story between Margaret and Major Briggs but it’s not corny. It adds another dimension and since it’s supposedly a true story it’s rather tragic.

I wasn’t too keen on the music. It sounded very 40s and was used like in the 40s, meaning—never ending background music. At first I thought the movie was a remake, but I don’t think it was.

It’s a watchable movie but it’s not great. If it had been cut and condensed it would have been better. Nonetheless, thanks to the long intro and because it’s a true story, I found it interesting. I’m surprised that as many as 500 survived the three years of captivity under these conditions.

One last word: if you’re looking for a movie that paints a positive or balanced picture of the Japanese, this isn’t one of them. All the Japanese we see in this movie are cruel and violent.


13 thoughts on “The Great Raid (2005)

  1. Nice review but I have to say somethign about your conclusion:

    “One last word: if you’re looking for a movie that paints a positive or balanced picture of the Japanese, this isn’t one of them. All the Japanese we see in this movie are cruel and violent.”

    Revisionist sympathetic histories and the move after WW2 to play down Japanese atrocities and barbarity has seen many of the younger generation from Gen X onwards pretty much unaware of the actual savagery and barbarity of the Japanese military of WW2.

    When it comes to WW2 atrocities there are a LOT you can lay at the feet of the Japanese, Russians, Germans and various Partisan or Guerilla outfits. There is also some argument to attribute certain British and American actions of the war as War Crimes or Atrocities as well, whether you may or may not agree with labelling the Atomic Bombs on nagasaki and Hiroshima, the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo as War Crimes is up to your own judgement and i make no case either way for these examples.

    I mention them because in regards to the German Army it was mostly the homicidal actions of the SS and parts of its Military organisation the Waffen SS that committed the lions share of those atrocities in Europe. Very few Wehrmacht units were a part of it, and thats not absolving ALL of them because some were involved to a lesser extent at times.

    The Japanese however are a different story. Their crimes against humanity, genocide of the chinese, and brutality to Allied prisoners of War and civilians is well documented and was systemic across their entire military. It was not ‘special units’ or political cadres or armed police committing these crimes, it was the ordinary rank and file across the entire Imperial Japanese Army AND Navy. From Nanking and China, through Burma and into India, from the Pacific Islands all the way down into Papua New Guinea and Guadalcanal the troops of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy committed acts of gross violence and savagery. The US experience often talks about the Bataan Death march and imprisonment on the Phillipines. The British have their Bridge on the River Kwai whilst Australians know about Changi and the thai Burma Railway. These tiny parts are the well known water down versions of what actually happened and do not represent a great deal of the horror of what actually occurred all across the Pacific Theatre of War.

    Being an Aussie, who’s very well read, my mind keeps being drawn back to places like Ambon, Rabaul and Sandakan. Ambon was an orgy of violence where over 300 mostly Australian and some Dutch soldiers were beheaded one after another in a day long drunken binge. Japanese soldiers and sailors gleefully screamed abuse and eagerly took turns to swing swords around and laughed at screaming young men being dragged kicking and crying to the edge of a pit. The Japanese were so drunk that some of them couldn’t even swing the swords properly and often missed completely or had to hack away for several minutes to kill their victims. This went on way into the night. In Rabaul they herded the Australian POWs together and then led them off in small groups into the jungle to bayonet them to death. Some of those waiting and who could hear what was happening to their mates and what was instore for them in a few minutes begged the guards to shoot them right there and then. At Sandakan, right before the war ended, over 2300 Australian and some British troops were killed after being forced through a series of marches from Sandakan to Rimau. Only 6 survived because they escaped during the march. The rest were beaten to death, starved, shot, bayoneted or simply dropped dead during the march as all were in bad states before the march even started.

    So, I am going to have to disagree with your closing statement, respectfully. Infact I will have to state that in my opinion we have NEVER actually treated the Japanese fairly in ANY WW2 movie ever made. Because we have continuously allowed movie makers to lessen the barbarity or tone down the day to day savagery of Japanese forces during the war. Just as we have allowed them to politically ignore their own history because it was convenient for us when we needed bases in the far east after WW2 and the Korean War.

    If we made a Schindlers List type movie showing exactly how the Japanese troops behaved during WW2 – there would be an outcry from not only the Japanese people who’ve never been taught what their military did – still, but also from very ‘progressive’ and left leaning people who will think it’s all made up.

    Apologies for the long winded rant! The World of Warcraft servers are down – so blame them! And I did enjoy your review, the movie is ‘not bad’ but suffers from the typical Hollywood disease of trying to cram in far too many viewpoints, plotlines and a bloody romance into a war movie – a particular pet peeve of mine. The original story of the Raid into Cabauatan is compelling all on its own and has more than enough material without the padding and filler plot lines.

    • I’m glad the server was down. I find your comment very insightful and I don’t disagree. I only wanted to point out that this isn’t a movie in the vein of Clint Eastwood or any such movie. And while I’m pretty sure that not every Japanese was bad I’m not keen on the white washing. I think the Chinese could also tell a lot about Japanese cruelty. And I’m personally tired of all this liberal thinking that looks for unhappy childhoods for every serial killer. Maybe not the bets comparison but I’m sure you get my drift.
      But I wanted to point out it’s not one of those movies.
      I don’t remember what you thought of the movie Kokoda 39th Battalion. I seem to remember it’s the movie with the harshest depiction of the Japanese.
      We here in Europe don’t know all that much about the Pacific theater and I thought it was an interesting story. They crammed in a lot but each of the plot lines on its own would have been too similar – and not as good – as many other movies.

      • kevin says:

        Fascinating discussion. I totally agree with keybored warrior. I did not run across any sympathetic characters in my research for my History or Hollywood post on this movie.

        Your review is fair. The movie was a complete flop at the box office partly because of lack of support from the studio. It deserved better because it is not bad. Certainly very underrated. I liked the three part structure. The romance is weak (and not true), but the nurse character is based on reality so there’s that. The action is well staged and suspenseful. Most importantly, it brings to light an important overlooked story. It’s a shame more people did not see it.

        The book it is partly based on – The Ghost Soldiers – is one of my favorite books so I was thrilled that the movie did not botch it.

      • It should not have flopped. It’s not a top 10 movie but decent. I thought that love story was true. Bah. Now I find it awfully corny.
        I’ve heard of Ghost Soldiers. I’ll have to have a look.

      • I was underwhelmed by ‘Kokoda’ the movie. Again mostly because it was very generic and plain. People make the mistake that Kokoda was a battle – it wasn’t, it was an entire campaign with various phases.

        There was the initial Japanese landings and advance down the trail against hurriedly despatched untrained militia and conscripts (YES! We did have conscripts fighting in WW2, something probably 99% of Australians don’t know!!) some of whom had never fired a rifle before being handed one and sent up the jungle tracks to cross the mountains – by foot! Who fought doggedly against experience, well armed and well motivated troops who fought savagely. It’s worth noting that not a single Australian soldier was taken prisoner by the Japanese in New Guinea. They were all executed on the spot.

        At this times there was massive criticism of the Australian ground commanders for not holding the enemy in place or indeed advancing from both MacArthur and Blamey. Both of whom hadn’t come anywhere near the battlefields and had no idea of the conditions. There is one famous example where troops were told to defend a small gap the Japanese could exploit … that turned out to be 5 miles wide!! Pre-War maps they were using back in Australia didn’t show it! With the arrival of the ‘real’ Australian Army from the Deserts of North Africa and Syria, their experienced commanders sized up the situation and decided to fight a tactical withdrawal back down the track to slowly bleed the Japanese and extend their supply lines. They were rewarded for their correct analysis by being reprimanded and sacked by Blamey. MacArthur was also enraged and ordered a US division in to ‘show the Aussies how to fight’ and they went and got lost for a month in the jungle and emerged unfit for combat and had to be pulled out – without ever firing a shot!

        But soon the tactical withdrawal and delaying/blocking actions paid off as the Japanese advance ran out of steam and phase 2 started. The AIF began the advance pushing the Japanese back down the trail to their beachheads.

        Then finally the massive battles at the Gona, Buna and Sanananda beachheads where the surviving Australian troops weakened from disease, poor diets, fatigue etc after months of desperate fighting in the jungle, were flung needlessly into desperate starving Japanese defenders who weren’t going anywhere and had no support – all for headlines and the need to be seen ‘winning’ in the press.

        But – you wouldn’t know it from the movie ‘Kokoda’. It’s really just a bland generic formula piece that could be dropped into any conflict with any nationalities. We Aussies have waited a LONG time for some of our most iconic wartime memories to be put onto the big screen … we’ll just have to wait a bit longer 😉

        – This time I blame my ranting on being bored at work … its Friday :p

      • Thanks for an interesting comment.
        Well, great Australian movie on WWII could still happen. After all, some of the best WWI movies are Australian. Maybe people in general are more aware of that involvement.
        I still think Kokoda was an important movie because it raised awareness. I didn’t think it was that generic. I said a lot about ho they troops were volunteers, untrained and about the terrain.
        But, sure, there is room for a better movie.

  2. nem baj says:

    The military part is interesting, which is to the film’s credit as the operation went relatively well and according to plans. However, the romantic subplot and Manila sequences are pretty lame, as well as the politics. Did a scriptwriter in the 21st century actually came up with the line ‘This made the bond between the Filipinos
    and the Americans even stronger.’ ? More than once, I expected a CGI cameo from the Duke straight out of Back to Bataan!

    Your sentence regarding the Japanese made me think that it could have been a great film, had it not resorted to cheap tricks. While I don’t doubt the atrocities, those in the camp had probably been absorbed by the POWs themselves (they had their own unarmed police, and I read somewhere that the ’10 for 1′ rule had been enforced long before the raid, with the Japanese having the POWs form 10 person squads). Picturing that would have been more interesting than the massacre at the beginning.

    Also, the journey back to the U.S. lines must have been quite trying. It is hardly shown here. Help from the villagers is reduced to a handful of pretty girls smiling (come on), and of course there’s no mention of the presence of the Huk in the area…

    Watchable, but disappointing.

    PS: While I like Garnett’s Bataan as a cinematographic object, and Lang’s American Guerillas… for its few Lang-ian moments, my favorite WW2/Philippines war movie remains by far a Japanese one: Ichikawa’sNobi.

    • I was naive to belive the love story was true. Bah. Shame on me. Now I wish they’d left that out. I agree, the military part was the best.
      At first I thought it was a remake of Bataan but that’s another story.
      Overall, I feel as well, that this could have been a far better movie.
      “Nob” is on my to-watch list. Thanks for the nudge.

      • nem baj says:

        True or not, for me the love story has two major issues: firstly, what happened between those two before the war is only alluded to, which makes it rather artificial; second, the Manila angle becomes less and less relevant as time goes by (would have been better if the urban resistance had held some kind of intel key to the rescue operation). The only good point seems to be the final twist.

        Naturally, my judgement on films regarding this war theater is very limited, as I haven’t seen any of the (many) Filipino movies on the subject. Or the Japanese one produced during the occupation, with POWs forced to play their own role…

      • That sounds harsh – POW’s playing their won role.
        I get your point about the love story. The final twist you mention was what made me blieve it could be a true story. I’m surprised they chose that ending.
        I think a movie on the resistnace would be really interesting.

  3. nem baj says:

    Speaking of U.S. troops, the Philippines and guerrillas, John Sayles’Amigo is well worth watching. And not only because this time (1900), the Americans are the ‘bad guys’.

  4. LawHarmon says:

    A very interesting part of history. Thanks! By the way.. Please try as your image hosting site. =)

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