“We all knew the idealistic notion of rescuing POWs far outweighed its strategic value.” So intones narrator Captain Robert Prince (James Franco) in The Great Raid, by way of introducing the film’s simultaneous historical and ideological foundations. It’s January 1945, and 511 survivors of the Bataan Death March are wasting away in a prison camp in Philippines, and a team of 121 Army Rangers and Alamo Scouts means to recover them.
Adapted from William B. Breuer’s The Great Raid on Cabanatuan and Hampton Sides’ Ghost Soldiers, the movie emphasizes the heroic stuff—the trudging through jungles, the careful arranging of men and equipment, the solemn—always solemn—exchanging of glances. The main The Rangers’ Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) is working with Prince, planner extraordinaire. When they hear the camp’s commander, Major Nagai (Motoki Kobayashi), will soon be executing all prisoners under Tokyo’s “Kill All” policy, Mucci and Prince make their move.
At the same time, more or less, the prisoners struggle to maintain hope after three years in the camp. Here the primary hero is malarial Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes, looking pale and gaunt yet again), who encourages his fellows to survive the ordeal with pride intact. Gibby’s best friend is Major Redding (Marton Csokas), but he’s itching to make a break and takes offense when his buddy tells him to stand down, not to “make it any easier for them.” that is, the Japanese who are just looking for reasons to shoot.
Gibson holds up in part because of his undying love for his best friend’s widow, Margaret (Connie Nielsen). A nurse in Manila, she’s using her gig at a Catholic hospital and the underground market to smuggle medicine into the camp. (Aside from the fact that Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro’s script undermines her real-life independent work by fictionalizing her romance with the major, the film’s cutting among these three storylines—the rescuers, the nurse, and the prisoners—throws off all narrative rhythm and debilitates any possible tension.)
Despite and because of his noble gazing out the window while he thinks of Margaret (inciting gossip among his men), Gibson is visibly fragile, even feminized. With Gibson’s authority at once enhanced (out of respect for the nearly fallen) and damaged (because he might be misreading cases, with his mind befogged), Redding rebels, insisting it’s not personal, but unable to take any more disdain and abuse from those jailers John Wayne used to call “little lemon-colored characters.” Only hours after Redding runs off, he’s captured and hauled back into camp, where the commander orders not only his execution, but also 10 fellow prisoners chosen at random. Gibson and Redding exchange rueful looks, in order to mark the cost of Redding’s wrong decision and to underline the utter cruelty of Japanese (this underlined as well by historically accurate references to prisoners burned alive, starved, and battered).
In its representations of variously raced characters—Japanese, Filipinos, Caucasians—The Great Raid works a form of careless racism at once familiar, retro, and persistent. It’s a portrayal simultaneously necessitated and perpetuated by war: you can’t make the enemy seem human, or even particularly complex. Instead, you take the usual, unthinking route, showing the enemy as enemy, calculating, pitiless, and reprehensible. Major Nagai tries to cut a deal with Gibson, making him stand unsteadily in a cavernous room, while Major Nagai sits cool, distant, and odiously shadowed at his table. “Help me keep order,” suggests the Japanese officer. “I can make the rest of our time here more tolerable.” (How many times have you heard a version of this enticement uttered by a movie villain?) The major maintains his honor, insisting that his only desire is to “be here for your surrender.” And so the sides remain intact: the bad and good never intersect, not even for a moment.
The film includes several solid Filipino soldiers, including the valiant Captain Juan Pajota (Cesar Montano), whose resistance army holds off a Japanese deployment to ensure the rescue mission’s success. When the mission finally does begin, well into the film’s 133 minutes, The Great Raid picks up speed, but still, the moves between locations and the insistence on the singled out the bad Japanese officer struggling until the last to blow up hobbling prisoners. The relationship between heroism and villainy remains reductive, subjective, and devastatingly predictable. It makes the film’s delayed release at once troubling and understandable. Completed between 9/11 and the commencement of the war against Iraq, it was held up by Miramax, who apparently couldn’t figure a way to sell it. Leaving it to the 60th anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki seems like still more bad decision-making.