Westerners look at that and say, “What? How could you call that justified by any code?” That’s part of the problem in World War II and continues to be part of the cultural problem today. We tend to see things through Western eyes.
— Captain Dale Dye, commentary, The Great Raid: The Director’s Cut
“I think it’s important to understand that World War II is probably the pivotal event of the 20th century, but we’ve got a generation of youngsters and filmgoers out there just barely aware that it occurred, and if they are aware that it occurred, whether it be through the popular media or their study of history, their focus seems to be on Europe. There are very few really good looks at how brutal and how different the war in the Pacific was.” As military advisor Captain Dale Dye makes this observation, the opening of The Great Raid shows footage from the “war in the Pacific,” with the film’s voiceover by Captain Robert Prince (ever mournful James Franco) setting the stage of brutality: “15,000 perish on what would become known as the Bataan Death March,” Prince says, “The survivors are herded into various camps… The Japanese guards, who view surrender as a disgrace, treat them viciously.” Just so, you see archive shots of broken, diseased, and starved bodies, a devastating illustration of the history that drives the film’s fictions.
The preamble was John Dahl’s idea, according to fellow commentator producer Marty Katz (who appears here with Dahl, editor Scott Chestnut, and a separately tracked author Hampton Sides), and the director follows Dye’s excoriation of the “younger generation” by admitting that when he started working on the film, “I realized how little I knew about the war in the Philippines and the war with the Japanese.” The “five-minutes section” that opens the film, says Dahl, “is pretty much the bones” of his film, set in January 1945, that is, the five days of the planning and execution of a raid to rescue POWs at the camp named Cabanatuan.
“We all knew the idealistic notion of rescuing POWs far outweighed its strategic value,” says Prince as the camera shifts from the landing in the Philippines to his letter-writing figure, bent over a table and wearing glasses. The plan is in large part Prince’s conception, a mission to recover 511 survivors of the Death March, from under some 30,000 Japanese “in the area,” using a team of 121 Army Rangers and Alamo Scouts. The screenplay is adapted from William B. Breuer’s The Great Raid on Cabanatuan and Hampton Sides’ Ghost Soldiers (a substantial documentary called “Ghosts of Bataan” is included on this DVD’s second disc, with events recalled through interviews and newsreel footage; this disc also features a couple of other documentaries, “The Veterans Remember” includes additional military interviews, and “History Lesson with Author Hampton Sides.”
While The Great Raid emphasizes the heroic stuff — the trudging through jungles, the careful arranging of men and equipment, the solemn glances exchanged. Working with Prince, Rangers’ Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) underscores the urgency of their mission when he learns that the camp’s commander, Major Nagai (Motoki Kobayashi), will soon be executing all prisoners under Tokyo’s “Kill All” policy. At the same time, the prisoners are barely surviving after three years of imprisonment. Here the primary hero is malarial and gallant Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), whose best friend, Major Redding (Marton Csokas) is itching to make a break. He takes offense when Gibby tells him to stand down, not to “make it any easier for them,” as the Japanese are just looking for reasons to shoot their scrawny charges.
As Dye points out in his commentary, the conditions of POWs held by the Imperial Japanese army, who believe in the code of “bushido,” the “way of the warrior,” were especially terrible. Though Dye suggests that such attitude is “difficult for contemporary human beings to understand… it was the way, the samurai tradition.” Dye, whose “Boot Camp” is documented on the second disc, adds that the young Japanese actors hired to play the guards found it hard to perform in ways that were “sufficiently brutal, sufficiently callous, because they were modern Japanese, and they cared, and they didn’t want to touch anybody, they didn’t want to hurt anybody seems unlikely, but perhaps Dye pushed them to “realistic” extremes, or didn’t speak Japanese.
Kantz says that the extras were put on strict diets by nutritionists on set, to maintain their cadaverous appearances. He tells a story about their community decision to receive extra cookies for their “birthdays,” each pretending it was his, week by week, so that each could get a cookie. “For a while,” he says, before the nutritionist discovered their ruse, “they had a little free ride.” Dye laughs when he adds, “The really interesting part of that story,” where the actors playing the Rangers would heap their plates with food and eat in front of those playing prisoners, suggesting that being cruel wasn’t so hard for some of the castmembers.
Gibson (Dye says he trained Fiennes by modeling what it meant to be the POW commander) holds up in part because of his oblivious-chivalrous love for his best friend’s widow, Margaret (Connie Nielsen). As Dahl notes, Gibson is screenwriters Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro’s primary fiction, as the real-life Margaret Utinsky, a nurse in Manila, posed as Lithuanian and made use of her position at a Catholic hospital and the underground market to smuggle medicine into the camp (her story is recounted in an autobiography, Miss U). Dahl says the director’s cut is actually shorter than the theatrical version, because he took out material included to enhance the film’s romances (heroic and heterosexual), leaving his preferred version closer to “what happened.” Still, even the new cut is slowed by incessant cutting among the three storylines.
In its representations of Japanese, Filipinos, and Caucasians, The Great Raid appears racist in a way that is 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. Nagai tries to manipulate Gibson, making him stand unsteadily in a cavernous room, while Nagai sits cool, distant, and odiously shadowed at his table. “Help me keep order,” suggests the Japanese officer, seeking his assistance in finding Margaret. “I can make the rest of our time here more tolerable.” Gibson maintains his honor, insisting that his only desire is to “be here for your surrender.” And so the moral sides remain in place.
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, The Great Raid picks up speed. But the insistent shots of the singled-out the bad Nagai struggling until the last to blow up hobbling prisoners seems the stuff of sensationalized propaganda. The relationship between heroism and villainy remains reductive, subjective, and devastatingly predictable.
The film has had its own troubled history. 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 market it. Leaving it to the 60th anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Nagasaki appeared to be more bad decision-making. Its recent release to DVD, amid questions about U.S. morality — especially regarding the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, Iraq, and black sites — suggests that there is no good time for it.