08/14/2005: Very few war movies–based on actual events–provide justice to the troops who fought in them or the events they seek to portray. Most Vietnam movies, for example, are a complete disgrace to the troops who fought honorably, many of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice. (Thankfully, We Were Soldiers righted many of those wrongs.)
The Great Raid is another such film, as it pays a long-overdue tribute to two fine groups of American soldiers: survivors of the Bataan Death March, and the soldiers of the 6th Ranger Batallion who pulled off the greatest rescue in military history: the liberation of the Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines.
The Bataan Death March, in and of itself, is one of the most grievous acts of torture in modern history. Forced to march over 60 miles with little food or water, thousands of Allied troops and Filipinos died from the brutality of Japanese soldiers, who often used detainees for bayonet practice. Those who survived the Bataan Death March lived in horrific and savage conditions. Overall, one in three prisoners would die. As the Allies retook the Philippines, the Japanese started executing POWs: they burned 150 Americans to death at the Palawan POW camp.
It is against this backdrop that the Cabanatuan rescue takes place.
The Great Raid is based upon two books: Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides, and The Great Raid on Cabanatuan, by William Breuer. Benjamin Bratt plays Col. Henry Mucci, the commanding officer of the 6th Ranger Batallion. James Franco plays Capt. Robert Prince, the assault commander of the Cabanatuan raid. Bratt does an outstanding job portraying Mucci, a hard-core fitness nut whose compatriots had once described as “Little MacArthur”, pipe and all. Franco also does justice to Capt. Prince, the steely, calm commander whose determination and resilience helped pull off a most improbable rescue mission by a well-trained but inexperienced group of warriors.
John Dahl, the director, did a commendable job by providing the viewer with a sense of the enormous difficulty and complexity of the rescue: from the long march to the camp, to the difficulty of getting into the camp with adequate cover, to being vastly outnumbered, to keeping Japanese tanks at bay, to providing adequate means to get the POWs–most of whom were malnourished and unable to walk–to safety. The enemy was brutal, and the probability of success was very low.
In the end, the Rangers freed over 500 prisoners, with two Rangers killed and two POWs killed. The Filipinos–who also fought valiantly–lost 21 soldiers.
For the most part, the movie sticks to the facts: what you get is a very accurate portrayal of a most harrowing military success. I also credit Dahl for doing justice to the hard work and sacrifice of our troops without gratuitous blood and gore. The violence is well-contextualized, and not overdone. Dahl strikes the perfect balance between Saving Private Ryan and a Disney production.
The only thing I would have changed was this: in reality, Col. Mucci forbade any soldier from participating in the raid if he hadn’t spent some serious time in prayer about it beforehand. This was not shown in the movie, but would have been proper for inclusion. This mission was most urgent, for a cause nothing short of just and righteous. Those words may not be politically-correct today, but are nonetheless very appropriate.
Our POWs–who had suffered nearly unimaginable abuses–were depending on the good faith of America. The 6th Ranger Batallion delivered like no other before or since.
World War II was not a war for my generation, but the accomplishments of that great generation–defeating two brutal, formidible and determined enemies–transcend all generations. The Great Raid captures all of that in one movie. Well-done.