Sixty years ago, Japan surrendered to the United States, ending World War II. A week ago, following worldwide remembrances of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan’s prime minister marked the anniversary with an apology for Japan’s acts of aggression from 1931 to 1945, which killed an estimated 15 million people, two-thirds of them civilians. “We again express our deep remorse and heartfelt apology,” Junichiro Koizumi said, “and offer our condolences to the victims of the war at home and abroad.”
The Republic of the Philippines made no comment on Japan’s apology.
After seeing The Great Raid, it’s understandable why the Filipino people don’t want to acknowledge Japan’s contrition for a brutal occupation that turned their beloved capital, Manila, from the “Pearl of the Orient” into a wasteland and decimated their population. Not dissimilar to the boot-stomping Gestapo, the Japanese Secret Service terrorized Filipino citizens, torturing and murdering at will.
When Japanese forces overran the Philippines in the early days of the war, the U.S. Army there had to surrender, leaving the conquerors overwhelmed with huge numbers of POWs. The infamous Bataan Death March in 1942 killed thousands of them, but then there was the problem of housing the survivors. The Filipino POWs were given amnesty, but the Americans were stored in horrendous prisoner camps.
To the Japanese, surrender was so dishonorable that anyone who did it was considered despicable, and they treated the American POWs with utter contempt. For three long years, the Americans managed to survive the camps, largely through the efforts of the Manila resistance, which snuck in food and medicine at great risk to themselves.
But as defeat loomed, the Japanese high command ordered the annihilation of the prisoners. The Great Raid tells the true story of the daring rescue of more than 500 prisoners at the infamous Cabanatuan war camp — the largest successful rescue raid in U.S. military history.
Raid interweaves three story lines — the prisoners, the Manila resistance, and the 107 Army Rangers who, with the help of Filipino guerrillas and villagers, carried out the five-day mission in January 1945.
Benjamin Bratt (Pinero) plays Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, who leads the rescue operation. Young Capt. Robert Price (James Franco, Spiderman) designs the ingenious plan in which the small band of Rangers must maneuver undetected 30 miles into enemy territory, then crawl across a final stretch of flat, open fields guarded by more than 200 Japanese soldiers — a mission dubbed “impossible.”
The prisoners’ stories are compressed into two main fictionalized characters. Capt. Redding (Marton Csokas, Kingdom of Heaven) insists on making an escape attempt, despite threats that 10 other men will be killed in retaliation. (Warning — when that threat is fulfilled, it’s one of the most chilling scenes I’ve ever seen on film.) Malaria-weakened Maj. Gibson (Joseph Fiennes, Merchant of Venice) stays alive only by his passion for a beautiful nurse. She happens to be the real-life heroine Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielson, Gladiator), who endures torture to continue bringing aid to the prisoners.
John Dahl (Red Rock West and Rounders) capably tells a riveting true story — and not in a Hollywood-blockbuster style, but in a way that is authentic to what really happened. (Everyone involved in the raid was a hero, but no one got star billing.) The result is a classy, unforgettable film that will both break your heart and make you proud.
Rated R for strong war violence and brief language.
— reviewed by Marci Miller