Movie Review: The Great Raid

The Great Raid is a 2005 war movie starring Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, Joseph Fiennes, and a few other decent bit players scrabbled together in an attempt to recreate the January, 1945 raid on Cabanatuan Camp. It shows the depth of success of the mission, which saved 514 soldiers from near-certain death at the hands of the vicious Japanese prison camps, and was not a bad movie. Though there were some things that truly bothered me. Regardless, that is what a review is about. Yarrrr.

The raid at Cabanatuan brought the 6th Ranger Battalion and allied partisan Filipinos through Japanese-occupied territory to the Cabanatuan camp. There was some disagreement between the principle commanders of the raid – US Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, US Captain Robert Prince, and Filipino Captain Juan Pajota – over how to make it go down. Pajota, being on the scene for much longer than either American, was the best help possible, and they delayed the raid for a day to make the necessary arrangements.

This raid was thought as necessary because it turned out the Japanese were summarily executing all their POWs as the Americans got close, throwing them into air-raid shelters, dousing them in gasoline…and burning them alive, to dispose of any evidence of their war crimes. Lovely people, the Japanese were. So this mission was out of desperation. Tens of thousands of Americans had surrendered to the Japanese, but only a few thousand were left alive, and those who were were malnourished, underfed, and diseased.

Pajota suggested that the Americans attack the camp while he and his partisans held off the Japanese at a nearby bridge. In order to let the Rangers approach the camp, Pajota suggested an American plane buzz the camp, distracting the guards. A P-61 Black Widow performed this task, lingering over the camp and eventually faking an engine failure, while the US Rangers crawled close. At sundown, they established a base of fire on the Japanese garrison, killing and wounding the majority of the 700 guards (523 casualties), while freeing the prisoners.

Two US servicemen and a prisoner died, and a couple dozen Filipinos were killed, but we don’t have exact numbers for them. But 514 US servicemen were saved from the hell of Japanese prison camps – and the shorter-lived but ever so final hell of burning alive.

The movie did a very, very good job recreating the history leading up to the raid, especially the interactions between Mucci, Prince, and Pajota. The movie also tried to link the story of Margaret Utinsky to the camp by romantically linking her to Joseph Fiennes’s character, who was mostly fictional. This part particularly failed to be accurate, but was effectively dramatic.

The assault was very, very well done. It showed the true power of an American platoon in combat in World War II – semi-automatic rifles, Thompsons, and BARs brought a huge amount of firepower to battle that the Japanese could not handle with their bolt-action Arisaka rifles. The amount of lead the US guys could throw out, wow. It was a very well done recreation of a set-piece company-level battle.

There was some additions to the battle; tanks that likely weren’t there, added for the pure explosion and adrenaline factor. The movie didn’t rely on shaky-cam technology, so that I found it easy to watch. The torture of the characters felt very real. Martin Csokas (Celeborn from Lord of the Rings) played a captain who was Joseph Fiennes’s friend in the camp, but he was a real hardass who wanted to escape. When the Kempeitai threatened to execute 10 men for every one who escaped, he expressed that he didn’t care. When he was caught, and 10 men were shot before he was, you could see the defiance just leeching out of him. A very good performance by a less famous actor.

Overall, I wasn’t too sure what the movie was trying to say on the subject of religion. Benjamin Bratt’s character, Mucci, declared that he didn’t “want any damned atheists on this mission”. Mucci was a fan of taking everything on faith. The faith of the prisoners was in focus; the common funerals were given by a prisoner padre. Men crossed themselves before being executed. Priests gave Margaret Utinsky shelter, believing in their faith, and were executed for it. Martin Csokas’s character thought aloud, “I can’t believe he still believes in god.”

The other contrast was with men like Prince and Pajota, both of whom were against a headstrong attack, like Mucci wanted, and trying to plan everything out. Prince was shown as restraining the aggressive Mucci, but there was never a flat-out denial of religion. As an atheist, I would like to think that faith isn’t needed to save people from hell on earth, but that seemed to be a requirement. It is possible they were trying to make a point about the pointlessness of faith, but I don’t think it was well made.

Overall, it was an enjoyable movie. It was better at history than allegory, and I give it a solid 3.5/5.

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