The January 30, 1945, raid by U.S. Army Rangers on the Japanese POW camp outside the city of Cabanatuan was not a decisive battle for World War II in the Pacific. It didn’t capture any vital territory or even hasten the Japanese surrender by one day. However, by bringing home over 500 Americans imprisoned since the Bataan Death March, it served to right what many still felt was a national disgrace, the abandonment of thousands of American and Filipino soldiers to three years of hellish captivity at Japanese hands. This mission, along with the assault on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day, also helped cement the Rangers’ reputation as an elite organization.
The Great Raid is a remarkably faithful film version of the historical events, covering the five days leading up to and following the daring rescue from the perspective of the soldiers who carried it out, the prisoners at Cabanatuan and the Philippine resistance that smuggled food and medicine to the prisoners at severe peril to their own lives.
The Ranger unit carrying out the raid is commanded by Lt. Col. Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt), a charismatic and flamboyant leader. The actual raid is planned by Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco), a quieter, more studious officer. Despite their clashing temperaments, the two men work well together and trust each other. The unit itself, a company of the 6th Ranger Battalion is well-trained but untested in combat. The rescue mission is their first, and perhaps only, opportunity to prove themselves in battle.
The rescue carries a certain urgency because have Japanese have been murdering their prisoners rathers than letting them be liberated by advancing U.S. forces. 6th Army Commander General Walter Krueger (Dale Dye) orders Mucci to come up with a plan to liberate the prison camp before the main body of American forces reach the area, which will happen in less than a week.
Inside the camp, the prisoners are barely hanging on. Maj. Charles Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) fights off malaria as he struggles to keep up the other men’s morale. A new Japanese camp commander has ordered that ten men be killed for every one that attempts to escape. Gibson tries unsuccessfully to keep his second, Captain Redding (Marton Csokas) from testing this new policy.
About the only thing keeping Gibson going is his memory of an American nurse, Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), now working with the Filipino underground smuggling food and medicine to the starving prisoners in the camp. As she struggles to protect her courier, Mina (Natalie Mendoza), her own activity is discovered by the Japanese secret police.
As the Rangers make their way through Japanese held-territory to Cabanatuan, they are joined by a unit of Alamo scouts, Filipino guerrillas who have been fighting the Japanese for the past three years. Despite Mucci’s desire to keep the raid a mostly Rangers affair, the Filipino’s prove indispensable to the success of the final mission.
Despite the fact that the actual combat action occupies only the last twenty or so minutes, the film is never boring. The interconnected stories of the prisoners and the underground with the constant and immediate peril to their lives, keeps up such a level of constant tension that the bloody action of the final battle seems almost like a relief.
The performances are all universally fine although the large number of characters, especially on the Ranger side, means that some of them somewhat blur together. Benjamin Bratt’s outsized portrayal of Col. Mucci also tends to overshadow the other characters a bit, but I don’t think the real Henry Mucci would have objected too much.
One deviation from history is the connection between Maj. Gibson and Margaret Utinsky. This relationship is pure Hollywood fiction. It does serve to bring the Filipino underground into the story, but I think that part of the film would have stood up just fine on its own without this creative license.
This does not detract, however, from a film that does great honor to the brave people in the camp, those that risk their lives to keep the prisoners going and the soldiers that ultimately rescued them.
Note: The theatrical version of this film is only available in pan’n’scan. You can only get the proper widescreen aspect ratio with the special edition director’s cut. This rather questionable marketing strategy means that the copy you rent from Blockbuster or Netflix will probably have a butchered “fullscreen” picture.