The Great Raid (August 12, 2005)
This movie is one of those "coulda, shoulda" films for
me. It could have been so much better. It should have been
so much better. The story itself--the rescue of POWS--is a great
one, but the movie ends up being far too dull. A shame.
Here's my column, which appeared in newspapers the weekend of August
Saving POWs in The Great Raid
Popular interest in World War II has surged in recent years. Thanks
to Steven Spielberg's searing Saving Private Ryan, HBO's
gritty Band of Brothers, and Stephen Ambrose's best-selling
books, D-Day and Citizen Soldiers, events and personalities
of the war in Europe are deeply engrained in our collective psyche.
But what of the war in the Pacific? Millions of American soldiers
waged a bitter struggle there against the Japanese for over three
years. Yet their collective stories seem like a neglected stepchild
in popular attention lately.
A new film, The Great Raid, hopes to change that. Set in
the Japanese-occupied Philippines in early 1945, it depicts a group
of Army Rangers who penetrated deep into Japanese territory in an
attempt to rescue over 500 American POWS. Survivors of the Bataan
Death March, they had been held in horrific conditions in the Cabanatuan
camp for close to three years. From a high of 50,000, their numbers
had dwindled through disease, abuse, and deportations to slave labor
camps in Japan. As the American forces slowly regained control of
the Philippines in early 1945, these prisoners were in very real
danger of being slaughtered by their captors. The Rangers were charged
with saving them before that could happen.
It's a tale of nobility, and heroism. A story that's almost too
good to be true.
But it is true. Well, mostly.
Q. Were the film's main characters actual historical figures?
A. The rescue operation was led by Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci and Captain
Bob Prince, both real people. And as played by Benjamin Bratt and
James Franco, the characters look and act a lot like the real Mucci
But Major Daniel Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) the key figure in the
camp, is mostly fictional. His character, though, helps embody the
most noble characteristics of the prisoners (he fights to get medicine
smuggled into the camp) as well as the most despairing (he's succumbing
himself to malaria, a huge killer among camp inmates.) Whether or
not he'll survive is one of the key subplots of the film.
Q. What about Margaret Utinsky. Was she real?
A. Yes. Margaret Utinsky's husband had died serving in the Philippines,
and though widowed, she elected to stay there. Passing herself off
as Lithuanian, she helped organize an underground, which smuggled
medicine to the prisoners, and spied on the Japanese. But pictures
show that she wasn't quite as beautiful (nor so tall) as the statuesque
Connie Nielsen, who plays her. Nor did she have a secret lover inside
the POW camp. The producers apparently decided to follow Historical
Film Rule #3: Thou shalt inject a romantic subplot, whether or not
it actually existed.
Q. The film opens with a POW massacre at a Japanese camp. Did
A. Yes, and was even more gruesome than depicted, as the Japanese
systematically hunted down any survivors who managed to escape the
burning trenches where they were confined. A handful of Americans
miraculously got away, and on finding the American lines again,
warned them of the new Japanese "policy" to exterminate
Q. Were the Japanese POW camps worse than German POW camps?
A. They were. The death rate for Allied prisoners in German POW
camps (a different thing than Nazi concentration camps, mind you)
was around 4%. For Japanese camps, it was 27%. In other words, one
of every four Japanese-held prisoners died.
This was in part because the Japanese military viewed surrender
as a deeply dishonorable act, and thus treated surrendering enemies
with contempt and abuse. Cases of American POWS being beaten, deliberately
starved, or even beheaded were not unusual.
But not all deaths were due to cruelty. After their 1942 victory
in the Philippines, the Japanese had three to four times as many
prisoners as they had anticipated. Their hastily constructed POW
camps became horribly overcrowded. In the weeks after the surrender,
diseases ran rampant among the American and Filipino POWS, and some
three to four hundred died every day.
Q. In the film, Colonel Mucci seems reluctant to allow Filipino
guerillas to help in the operation. True?
A. Actually, no. The assistance of Filipino insurgents was vital
to the operation's success, and Mucci knew it. The guerillas knew
the countryside intimately, as well as the position of all Japanese
garrisons. Filipinos were also crucial in attacking Japanese reinforcements
during the actual camp raid.
Filipino loyalty to the American army was intriguing, though, since
relations between the two were often strained under American occupation
(the U.S. ruled the Philippines as a colony from 1902-1946.) But
after the Japanese takeover, the Filipinos apparently decided that,
as landlords go, the Japanese were infinitely worse than the Americans,
and began waging a fierce insurgency campaign against their new
Q. Did one American soldier panic at the last minute, and almost
ruin the raid?
A. Apparently not. But that's Historical Film Rule #4: In any (historically
accurate) dramatic situation, inject a little more (fictional) tension.
Q. What's a good book for more info?
A. Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides is a terrific read, as
is The Great Raid on Cabanatuan by William Breuer.
These books are also, to be brutally honest, better than this film.
The Great Raid tries hard, and means well, but never really captures
the captivating drama of this real-life event.
But if we're still waiting for a great movie about the Pacific
War, one that can help reawaken popular interest in it, it's nice
to know we've got some great books to help fill the gap.