We went to see “The Great Raid” yesterday evening. The film begins with an abbreviated account of the Bataan Death March. It then tells three stories: the imprisonment of the American soldiers who survived the march and who were incarcerated at the Japanese POW camp hellhole of Cabantuan, the story of the Filipino resistance, and the story of the rescue mission that gives the film its title. It is a good movie with cinematic flaws. The flaws seem to predominate over the virtues in the reviews of the film collected at Rotten Tomatoes, but these reviews are utterly misguided.
Stephen Holden’s New York Times review is featured at Rotten Tomatoes and is representative. Holden writes:
About the only thing to be said on behalf of “The Great Raid,” a tedious World War II epic that slogs across the screen like a forced march in quicksand, is that it illustrates a depressing similarity between reckless war-mongering and grandiose moviemaking. Historical films with vainglorious ambitions, like ill-fated imperial ventures, often overlook the human factor, a miscalculation that usually results in a rout.
Holden’s review reports that the film has been sitting on the shelf for two years, so Miramax must evaluate the film roughly about as Holden does. On the other hand, Holden acknowledges:
The story meticulously re-enacts the against-all-odds liberation of 500 American prisoners of war from the heavily guarded Japanese camp at Cabanatuan, in the Philippines, by a band of untested American soldiers in January 1945.
One would think that this by itself might be enough to warrant a commendation from Holden and others, but apparently not. One sentence in Holden’s review sticks out in particular:
Its scenes of torture and murder also unapologetically revive the uncomfortable stereotype of the Japanese soldier as a sadistic, slant-eyed fiend.
Contrary to the implication of Holden’s statement, however, I don’t think that the brutalization of American soldiers by the Japanese in the Pacific has ever been depicted anywhere near faithfully in a Hollywood film before. Also contrary to the implication of Holden’s statement, a faithful depicition of the Japanese treatment of American POWs in the Pacific would show that the “uncomfortable stereotype” of Hollywood past failed to do justice to the depths of Japanese depravity. In that “The Great Raid” earns Holden’s criticism on this ground too suggests that “The Great Raid” is a notable and worthy film. (I should add that my friends Steve Hayward recommends “To End All Wars,” a film from earlier this year that is also set in a Japanese POW camp with Scottish and British prisoners.)
At least one in four American soldiers held by the Japanese as a POW died in captivity. American soldiers held by the Japanese met with simply incomprehensible cruelty and mistreatment. (The Japanese signed but never ratified the Geneva Convention, and did not observe it.) Professor David Gelernter has briefly described “the bestiality of the Japanese” as follows:
The Japanese army saw captive soldiers as cowards, lower than lice. If we forget this we dishonor the thousands who were tortured and murdered, and put ourselves in danger of believing the soul-corroding lie that all cultures are equally bad or good. Some Americans nowadays seem to think America’s behavior during the war was worse than Japan’s–we did intern many loyal Americans of Japanese descent. That was unforgivable–and unspeakably trivial compared to Japan’s unique achievement, mass murder one atrocity at a time.
In “The Other Nuremberg,” Arnold Brackman cites (for instance) “the case of Lucas Doctolero, crucified, nails driven through hands, feet and skull”; “the case of a blind woman who was dragged from her home November 17, 1943, stripped naked, and hanged”; “five Filipinos thrown into a latrine and buried alive.” In the Japanese-occupied Philippines alone, at least 131,028 civilians and Allied prisoners of war were murdered. The Japanese committed crimes against Allied POWs and Asians that would be hard still, today, for a respectable newspaper even to describe. Mr. Brackman’s 1987 book must be read by everyone who cares about World War II and its veterans, or the human race.
Holden’s fear of the revival of the Japanese stereotype does not even mention the underlying reality, perhaps in deference to the multicultural dogma to which Professor Gelerneter alludes. In the Acknowledgments to Ghost Soldiers, one of the two books on which “The Great Raid” is based, Hampton Sides writes:
It was often said after the war that all the men of Bataan could well expect to go to heaven because they’d already served their time in hell. These men suffered enough for a hundred lifetimes, and no one in this country should be allowed to forget it. The veterans of Bataan did not merely serve their country in war; they lived through three years of of gratuitous and often surreal mistreatment which, as they’ve come to the end of their lives, they still cannot fully believe or understand. They’re old men now, but sometimes they still wake up in the night, sweaty and scared, tormented by visions.
By the time the survivors of Bataan held at Cabantuan could be rescued in January 1945, more than 2,500 Americans had died there. Juxtapose the story of the survivors with the heroism of their rescuers Col. Henry Mucci, Captain Robert Prince, and their band of 120 Rangers on a mission behind enemy lines. It is a mission that looks like a suicide mission. Yet the mission succeeded and only two of the rescue team were lost. That is the story of “The Great Raid.” In the case of “The Great Raid,” meticulous re-enactment merits congratulations and thanks.
UPDATE: See also Judge William’s post “The Great Great Raid” at Righteous Indignation.
UPDATE 2: Reader Judith Sears points out this fine review of “The Great Raid” by Stephen Hunter in Friday’s Washington Post: “Men with a mission.” Hunter writes:
“The Great Raid” tells the story of 6th Battalion’s very good night’s work, and while one might have wished for a better movie, and a few smarter decisions regarding the screenplay, generally it’s a riveting, even inspirational account of an American feat of arms about which few know but about which many more should.
The best thing about the film is its — no phrase existing, I’ll make up a barbaric neologism — “World War IIness.” That is, both generically and at the level of execution, it has far more to do with ’40s movies than with modern ones, which is to its benefit, not its disadvantage. By subcategory, it’s what’s called a “unit tribute,” in which the organizational entity itself is the hero, not the individual members of it. This was a staple of immediate postwar moviemaking, all but gone now save for throwbacks like this one. The best may have been “Go for Broke,” the story of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made of Japanese Americans who, despite their parents’ incarceration in internment camps, were the most heavily decorated unit in U.S. history. The idea is that the men, somehow, are less important than the traditions and nobility and can-do, mission-oriented spirit of the outfit, and they are heroic to the degree that they submit to its discipline, master its culture, do as it directs and suffer the consequences with utmost humility.
That, as much as anything, explains why the movie is essentially starless, with its cast drawn mostly from television or from film supporting roles. It is indeed strange to see a production as big as this, as expensive as this, as detailed as this, and as long as this (almost 2 1/2 hours) without a Brad or a George or a Matt or even a Harrison anywhere around to advance its fortunes on mag covers and talk shows. In fact, as a commercial proposition, the nearly anonymous nature of the cast may still prove to be a marketplace disaster.
But the lack of a star frees the screenwriters and the director, noir specialist John Dahl (“The Last Seduction” was his biggest), to tell the story as it happened and to put an emphasis on group ethics, teamwork, loyalty and stamina, not individual derring-do…
Hunter’s fairness to the film — his evaluation of it on its own terms — is a model of good criticism. I think the review is lacking only in the context I try to supply above. Ms. Sears writes: “Hunter is, for my money, about the best film critic writing these days and he is, mirabile dictu, very knowledgeable about the military and sympathetic to it.”
UPDATE 3: Reader Pat Ducey is by her own description a “jaded, overeducated film scholar.” She briefly discusses the film at Gaze Theory in “The Great Raid.” In his message he adds:
I loved the film…I don’t think it was jingoistic at all. The narration clearly says that the Japanese population at the time was swept up into the cult frenzy by the propaganda of the day, not that something was intrinsically wrong with their race. Like many Islamists today!
Finally the film sat on the shelf (see here) for a couple years like many Miramax films only because they were contractually separating from Disney at the time and rights were in question.
I wonder if anyone besides me caught the references to faith in God. My goodness, this is a subversive movie! See it!