Men With a Mission

In "The Great Raid," troops advance on the camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines, where more than 500 U.S. prisoners of war were held in World War II. (By Pierre Vinet -- Miramax Films)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005

Perfection anywhere is rare enough, but perfection in war almost never occurs. There's too much smoke, chaos and fear on the battlefield, the intelligence stinks, the XO hates the CO, we brought too much AP and not enough ball tracer, the planes couldn't find the drop zone and so forth and so on. There's even an acronym for it: SNAFU -- Situation Normal, All Fouled Up. (Okay, they didn't really say fouled.)

Yet every once in a while, possibly more by the pure play of luck than any human brilliance, something goes perfectly right. It's so rare that no one's bothered to coin an acronym, which would have to be something like: SAATUNAAR -- Situation Abnormal, All Tied Up Neat as a Ribbon!

Such an event occurred at dawn on Jan. 30, 1945, when a hundred raiders from the 6th Ranger Battalion, aware that the Japanese had instigated a policy of executing all prisoners, hit an American POW camp at Cabanatuan, in the Philippines. Like raiders from time immemorial -- say, Odysseus and the killer elite who popped from the pine horse at 0-dark-30 in downtown Troy -- these guys went in fast, hard and lethal. In less than half an hour, they killed 200 Japanese defenders and liberated more than 500 prisoners who'd been incarcerated since MacArthur withdrew to Australia, leaving these men to face the Bataan Death March three years earlier. Meanwhile, at both ends of the road leading to the camp, Philippine guerrilla forces inflicted massive damage on Japanese troops coming to the rescue. At a predetermined signal, everyone melted back into the jungle, leaving the Japanese Imperial Army with nothing except bodies, burned buildings, shot-out bunkers and lots of fresh, gleamy piles of .30-caliber brass to police up. Within another eight hours, the Rangers got all of the rescued 30 miles back to American lines. That's all of them as in all of them . Total Ranger losses: 2.

"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. George Clooney, a natural choice to play Lt. Col. Henry Mucci, the 6th's commanding officer, might never have let himself play it this way, but a much less powerful actor, a TV guy still looking for his place in the film world, Benjamin Bratt, has no choice. And thus we don't get an idealized commanding officer, but a man who's a commanding leader but maybe not the sharpest knife in the drawer. His junior officers aren't sure they trust him (he hasn't been with the outfit that long). He is equal parts bombast and bravado, and seems to make decisions too quickly. There's a lot of eye-rolling when he gives pep talks, which is, everybody agrees, a little too often. But he has one saving grace: He's not bullheaded. And when he realizes he's made a wrong choice, he corrects it. (His key reversal was not to attack the camp on the first night the Rangers were in position to strike as planned, but to wait a day, for further intelligence reports and a diversionary air raid that distracted Japanese attention from the hundred heavily armed men low-crawling the last mile from the tree line to the barbed wire.)

The real star of "The Great Raid" is James Franco, as in . . . who? Well, he was Spider-Man's rich buddy in the first Spider-Man film and began the switch to evil in the second. He's been in movies, although he's nothing like a movie star. But in this film, the thin, self-effacing Franco makes a superb citizen soldier, the Stanford-educated Capt. Robert Prince. He's no pro, or at least he didn't start as one. But over the years he's mastered the military skills and turned into a shrewd and resourceful military thinker, if still a little shy in the gung-ho department.

The plan he conceives, in his studious, low-key way, is brilliant, and it is abetted even further by those late intel reports that lay out the camp in utmost precision. Thus there are no surprises as his men breach the perimeter and run down the lanes: They know which barracks to spray-paint with lead, and which to leave alone as they are full of starving Americans. When the Japanese bring a tank into play, Prince has already out-thought them; it comes out, turns left and pulls right into the bazooka-team kill zone. With a single rocket, they obliterate it.

The war stuff is first-rate all the way through. A great deal of effort has been made to achieve a level of anthropological correctness: The weapons are right, the uniforms are right, the equipment is right, with one exception (the filmmakers evidently couldn't find an authentic P-61 Black Widow night fighter for the diversionary air raid -- it's a very rare airplane -- and have substituted what appears to be some kind of Beechcraft or Cessna). The raid itself is a dynamo of action filmmaking, exactly like what the real thing must have been -- swift and brutal, with a lot of shooting and no prisoner-taking.

Dahl's conceit of battle is foot speed: This is war as track meet. The Rangers hit the installation at a dead run and veer to preselected, tactically advantageous firing positions. They simply beat the enemy to the good shooting sites and from them soak the place in automatic-weapons fire. It almost never works out so cleanly, but in this mission it did.

In other respects the movie makes some odd selections. Perhaps because it's drawn from two accounts -- "Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides and "The Great Raid on Cabanatuan" by William B. Breuer -- the production feels overcrowded with data. A subplot focuses on an American nurse who, working with the Filipino underground, managed to smuggle medical supplies to the desperately ill men in the camp. Connie Nielsen does her usual superb yet quiet job in playing this woman, Margaret Utinsky; and Dahl's version of Manila under Japanese control, and the war in the alleys between the conquerors and the guerrillas, is neatly done. But it's too much. It's a whole other movie that floods us with detail and incident, some of it quite tragic (Nurse Utinsky's network is rolled up by the Japanese secret service and executed in a prison courtyard), but it detracts attention from the central thrust of the film.

Melodrama -- here's a key '40s trope -- continually undercuts the flat, affectless, documentary feel of the film. For example, in order to demonize the Japanese commanding officer, he is shown to be the instigator of an earlier atrocity involving murdered prisoners. Is this true, was it the same guy? Or is this just a stretch of the filmmaker's imagination? The same could be asked of a supposed love affair between an imprisoned officer (near-star Joseph Fiennes) and Nurse Utinsky -- reality or melodrama? In both cases, these developments feel a little too movie to be taken at face value.

And finally, unlike "Saving Private Ryan," the movie makes only the most nominal attempt to humanize its enlisted men. The camera sticks primarily with the cadre of officers who led the 6th Battalion; as important as they were, the officers can only get the kids there and hope they do the ugly work of soldiering, which is closing in and finishing the mission with rifles, grenades and bayonets. That's the grunt part of grunt work, and it's a shame "The Great Raid" couldn't make us feel the experiences of the Ranger grunts a little more precisely.

The Great Raid (135 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme combat violence and execution and torture sequences.

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