My partner and I have done these duo posts for a couple of years now. We usually lay out a list of book/films a few months ahead in preparation. However, for the first time I made a suggestion, at the last-minute, to Rachel and change the literary source material. I felt the need because I began to read the book in question that served as the (partial) basis of the film. It’s not that I found William Breuers’ book lacking. Hardly. It just wasn’t as compelling as another author’s work documenting the same historic event I’d read years prior.
Yes, this would seem a decision footed on shaking ground. Yet, since the alternative text covered the same real-life dramatic rescue of POWs, and served to provide producers additional material the screenwriters incorporated into the film, I maintain it was within the scope of our mission. That’s my story and I’m sticking by that claim.
So, the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I, once again, will execute another of our reviews in parallel. For this month, the wordy one will examine a work of military history by the American historian and journalist, Hampton Sides. He has written such notable accounts such as Hellhound on His Trail, Blood and Thunder, and other bestselling works of narrative history and literary non-fiction. In this case, it is Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic of World War II’s Most Dramatic Mission (those last three words were retitled in paperback to … Greatest Rescue Mission later). It was published in May 2001. I’ll look at its film adaptation that bears the shortened title of William Breuers’ work, The Great Raid, which debuted in the U.S. during August of 2005. Rachel’s book review can be found here:
A brief synopsis of the film: in the latter stages of the Pacific Theatre of World War II, U.S. forces on Luzon faced a daunting challenge. Not only confronted by the Japanese Army that had held the island since 1942, but the very real possibility Allied POWs held in the Cabanatuan prison camp would be systematically executed by their captors on recapture (as had been documented by survivors). That many of those imprisoned were the remaining survivors from years earlier battles of Corregidor and Bataan (including the Bataan Death March) and deplorable living conditions in camp, only added to the apprehension. In response, a daring rescue mission was mounted by the Army using a newly formed Rangers unit, Alamo Scouts, and Filipino guerrillas in January 1945. The preparation and execution of that behind-the-lines mission is depicted in the film.
[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]
“Henry, I’ll be honest with you. This mission appeals more to my heart than to my head.”
Show me the son or daughter of a war veteran, and I can almost guarantee that offspring has studied, in varying degrees, the war, or the campaign, or a specific battle their parent was in, due to that very fact. It simply comes with the territory — doubly so when the experience is one that the parent never talked about it. Since my father fought in this same theatre of World War II, that has been my lot. It’s also where a great deal of my non-fiction reading has waded through the years (that and Vietnam because the latter belonged to my era). Add to this, most guys love a good war movie, whether the above is in play or not. Lastly, it is also the reason I play closer attention to such films that depict real events.
Director John Dahl had a daunting task of his own bringing this film adaptation to the screen, I think. That it was filmed in 2002 was a reflection of the fast track this production must have been placed on. The late-William Breuers’ book in the mid-90s awoke many (or at least those that read history) to the remarkable military event that had been decades forgotten in the U.S. Probably, too, Hampton Sides’ later 2001 publication only accentuated the thirst to get it on film. Then the Miramax troubles began, and the rest, as they say, is history. Per IMDB:
“Originally set for a US theatrical release in 2003 and then in 2004; the film was then pushed back indefinitely by Miramax. Two massive waves of layoffs were sustained at the studio, and the Disney-Miramax split reached its height. The movie remained in the Miramax vaults unreleased during this time of uncertainty. When the Disney and Miramax divorce was finally completed, numerous films like this one under the Miramax and Dimension label were finally released theatrically.”
When the film finally got out in theaters, it met a mixed reception. Some loved it for what it was, an earnest attempt at telling the story of one of the more fascinating, unexpected, and successful raids ever attempted in this country’s history during a time of war, and those looking for something exciting, more rah-rah, and fast-paced, and feeling this came up short. I couldn’t help but think the split, on either side of that consideration, were somewhat generational discerning this. Case in point, from Scott Weinberg of DVD Talk (who gave it a positive review):
“… truly an ‘old-fashioned’ war movie… based on, and adhering very closely to, actual events that occurred in early 1945[.] The Great Raid is not a hyper-kinetic flash-banger like Pearl Harbor, nor it is a cerebral rumination like The Thin Red Line; it’s just a well-hewn and efficient re-telling of true story that’s worthy of remembrance.”
Note the films Scott referenced: The Thin Red Line (1998) and Pearl Harbor (2001). Certainly well within the aspects of the conflict and the period of this film’s production. Valid, but were they really relevant? Perhaps, on an entertainment scale, but maybe a bit short on the cinematic and historical front. Where would something like The Great Escape (1963) lie in the mindset of today young moviegoers? Would its stately pace bore today’s kids to the point they’d tweet during the screening that Michael Bay would have done it better? Does Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) truly trump the scale and detail offered by Darryl F. Zanuck and the international star-studded effort of The Longest Day (1962) for the Normandy landing?
Hmm… I wonder?
I do agree with DVD Talk’s Weinberg that The Great Raid did indeed seem like a throw-back movie to olden days. That’s not a bad thing in the depiction of real events. And Dahl and his writers deserved credit as that remains the film’s strength. Granted, you had to have an appreciation of such things historic. It had a solid enough cast, as well. Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes, Connie Nielsen and James Franco (and some well-know Filipino actors like Cesar Montano) may not be the A-listers that dotted such 60s fare like The Great Escape and The Longest Day, but they weren’t chopped liver, either. And they did decent work at their Australian location.
Writers Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro did yeoman work in adapting the chronicles of Breuer and Sides, too. Those familiar with either source material and the events could unquestionably check-off the key and landmark points of the raid depicted in the screenplay. Not an easy task because I’m sure they knew there would be plenty readers and arm-chair historians to chastise them something fierce, if they screwed up chronology or didn’t give credit to those who truly deserved it. I’d wholeheartedly praise the filmmakers for one aspect in particular (because Hollywood studios have been long known to overlook such things), as noted by Wikipedia (because it was unvarnished truth and worth celebrating, dammit)
“The real-life efforts of Filipino guerrillas are also specifically highlighted, especially a stand at a bridge that delayed Japanese reinforcements. These units fought alongside Americans against Japanese occupiers during the war.”
These are the main reasons I still recommend the film. Does it hold its own or compare with those war-time classics I’ve mentioned? No, but it did do its job, mostly. Attention to accuracy (if you don’t think about the love story the producers inanely threw in, that is) in uniforms, weaponry and the tactics deployed was a definite plus. For those like me, anyway. Kudos for the participation of Dale Dye. The lack of character development some complained of I’m less critical due to what they were trying to (and did) achieve. Oh, and the climatic fight at the Cabanatuan POW camp between the Ranger sergeant and villainous Kempeitai officer (as the movie bad guy), ah… not so much.
And I can forgive that some of the prisoners looked downright healthy — outside of Fiennes, that is — in the motion picture. The filmmaker’s hearts were in the right place to what they attempted to represent. The accounts of what happened to many Allied POWs in that Pacific War was certainly there. Enough to mirror King Rat (1965), Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence (1983), and Empire of the Sun (1987) to what took place for those under ‘the care’ of the Imperial Army of the day. It’s difficult to achieve the balance and context author Hampton Sides kept with his splendid written account in translating it to a big studio film. They’re just not going to deliver anything close to The Chrysanthemum and the Sword on Hollywood’s screens.
Easily the best and most riveting portions bookend The Great Raid – the archival footage during the end credits documenting those who actually participated in the raid at Cabanatuan, including the rescued, could be considered the film’s true highlight. Still, John Dahl, a veteran director of some notable cable programming (Justified, Dexter, Breaking Bad, Homeland, etc.) and some noteworthy latter-day neo-noirs (The Last Seduction, Red Rock West, Kill Me Again), and the production overall acquitted themselves well with this accessible cinematic work. One that eschewed the “hyper-kinetic flash-banger” fare studios nowadays churn out ad nauseam to relate a bona fide heroic tale actually worth telling.
We are all ghosts now But once we were men.
~ from an unsigned diary
recovered from Cabanatuan camp
Parallel Post Series
- Bubba Ho-Tep
- Field of Dreams (aka Shoeless Joe)
- The Black Dahlia
- The Whistleblower
- Drive (book/audiobook review)
- The Big Sleep
- The Maltese Falcon
- - 2011 posts
- - 2010 posts