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‘Great Raid’ uncovers forgotten WWII battle

Stirring story gives desperate POWs human faces
/ Source: The Associated Press

Miramax should clean out its closets more often.

“The Great Raid,” one of a rush of delayed films the company finally is releasing, turns out to be an engaging World War II tale spotlighting a forgotten engagement in the Pacific campaign.

A hybrid of “The Great Escape” and “Saving Private Ryan,” though it’s a cinematic skirmish compared to those masterpieces of war, “The Great Raid” presents a stirring story that puts a human face on the despair of POWs simply hoping to survive until their liberators arrive.

Departing from the thrillers he has made a specialty, director John Dahl (“The Last Seduction,” “Joy Ride”) proves an able hand at deeper drama, if only a passable overseer of combat action.

Dahl had an emotional connection to the daring sortie by outnumbered, outgunned U.S. commandos and Filipino guerrilla fighters who teamed up to free 511 U.S. prisoners marked for death at the Japanese camp of Cabanatuan in 1945. The director’s father fought in the Philippines during the war.

Based on two books chronicling the actual events — William B. Breur’s “The Great Raid on Cabanatuan” and Hampton Sides’ “Ghost Soldiers” — the film is told through three interlocking stories, each given fairly equal weight and time.

There are the prisoners themselves — frail, abused, sickly, malnourished, their endurance nicely dramatized by the abiding camaraderie between Maj. Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), ailing from malaria, and Capt. Redding (Marton Csokas), defiant toward his captors, fiercely loyal to his superior officer.

There’s Catholic aid worker Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), widow of Gibson’s old friend and commanding officer. She and Gibson have shared an unspoken love for ages; his thoughts of Margaret are the only thing that has kept him going through years of brutal captivity. Rather than fleeing Manila, Margaret has remained behind to be near Gibson, working with the Filipino underground to smuggle supplies to the prisoners.

Then there are the members of an Army battalion assigned to go behind enemy lines to free the POWs after Allied intelligence learns that, with defeat inevitable, the Japanese plan to kill all their captives.

Lt. Col. Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) is charged with the task, and he enlists Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco) to design and lead the raid.

No chaos, but real emotionThe battle sequences are so precisely choreographed that the action leaves little sense of the chaos of war. But the emotion of the men being rescued feels real.

Dahl deftly cuts among the three stories, with screenwriters Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro lending each absorbing dramatic texture — though the commandoes’ tale is the least interesting, weakened by solid but uninspired performances from Bratt and Franco.

The prisoners, especially the comrades-in-arms dynamic between Fiennes and Csokas, anchor the film, their desperation palpable. A scene in which POWs are randomly selected for execution is chilling.

The filmmakers also use black-and-white archival footage of the prisoners to powerfully cathartic effect.

Miramax is clearing its slate as the Disney-owned company makes the transition to new management. The flurry of delayed films Miramax is releasing in the next month or so includes Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm,” Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Proof” and Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez’s “An Unfinished Life.”

Hopefully, a fine film like “The Great Raid” will not get lost in the onslaught.