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For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.

photo caption:
ON THEIR WAY TO RESCUE THE POWS: U.S. Army Rangers, led by Lt. Col Mucci, crawl as unobtrusively as possible across an open field to mount a surprise attack on the POW camp in order to liberate the allied troops who are incarcerated there. end caption.

The Great Raid: Heroic POW Rescue Recounted in Embellished World War II Saga

Movie Review by Kam Williams

The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought America into World War II on December 7, 1941, crippled the U.S. Pacific fleet. As a result, the Japanese took over every strategic outpost in the region, including the Philippines. Months later, as the islands were being overrun by the Japanese, General Douglas MacArthur, corncob pipe in hand, uttered his prophetic promise, "I shall return."

What some might not remember about that historic moment was that MacArthur left behind some 70,000 American and Filipino troops who had surrendered soon after their leader's departure. They were then forced to undergo a 65-mile march in searing heat, without food or water, in what became known as the infamous Bataan Death March.

POWs who broke ranks in search of food and water were shot, bayoneted to death, or beheaded on the spot. Fifteen thousand soldiers died on their way to the detention camps and a greater number perished while interned there.

The Great Raid revisits the events surrounding the liberation of Cabanatuan, a camp at which 511 servicemen managed to survive until the Allies arrived early in 1945. The movie is based on two books, Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides and The Great Raid at Cabanatuan by William Breuer. It stars Benjamin Bratt as Henry Mucci, the Lieutenant Colonel who led a force of Army Rangers on what is still considered the most successful rescue mission ever mounted by the U.S. Armed Forces. The supporting cast includes Connie Nielsen, Joseph Fiennes, James Franco, and Marton Csokas.

The picture was directed by John Dahl, who has received critical acclaim for the psychological thrillers Rounders, Red Rock West, and The Last Seduction. Here, Dahl has attempted to imbue a panoramic war saga with that same sort of intimacy, with mixed results.

The film is a long war saga, with character development for the first two hours, and action sequences during the final fifteen minutes. The Great Raid unfolds as a cinematic soap opera of sorts, a tale of love set against the backdrop of a Japanese occupation about to end.

War widow Margaret Utinsky (Nielsen) runs the underground resistance movement which has been smuggling medical supplies to the POWs at Cabanatuan. Her boyfriend, Major Gibson (Fiennes), is in the camp, suffering from malaria, and kept alive with contraband quinine and the hope of being reunited with her again. This subplot is likely a fabrication intended to spice up what would otherwise be a cut-and-dry rescue operation.

So, while Lt. Col. Mucci and his rangers risk life and limb infiltrating the frontlines and penetrating deeper and deeper into enemy territory on their way to the camp, the film flits back and forth between the desperate plight of these two lovers. The intense focus on their improbable liaison ruins the depiction of a brilliant military maneuver which would have been better off left unembellished with amorous asides.

Instead of a tribute to a fine chapter in the annals of World War II, we have a romance from a pulp fiction novel.

Fair (1 star). Rated R for profanity and graphic war violence. Running time: 132 minutes. Distributor: Miramax Films.

For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.


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