War in "The Great Raid" is brutal but, for the righteous, an ennobling enterprise that tries the souls of true-hearted men and the true-hearted women who love them. For the wicked (aka the Japanese), war is a chance to give free rein to the sadist within. There's a kind of grim innocence to the whole enterprise, but the film is stifled by its high purpose. "The Great Raid" abounds in simplistic history lessons and glorification of its American protagonists, but the characters are stiff, depthless and unapproachable, like figures engraved on a banknote. It's moving to think about the bravery of the prisoners and the soldiers who rescued them, but "The Great Raid" itself is not in the least a brave movie.
The film is narrated by one Captain Prince (James Franco, best known as Tobey Maguire's friend turned rival in the "Spider-Man" movies). His daring plan to rescue the American POWs has been approved by his terse, enigmatic commander (Benjamin Bratt of "Law & Order"), with whom Prince is supposed to have a troubled father-son type of relationship that never comes into focus.
When the film is not following the Americans' military operations, it divides its time between the prison camp itself and a scrupulously, ravishingly realized re-creation of 1940s Manila. At the camp the unofficial leader of the inmates, Major Gibson (a grime-streaked Joseph Fiennes, "Shakespeare in Love"), fights off malaria and tries to encourage his men. While in Manila, the widow of an American soldier, Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), repeatedly risks her life in an attempt to smuggle food and medicine to the horrifically maltreated prisoners.
What makes a desperate situation worse is the jitteriness of the Japanese. Anticipating defeat, they, like the Nazis before them, plan to erase evidence of their crimes by "liquidating" their camps. On the other hand, they don't flinch from settling scores against perceived civilian betrayers and in one last spasm of brutality carry out summary executions in Manila against anyone they suspect of aiding the enemy.
"The Great Raid" excels when it comes to capturing these barbarities, but it has a much harder time making virtue compelling. The dialogue is mostly high-minded hokum, stuff that would be right at home on the title cards of a silent movie epic. One character exults in "a mission worthy of Rangers." Another proclaims, "We were going to rescue them or die trying."
These are the kind of lines that George C. Scott's Patton would toss out in hero mode before relapsing into the crotchety, often weird ruminations that revealed his complex, not altogether comforting humanity. That's what made "Patton" (1970) such an exhilarating leap forward in World War II films, but "The Great Raid" tries to set the clock back to a time before such innovations, all the way back to the wartime newsreels, it sometimes seems. In fact, the most moving moments in the movie come when we see archival footage of several of the people on whom the principal characters are based. There they are, in all their homely dignity, puffing on cigarettes, sharing a laugh, going about their business. It's great to see, but it also reminds you of just how woodenly these lively soldiers have been portrayed.
The handling of Margaret Utinsky is also a disappointment. To add Hollywood spice to her story, the movie concocts an imaginary motive for her heroism: an anemic, vaguely sketched love for Joseph Fiennes' Major Gibson, who desperately needs the quinine she's trying to smuggle into the camp. The film's conformity to musty formulas is also evident in its portrayal of the Filipinos, who have nothing but love and gratitude for the Americans. You'd never guess that just 40 years earlier, the GIs were pouring fire on those of their grandparents who did not savor the idea of becoming American imperial subjects. "The Great Raid" wants to honor history, but thinks the way to do it is to leave out murk, ambiguity, irony in other words, history. (R) ** S
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