It's very rare to make a modern movie about WWII and truly capture the feeling of the time period. Many post-1945 war movies couldn't get away from the "We won!" relief and glossed over the intense fear and uncertainty that everyone around the world felt during the war. When you watch a movie that was made during the war years, you can smell the desperation from the actors and filmmakers. The Great Raid feels like it was made in the early '40s, but that the studio splurged on the budget and filmed it in Technicolor. The actors don't throw in any modern mannerisms, the camera doesn't use fancy tricks that remind the audience they're watching a movie, and the suspense is real. When the dangerous rescue mission is announced to the battalion, you fully expect several of the soldiers, if not everyone, to be killed. This is a war movie that doesn't gloat about the outcome but instead manages to instill the audience-who do know that the Allies eventually triumph-with enough uncertainty that it seems possible the war will not be won. With exception to the spurting blood when bullets were fired, I felt that I was watching a movie from 75 years ago.
Given the title, and my lengthy introduction, I'm sure you can tell that the main plot of this movie is a rescue mission. In an incredibly moving opening sequence, James Franco narrates a bit of history to immerse the audience in the events leading up to the movie's exact timing, while real black-and-white footage of the war and POW camps is shown. When the modern actors take over, there's a very slow saturation of color into the film, and it perfectly slides the audience into the transition. We're introduced to an American training camp in the Pacific, led by Lt. Col. Benjamin Bratt, as well as some of the sickly prisoners in the camp to be raided, Joseph Fiennes and Martin Csokas. From my perspective, I was far more interested in the logistics of the raid, but I'm sure there are many audience members far more interested in the personal stories of the prisoners; the balance of screen time will please every viewer. As the film progresses, there's also a third subplot introduced and tied in: Connie Nielson is a nurse who risks her life to smuggle medicine into POW camps.
John Dahl's direction is intense and subtle. He doesn't rely on handheld camera to build up tension, but instead lets the actors show how frightened they are without any added tricks. Rent any war movie from the first half of the 1940s-Gung Ho!, Wake Island, They Were Expendable, Objective, Burma!-and you'll understand that a camera can sit on a tripod and show the audience more tension than any spinning, shaking modern technique ever can. There's a great scene in which the battalion approaches a road through the tall weeds. Japanese tanks make for heavy traffic, and the soldiers are crouching in the weeds hoping they won't be seen. In another straightforward scene, the action speaks for itself: the Americans are advancing and waiting at night by a river at the bottom of a hill. Japanese troops are marching above them, and one soldier trots down the hill to refill his water canteen. Everything is still and quiet, letting the audience feel that they're hiding alongside the actors. I've seen too many modern movies that try to jazz things up for their viewers, but it's unnecessary.
If you scan the cast list and aren't very impressed, rent this movie and get ready to change your mind. I was enormously impressed with everyone's performance. Joseph Fiennes isn't given much to do besides lay in his bed sick with malaria, but his illness is very convincing. Connie Nielson shows that even the tough risktakers can get terribly frightened. If you think James Franco is just pretty to look at, you'll be very surprised by this different role for him. He's the director of the raid, and in the buildup to his explanation, you can see the wheels turning in his head as he worries about his men and the likelihood that they'll be successful. When he finally does explain the plan and draws a diagram in the dirt, he's extremely clear and thorough. It's a wonderful scene. He outlines timing, platoon advances, backup squads in case of failure, and coordination of the entire battalion working off each other. The way he explains it is so vivid, the audience knows exactly what to expect and can follow along without any confusion when the time comes.
And finally, there's the most impressive cast member of all, Benjamin Bratt. In silver screen films, many times the leading actors had fought in the war-Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Brian Donlevy, etc. Their experience not only drew audiences to the theaters, but it also showed on their faces that they'd seen the horrors of the battlefield. While there are less actors who are also veterans in modern cinema, many actors in military movies pretend to be tough rather than experienced. Benjamin Bratt was tough and experienced; it seemed like he'd been to war. He was constantly tired but didn't allow his energy to lag for the sake of the mission and his men. He may not have experienced that particular raid, but he'd lived through so many missions he knew he wouldn't run into anything he hadn't seen before. He'd said goodbye to his friends, he'd seen death come slowly and quickly, he'd killed, he'd seen plans go terribly wrong, he'd had to improvise, he'd been successful and regretful-and he was never given a monologue to tell the audience about his background. His eyes said it all.
It's shameful that this movie was not only a box office bomb but panned by most critics. This is one of the great war movies of the modern era. I've read the criticism, and it was not only ridiculous but heartbreaking. Describing this movie as "boring" and "a noble failure" makes me wonder what movie these critics actually watched. The Great Raid is exciting and incredibly moving. It makes you proud that America fought in World War II.