Special Note: You may be aware that The Great Raid was completed in 2002 and then left to sit on a shelf in the Miramax vault for about three years. 9 times out of 10, this kind of thing happens when everyone involved knows that the movie in question ... sucks. That is absolutely not the case with The Great Raid. I cannot comment on precisely why Miramax chose to hold on to the thing for so long, but I can offer the opinion that it was NOT for reasons of quality. I can only assume that a straightforward and old-style war movie makes for a "tough sell" in today's multiplex universe, but this is a very fine film. Ultimately, it's just really sad to see that a movie like this cannot be asked or expected to compete in today's marketplace. But that's just another reason we all love DVD so much: it's where underrated movies go to get some love.
John Dahl's The Great Raid is well and truly an "old-fashioned" war movie, and if you think I mean that as less than a compliment, you should go out and rent some of the 40's & 50's finest war flicks. 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.
Basically, we have about 550 American prisoners-of-war held in a remote and foreboding Filipino jungle outpost, and it's up to the well-trained but unproven men of the 6th Ranger Battalion to mount a rescue mission. But this is no ordinary search & salvage operation, because the Japanese seem well aware that the tide of the war has turned, and would just as soon kill 550 prisoners before allowing them to be rescued. So how, exactly, does a battalion plan a rescue mission involving more than 500 near-dead hostages and over 1,000 brutal enemies?
Very, very carefully.
And that's where the "old fashioned" approach pays off in spades. Basically, if you're looking for a non-stop-action war movie, you're better off sticking with the Rambo sequels or something equally escapist in tone, because The Great Raid is about war the same way that The Silence of the Lambs is "about" serial killers. Dahl and his screenwriters take the (very welcome) approach that says "Just tell the story, sticking as closely as possible to the known facts." So while this means that The Great Raid has only one true "action scene" and that it takes place in the film's final 25 minutes, it also means that armchair historians, WWII buffs, and normal folks like you and I can just sit back and watch how a rescue mission like this one actually happened.
The first 2/3rds of The Great Raid deal with three distinct plot threads: the preparations of Lt. Col. Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Captain Prince (James Franco) as they concoct a mission plan, prepare their troops, and head on out to get the thing done; the assistance offered by nurse Margaret Utinsky, who risks her life by smuggling medicine into the POW camps; and the hell-on-Earth containment camp populated by Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), Capt. Redding (Marton Csokas), and more than 500 of their captured countrymen.
Big points due to Dahl and his screenwriters for sharing much of the well-earned glory with the Filipino resistance army. Those who go into The Great Raid expecting some sort of low-minded "America rocks" flag-waver may be a bit disappointed, but those on the lookout for an old-school nuts & bolts war flick should find The Great Raid to be a very welcome addition to your collection. As far as recent war movies go, I'd put The Great Raid just a notch below Black Hawk Down, but a dozen notches above stuff like We Were Soldiers and (gak) Pearl Harbor.
And as far as action scenes go, I'd take one long and stellar set-piece over three or four uninspired explosion-fests ... and The Great Raid has one amazing action sequence. You just have to watch the whole story in order to earn and appreciate it.
(Director's Cut notes: Given that I did not see The Great Raid during its theatrical run, I cannot, with any accuracy, explain the differences between the two versions. But the director does a very good job, via audio commentary, of explaining why the DC is shorter than the theatrical cut. Essentially, he snipped out 95% of the "made-up" stuff in an effort to make 'his' version the most factually accurate. The sequences that were snipped from the theatrical version are included here as part of the Deleted Scenes section.)
Video: The anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) transfer is pretty damn excellent. Dahl has a no-muss no-fuss approach, and Peter Menzies' quietly superlative cinematography is consistently handsome without ever calling attention to itself. In other words: The flick looks great.
Audio: It's a well-oiled Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, with optional subtitles in English and Spanish. Audio quality is quite excellent; the soundtrack is calibrated nicely between score, dialogue, sound effects, and the Act III explosion-fest.
If you want the theatrical cut, you'll be purchasing a Fullscreen single-disc release. Those who opt to spend the extra coin on the 2-disc director's cut will get a whole lot of return on their investment.
Disc 1 contains a frankly fantastic audio commentary with director John Dahl, producer Marty Katz, military advisor/actor Captain Dale Dye, editor Scott Chestnut, and "Ghost Soldiers" author Hampton Sides, a collection of 16 deleted scenes with optional commentary by John Dahl, and an 20-minute featurette entitled The Price of Freedom: The Making of The Great Raid, which has interviews with filmmakers, cast members, authors, and a few actual WWII veterans / P.O.W. survivors. This 'making-of' piece barely scratches the surface, but it's definitely got some solid bits for fans of of the film.
(I must take another minute to mention the audio commentary, which is just great. It covers the filmmaking process, of course, but it's also laden with tons of historical and military tidbits, too. Damn good chat-track, period.)
Disc 2 delivers all sorts of goodies, some dealing with the movie itself, and others focusing on the true story behind the actual Great Raid.
The Ghosts of Bataan is a 60-minute documentary focusing on the events that led up to "the great raid." Informative, tragic, and packed with recollections from two dozen soldiers who were actually there, this mini-doc makes for a fine companion piece to the feature film.
You'll find even more captivating anecdotes in the 9-minute The Veterans Remember, in which a few more Bataan survivors share their stories.
History Lesson with Author Hampton Sides is largely recycled from the main featurette, but here the author's comments are combined into one rather excellent 15-minute mini-lecture in which the whole darn story, from the invasion of Manila to the "death march" to the camp to the eventual rescue, is doled out in bite-sized portions. Mr. Sides knows his stuff, and he delivers it well. If only my old college professors told their stories this way...
Captain Dale Dye's Boot Camp is an 8-minute peek at the pre-shoot boot camp that many of the young actors must endure, plus there's also a 4-minute collection of Boot Camp Outtakes which prove that it's not all blood, sweat, and tears.
Under a heading labeled "Sound Design," you'll find two extra goodies: Mixing The Great Raid is a 10-minute featurette that focuses on, you guessed it, the masterful sound-work employed in the film, while The Mix Board is your chance to watch a selected scene with only the dialogue, the background noise, the foley work, the sound effects, or the music. Then watch the scene in its final form to see how much a good audio mix means to a movie.
One really cool supplement is the War In The Pacific Interactive Timeline, which allows you to click through a lot of WWII history, complete with dates, events, and audio clips from good ol' Hampton Sides. Rounding out the second disc is a Dedication to the Soldiers of Bataan, which runs 4 minutes and pays homage to the soldiers, the prisoners, the allies, and the heroes of the conflict in the Philippines.
One of the most common complaints I've read regarding The Great Raid is that it's slow-moving and fairly dull. Can't say I can agree on either of those counts, because this flick capably grabbed me by the the collar and gave me a two-hour history lesson that was both entertaining and very illuminating. I had my doubts that neo-noir master John Dahl could pull off a big-time war movie, but those doubts were dashed within 15 minutes of running time. The Great Raid might not be one of 2005's very best films, but it sure in hell is one of the year's most unfairly overlooked.