August 12, 2005, - 2:19 am

“The Great Raid”: The Year’s GREAT Movie

By Debbie Schlussel
If you love America, “The Great Raid” is the movie for you.
If you love freedom and appreciate the fight it takes to sustain it, you’ll love this movie. But if you don’t appreciate what it takes to protect our life as free Americans–the sacrifices our military men and women make every day, then you must see “The Great Raid.”
In theaters, today, “The Great Raid” is–hands down–the best movie of the year. It has drama, action, a love story, heroes and villains.
And it makes you proud to be an American.
But much more important, it is a very accurate depiction of an important event in recent U.S. military history: the rescue of U.S. Prisoners of War in Cabanatuan, Philippines (based on the books “The Great Raid on Cabanatuan” and “Ghost Soldiers“).
Emaciated, ill with diseases like malaria, and tortured by the Japanese, American POWs in the Philippines during World War II–and their dramatic rescue with the help of heroic Filipinos–comprise a little known chapter in American history.
Now, at the skillful direction of Director John Dahl, the story will be told. “My brother said Hollywood only knows how to make one kind of war movie . . . an ANTI-war movie,” Dahl told me, during a recent promotional trip to Detroit. But Dahl, the son of a World War II vet who fought in the Philippines, wanted to change that. He wanted to tell the true story of what really happened to friends of his father who actually were POWs and endured the Bataan Death March.

During his trip to the Detroit area, Dahl visited the Selfridge Air Base to pre-view his film. While the projector was old and the equipment squeaky, the loudest noise was the applause he got from the military men and women who screened it. I noted to Dahl that finally someone produced a movie that made American soldiers look like the decent, honorable men they were and are–unlike the drug abusers and evil-doers in movies like Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.” Dahl said he wouldn’t have it any other way. It was paramount for him to get it right–for his father, his father’s friends, and the many other Americans and Filipinos who bravely fought (many making the ultimate sacrifice) against the Japanese and rescued the infirm POWs.
By design, Dahl cast mostly unknown young actors–very talented unknowns, to compliment leads Benjamin Bratt and Joseph Fiennes (both of whom were also first-rate). Even Mr. Kelly Ripa, actor Mark Consuelos, was good.
Dahl’s film also gives Filipinos (civilian and military)–many of whom risked their lives for our soldiers and were murdered for it–the credit they deserve for their heroic bravery in helping American POWs. Most Americans remain unaware of this, and “The Great Raid” will help correct that. Dahl said he wanted to show that without the help of these Filipinos, the raid on Cabanatuan would not have been successful.
American soldiers in “The Great Raid”–all of whom (except Fiennes’ character) existed in real life–were of all ethnic backgrounds. They had Irish (Riley, Foley, O’Grady), Hispanic (Guttierez), Italian (Mucci), and Jewish (Cohen, Friedberg, Katz) names. For feminists, there is even a female hero, Margaret Utinsky, a nurse who led a Filipino underground network to smuggle medicine to the POWs, helping keep them alive. But Utinsky was no feminist. She was a classy, brave, beautiful woman, who risked everything to smuggle quinine, without which many soldiers would die of malaria, to the camps. Utinsky received the Medal of Freedom and wrote a book about her heroic saga in the Philippines. Sadly, she died alone in a sanitarium around 1970.
Anyone who doubts our War on Terror, and the strong measures required here and abroad, really needs to see “The Great Raid,” to learn what real patriots do to serve their country. They fight the enemy to death, not worship the ground it slithers on. Anything less is fatally inadequate.
As vividly depicted in “The Great Raid,” American POWs faced real torture, deliberate starvation and malnourishment, and the withholding of life-saving medical treatment–all courtesy of their Japanese captors. They were beaten to near-death and death–not the minor grazing of breasts by female interrogators, a la Gitmo. There was no International Red Cross visiting and defending them against their captors. They didn’t receive three square Halal meals–like glazed chicken–per day. There was no ACLU in Cabanatuan fighting the Japanese in the courts and demanding their release.
Another praiseworthy dimension of “Great Raid” usually absent in Hollywood is respect for (non-Muslim) religion. While rare enough to have such a patriotic movie coming out of Hollywood (especially at this time), the positive portrayal of religion is contextual and important. Religious Catholicism, its adherents and clerics, are shown in a positive light.
The Japanese allowed Irish Catholic priests to freely move around the Philippines because the Irish were considered German allies, Dahl explained. Taking advantage of this, Irish Catholic priests risked their lives to help Utinsky run the Filipino underground and smuggle medicine to the POWs. They were murdered for it. In a few scenes, a card depicting the Virgin Mary plays an important role in giving two American soldiers the courage and confidence to carry out the successful raid and rescue.
Since all religions (except Islam, the only religion liberals and showbiz types love to love) are regularly trashed on the big screen, “The Great Raid” is a refreshing film, in that respect alone.
But the most refreshing thing about “The Great Raid” is that someone in Hollywood actually dared to commit the crime of making America and our brave soldiers look as good on film as they are in reality.
“These were brave, brave people, Americans and Filipinos, who deserve to be recognized – and honored,” Dahl told Detroit Free Press film critic Terry Lawson. “I hope I did them justice.”
Yes, you did.
For more on U.S. POWs of the Japanese in the Philippines, see my writing about Lester Tenney (nee Tennenberg), Maurice Mazer, and Frank Bigelow–heroic U.S. POWs of the Japanese in the Philippines and survivors of the Bataan Death March. Read Lester Tenney’s moving book, “My Hitch in Hell: The Bataan Death March,” also reviewed here.

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