Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Great Raid, Great Movie?

The Great Raid, a movie based on the 1945 U.S. Army Ranger mission to rescue some 500 Allied prisoners from a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines, will be in theaters August 12.

There are problems with the movie. It is off visually. I don’t pretend to understand the technical aspects of movie making, but the lens they use to filter the color just doesn’t feel right. The movie is in the same grayed down tones of Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, but the effect is not the same. Gritty and gray works for northern Europe, not the tropical Philippines. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Luzon in January is all bleached light and earth tones, but even if that is so, the color does not set the right tone for the movie. The strange coloring might contribute to the strange effect that at times The Great Raid feels more like a TV movie than a feature film.

The casting of one character, Major Gibson, played by Joseph Fiennes, is also a problem. Fiennes is a solid actor; he did a great job as the slightly befuddled bard in Shakespeare In Love. But he was wrong for this part. The character he plays was a prisoner of war from the earliest stages of the war. He was an officer in the Regular Army, he fought to defend the Philippines, he survived the Bataan Death March, he contracted malaria, and he lived for almost four years in the camps. The story has him as the leader of the men in the camp, the rock, the guy who everyone else looked to for strength to get through the horror of it all. Joseph Fiennes is not that guy. Fiennes is too doe-eyed and sincere, more of a sympathetic weakling than a proud warrior worn down by the war. This bit of miscasting is more of a problem because so much of the movie is set in the camp at Cabanatuan. Those scenes seem to drag, and not in a good way—stuff is happening, but it just not as compelling as it could have been.

It is too bad that the camp scenes slow things down, because the rest of the movie is very well done. Fiennes’ love interest, Margaret Utisky, played by Connie Nielson, is a nurse in Manila who worked with the Filipino resistance and helped get food and medicine into the camp. Her story is remarkable, and portrayed well in the film. As is the tale of the raid itself. The high point of the film is Benjamin Bratt’s performance as Colonel Mucci, the leader of the mission. The dynamic between Mucci and the men is perfect—he is the demanding officer who is personally distant and temperamental, the kind the men would follow anywhere. Franco pulls off the taciturn Captain Prince, the man who planned and led the actual raid on the camp. And the raid itself—despite a little Hollywood flair—is a top notch depiction of combat in World War II. It would have been nice to see a bit more of these guys—their motivation, their trials, and their mission—rather than so much of the camp.

But perhaps that is an unfair criticism, and one that misses the larger importance of the movie and its role in our understanding of the Second World War.

As everyone knows, World War II is where we look for historical lessons; it is our handy source for illuminating analogies. Need to make a point about appeasement? There are those isolationists and the statesmen at Munich. Want an example of everyone playing their part? Talk about rationing on the home front. Have to find a generation to emulate? Call them the greatest. Need an example of absolute evil? The Second World War gave us the Nazis.

I’m not necessarily arguing with these positions, but the last one, especially, deserves comment. The Nazis were bad, no doubt—terrible, awful, deserving of our utmost scorn. But, we seem to forget, so were the Japanese. Not because they were Asian, or because they launched the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor (were they supposed to announce it?), but because of what they did, because of the horrible crimes they committed everywhere they went. The minions of Imperial Japan murdered civilians by the hundreds of thousands, they performed vivisections, they tortured prisoners of war, they burned people alive, they killed, raped, and plundered across China, Southeast Asia, and the Philippines. They did so in support of a racialized ideology of militant nationalism—one not all that different from Hitler’s. There’s a reason they were allies with the Nazis.

And we seem to give them a pass in this country. We have come to ignore the brutal aspect of the enemy in the Pacific War by either leaving them out (see the movie version of The Thin Red Line) or treating them as noble warriors (see, for example, Tora! Tora! Tora!). No doubt many of the men who fought in the Pacific rarely saw the enemy, and no doubt there were plenty of noble warriors within the Japanese military, but there is something more going on here. Perhaps it is because the Japanese embraced defeat after the war (to use John Dower’s phrase). Perhaps it is because we needed them as an ally in the Cold War. Perhaps, in our racialized worldview, we expected more of the civilized Germans and we sympathized more with the white victims of Germany than the Asian victims of Japan. Or perhaps now it is because we don’t want to seem racist in our depictions of the Japanese at war. As with anything, the answer is probably a combination of those factors.

That is one thing that makes The Great Raid so remarkable. It is a Hollywood movie, made by a guy in Harvey Weinstein who has been pretty active from the left of American politics. If it is politically incorrect to portray a negative vision of the Japanese in World War II, then there would seem to be no way that Miramax was going to do it.

But the Great Raid is unflinching in its depiction of Japanese crimes. Japanese police torture and execute Filipinos and others who may or may not have been in the resistance. The movie begins, as did the book Ghost Soldiers, with Japanese guards herding POWs into an air raid trench, dousing them with gasoline, and lighting them on fire. Japanese guards beat, purposefully starve, and summarily execute prisoners throughout the film. This brutality is central to the film: the Japanese were going to execute all of the roughly 500 prisoners in the Cabanatuan camp—that’s why the Americans had to stage the raid. The movie does not sugarcoat the reality; it sticks as close to the truth as possible.

That is ultimately what makes The Great Raid compelling and watchable: it is so damn sincere. They wanted to get it right. They wanted to do justice to the story. Why wouldn’t they? If it was not real, if it did not actually happen, you wouldn’t believe it. That true story overcomes any shortcomings in the film, it overcomes political correctness, it overcomes the cynicism that says great and good cannot come out of something so ugly as war.

What those men actually did made an otherwise okay movie great. Behold the power of awe.


Blogger Laika's Last Woof said...

I think after the firebombings of all major cities and atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki most Americans felt Japan had suffered enough.

It's why we let them keep their Emperor, famously accepting the "conditional unconditional surrender" that saved Hirohito from Nuremberg. We'd have never let the Germans keep Hitler, but then we didn't drop atom bombs on Germany, either.

In an age of fashionable anti-American revisionist history, knowing about Bataan, Nanking, the Kamikaze and the Banzai Charge does help put American tactics into perspective, but demanding apologies from survivors of the atom bomb seems somehow monstrous.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

And we certainly didn't want to rub it in on our new allies in the Cold War.

We never would have let the Germans keep Hitler, even if we had dropped atom bombs on Berlin (one of the great counterfactuals of the war--I think we would have). Hirohito was not essential to the rise of Japanese militarism; Hitler was absolutely key to the rise of the Nazis. That distinction probably saved Hirohito from the Tokyo trials more than anything.

I don't know about forcing Japan to apologize for World War II from the American perspective, and I can't speak from the Chinese perspective (they have plenty of their own atrocities to worry about), but I do think the Japanese should acknowledge what their country did, just like we must acknowledge what our country has done.

5:06 PM  

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