The Great Raid (2005)
Starring Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, Connie Nielsen, Joseph Fiennes, Marton Csokas
Directed by John Dahl
Screenplay by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro
Based on the books "The Great Raid on Cabanatuan: Rescuing the Doomed Ghosts of Bataan and Corregidor" by William B. Breuer and "Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides
Produced by Marty Katz and Lawrence Bender
In early 1945, a small group of U.S. Army Rangers and Filipino soldiers rescued 500 U.S. soldiers from the brutal, heavily guarded Japanese POW camp at Cabanatuan, just ahead of the Allied advance in the Philippines. "The Great Raid" and the books on which it is based get credit for resurrecting this incredible World War II story. But despite competent direction and acting, most of the movie is bland and clichéd. The officers' leadership of the raid is the film's main thing. However, the principal character in an ill-conceived subplot is nurse Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), an underground leader in occupied Manila. She is portrayed as a war hero for smuggling medicine to the desperate POWs. The real-life Utinsky was all that, but she does not deserve the fictionalized romance with a POW officer that the film supplies as her motivation. Instead, "Miss U"--as she titled her 1948 autobiography--would seem to merit her own movie.
"The Great Raid" follows the planning and execution of the operation by Lt. Col. Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco). They must find a way to get their troops behind enemy lines, destroy the larger Japanese force guarding the camp, and rescue the emaciated POWs, while evading even larger Japanese forces nearby. Although the operation is not critical to the retaking of the Philippines, the film stresses that the Cabanatuan POWs were among the many soldiers left behind in the U.S. forces' 1942 withdrawal from the islands. The Bataan Death March ensued. We also get gruesome details of the war crimes the Japanese have been perpetrating on the surviving POWs in the Philippines. They have been starved and denied medicine, and many have been massacred before they can be liberated--a fate that seems to await the Cabanatuan prisoners unless the raid succeeds.
The leader of the Cabanatuan POWs is the malaria-stricken Maj. Daniel Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), a man who--only in the movie--has been sustained by his love for Margaret Utinsky. The film's Utinsky is the wife of Gibson's former commanding officer, who died after the 1942 withdrawal that trapped Gibson and the others at Cabanatuan. Apparently working for the Red Cross, Utinsky leads a mostly Filipino underground cell whose main mission seems to be smuggling medical supplies into the POW camps, especially the precious quinine needed to combat malaria. Utinsky's subplot has two main themes: her struggle to continue smuggling medicine to Cabanatuan even as the members of her cell are being identified and executed by the Japanese, and the long simmering but never consummated affair with Gibson.
The movie's best features may be those that seem to stick closest to reality. The historic explanation that frames the film, using newsreel footage and images of some of the real-life protagonists, has real dramatic power. And Dahl provides a comprehensible account of the mechanics of the raid, a rarity for Hollywood accounts of big firefights like this one.
Unfortunately, the film is hobbled by its cliché-ridden, melodramatic script, and by its effort to do too many things. No character gets much of a chance to rise above generic war movie fodder. The U.S. officers are deeply moral figures whose main sin seems to be impatience. The film stresses that these Rangers have seen no real action yet, but we never really see how that plays into the well-executed operation that follows. We don't get to know any of the enlisted men. The Japanese committed terrible atrocities, but here they are monomaniacal Bushido villains without the human elements better films like "Schindler's List" and the more recent "Sometimes in April" manage to convey even in monstrous war criminals. The Filipinos come off as noble support staff whose abilities and sacrifices the film takes pains to praise, though it is really interested only in the commander who helps plan the raid, and it fails to account for the far higher number of Filipino casualties. No soldier of any stripe shows fear. And what really happened between the time the raiders left the camp--with 500 weakened POWs in tow and Japanese forces in pursuit--and the time they reached safety gets short shrift. Perhaps if the film had scaled back the Utinsky and Gibson subplots, it could have shown us the whole "great raid."
There is no doubt that the film's portrayal of Margaret Utinsky is very positive. It makes clear that she helped save many lives through her underground work, ultimately earning a medal of freedom from President Truman. We see her trying to buy drugs in a dangerous black market transaction, and smuggling quinine out of the Manila hospital where she works. (Whether this could pose a threat to the Red Cross' overall mission--as it might if the hospital needed the drugs just as badly, or if occupying armies would be reluctant to let the Red Cross in if they thought its workers were smuggling supplies to enemy soldiers--are issues well beyond a black-and-white film like this). Utinsky is courageous, savvy, determined, and effective, at least until the Japanese finally begin to unravel her cell and kill her comrades. At one point, she spots a set-up and manages to escape. When she is caught, she endures torture at the hands of the Japanese secret police. She is more emotional than her male military counterparts, crying at several points, but she never breaks down or becomes dysfunctional. Utinsky is probably the most fully drawn character here, and the talented Nielsen does what she can to add depth to the role.
But this Utinsky is really more of a stock "war hero" than a nurse. What she does could have been done by a non-nurse. We see no clinical nursing, and there is no reason to think she is especially skilled at clinical care. Of course her underground work helps patients, but the film doesn't seem too interested in that. Indeed, the subplot seems grafted on, as if the film felt it needed to stick in a love story to draw female viewers, or because it did not believe enough in its own extraordinary subject matter overall. The effect is to distract and slow things down, which the movie did not need with all the planning and waiting that is already part of the main plot.
And the film does not just add the fake romance to a depiction of Utinsky's real commitment to the Allied cause. It has her confess that Gibson was the reason she stayed in the Philippines. Of course, by getting quinine to the camp, she is hoping to save the life of her beloved. This plot device seems like an insult to Utinsky's actual heroism. Her confession lessens the risk that she will be seen as a stereotypically altruistic saint. But it also means she's likely to be viewed as a traditional female, motivated by romantic love rather than the broader desire to
save the world from oppression that presumably drove most of the soldiers. Even with all her exploits, Utinsky can aspire only to a sadly distorted supporting role in this account of history.
Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, MSN, MPH, RN
Reviewed September 19, 2005
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.