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Forgotten heroes of another war

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It seems more than coincidence that The Great Raid appears just as the nation and the news media note the 60th anniversary of VJ Day, providing yet another reminder of the courage and sacrifice demanded of a previous generation.

Instead of posturing politicians and droning heads on the television screen, however, the new movie presents, without melodrama or sentimentalizing, a kind of documentary approach to a military action in the Philippines in 1945. A group of untested Army Rangers, assisted by Filipino irregulars, mounted a daring raid on a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp at Cabanatuan to rescue 500 American soldiers, survivors of the infamous Bataan Death March.

Unlike such famous deeds as the D-Day landing at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, the costly struggles on IwoJima and Okinawa, the raid on Cabanatuan possessed no military significance. The American command, however, apparently needed to rescue the prisoners because they had abandoned them and 60,000 others three years before, when General Douglas ("Dugout Doug") MacArthur uttered his famous promise to return, before scurrying off to Australia. Their country owed these men an enormous debt for their three years of brutal confinement and unspeakable suffering.

The picture tells its relatively straightforward story from three related perspectives, constantly shifting from the camp itself to the raiding party to a Philippine resistance cell in Manila. Notoriously cruel captors, the Japanese believed that a soldier who surrendered lost not only his honor but also his humanity, and thus deserved harsh discipline, torture, and execution (in that long ago time when the American military did not practice torture). Some of the tensions within the camp derive from the prisoners' commanding officer (Joseph Fiennes) work to prevent escapes, since the Japanese kill 10 men for every one who attempts to run away.

The Rangers, led by Lt. Colonel Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and Captain Prince (James Franco), who narrates part of the mission, experience their own difficulties in a four-day forced march through occupied territory. The captain and their Filipino allies must convince the stubborn colonel of the value of their particular strategies and decide not only how to attack the camp but also how to hold off a heavily armed Japanese force encamped in the vicinity. Because the Japanese plan to burn all the prisoners alive, apparently to destroy any witnesses to their war crimes, the raiders must work swiftly and boldly, yet not harm the prisoners in their attack.

In Manila, a Lithuanian nurse (Connie Nielsen) works with the resistance in the face of great risk to smuggle medicines to the prisoners, many of whom are ill, some dying. The widow of Fiennes' commanding officer, she and Fiennes share a deep, distant, barely declared love, which helps both of them cope with the constant danger, fear, and privation. When another nurse betrays her cell, the Japanese military police torture her and kill her comrades; she flees the city, hoping to find her lover alive and finally acknowledge their feelings.

The three major lines of action begin to converge in the assault on the camp, which depends on a complicated combination of surprise, precise timing, coordination, and sheer determination. The Rangers attack with bravery and precision, rescuing men whose own considerable heroism consisted of the monumental task of simply staying alive through three years of hard labor, hunger, disease, and torture.

One of the most powerful techniques in the film depends upon the actual history of the event, mixing documentary footage of the soldiers and the Death March survivors with their counterparts in The Great Raid, demonstrating the truth of its story of remarkable courage. The movie shows the real heroism of ordinary men and women of that "Greatest Generation," a refreshing contrast with those images of the cowardly George W. Bush prancing around a carrier deck in his Ken Doll jump suit, proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," now only a faint image in the erotic dreams of the right wing.

In its simplicity and power, The Great Raid constitutes a belated tribute to men and women of an earlier era, who fought and sacrificed and suffered in a terrible war for comprehensible and admirable reasons; it reminds us all how greatly the times and all of us have changed.

The Great Raid(R) based on The Great Raid OnCabanatuan and Ghost Soldiers; directed by John Dahl; is playing at Eastview Mall 13, Henrietta 18, and TinseltownUSA.

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