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Screens Heroism in hindsight

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The Great Raid takes its cues from the fuzzy glow that surrounds all things WWII

Twice during the past decade, in 1992 and 1996, the American public committed electoral patricide. It rejected two decorated veterans of World War II, George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole, in favor of a younger man, Bill Clinton, who had avoided military service entirely. Each time, the choice made rational sense, yet one does not spurn a father without repercussions. Harassing and impeaching Clinton was one way of expiating the blame for discarding his elders. Belated construction of the National World War II Memorial that clutters the Washington Mall was another. As the men who defeated Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan - our fathers and grandfathers - die off, a tinge of survivor's guilt lingers. Embracing the myth of what, in his bestselling book, Tom Brokaw called "the greatest generation" helps assuage that guilt. Martin Luther King Day is a testament to how we often magnify those we have belittled.

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The Great Raid, a dramatization of an American rescue mission in World War II, lionizes the soldiers, but fails to explore the murkier questions about combat.

Until the 1990s, the European and Pacific theaters of war were frequently portrayed as stages for theater of the absurd. Catch-22, Hogan's Heroes, McHale's Navy, and other books, films, and TV series presented World War II as a comedy of terrors waged on the Allied side by nitwits, slackers, and swindlers. Somehow they managed to blunder toward victory. (Throughout the Cold War, it would not do for Hollywood to acknowledge the crucial, costly role that the Red Army played in defeating Hitler). But as the actual combatants began departing, ceasing to be threats or rivals to the rest of us, the tone toward them has shifted to reverence. Since at least 1998, when Saving Private Ryan beatified the grunts who turned the tide at Normandy, piety has become obligatory in cinematic accounts of the bands of brothers who risked - and often sacrificed - their lives.

The mass of men lead lives of quiet frustration that they were born too late to be great. 'Twas ever so. Early in the 19th century, the founders, dying off, began to be venerated, as though the American Revolution had not been supported by only a third of the colonists and won in part through good fortune and French support. For Americans at the turn of the 20th century, those who fought at Antietam, Bull Run, and Gettysburg had become "the greatest generation."

"Americans sure have changed since then," murmured someone after a recent preview of The Great Raid, a film set in January 1945. He did not seem appreciative of the change. The Great Raid dramatizes what it calls "the most successful rescue mission in U.S. history," when 126 intrepid Army Rangers stormed Cabanatuan, a heavily guarded POW camp in the Philippines, and rescued more than 500 abused and endangered American prisoners. They were survivors of the largest single defeat in U.S. military history, when a combined force of 70,000 Americans and Filipinos trapped in Bataan surrendered to the Japanese. The story of the infamous 60-mile Bataan "Death March" that left 15,000 more dead, has been reenacted several times. However, it took until 2002 for a movie to be made about the dramatic raid on Cabanatuan (release of The Great Raid was delayed until now because of corporate problems at Miramax). Its director, John Dahl, emerged in the 1990s with a couple of quirky genre-bending features, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. But Dahl's new film responds to a different Zeitgeist, one loath to make a mockery of bravery.

"Nothing in our lives will ever be more important than this," Lt. Colonel Henry Mucci (Bratt) tells Captain Bob Prince (Franco) on the eve of their great raid. Mucci chose Prince to lead an elite but untested force on a dangerous and uncertain mission. Their assignment is 30 miles away, their objective, despite an overwhelming enemy presence, to bring 500 fellow Americans back alive.

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The Great Raid crosscuts among three converging story lines: 1) Cabanatuan, where the American prisoners, led by malaria-ridden Major Daniel Gibson (Fiennes), await extermination by their sadistic Japanese captors, 2) Manila, where Margaret Utinsky (Nielsen), an American nurse who is in love with Gibson, leads valiant underground efforts to smuggle medicine to Cabanatuan, and 3) the terrain between Luzon and Cabanatuan, where Captain Prince's raiders balance stealth and speed to reach their goal in time. The raid on Cabanatuan is an Alamo in reverse:

A small, outnumbered band, assisted by Filipino guerrillas, vanquishes thousands of Japanese. Mission is accomplished as the Americans sustain but a single casualty, a PFC originally omitted from the roster of raiders because he was married and hence had more to lose than volunteers without families. But the soldier convinced Prince to let him participate anyway.

Released while we are absorbed in another distant war, The Great Raid seems to challenge moviegoers to a similar sacrifice. However, a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into war against Japan, whereas Iraq never attacked this country, and, lacking weapons of mass destruction, posed no credible danger to it. Today, Captain Prince might not be storming Basra but picketing the White House.

The Great Raid

Dir. John Dahl; writ. Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, Hossein Amini, based on a book by William B. Breuer; feat. Benjamin Bratt, James Franco, Connie Nielsen, Joseph Fiennes (R)

Does it make sense to define an entire age cohort by a war (Are the Woodstock Generation, the Pepsi Generation, and Generation X martially defective?), one in which women were subordinate and blacks segregated? Audie Murphy was no more representative than Duke Ellington, Bette Davis, and the guards at Manzanar, the Nebraska camp in which members of "the greatest generation" imprisoned American citizens of Japanese ancestry. Members of that generation performed astonishing deeds of heroism at Cabanatuan, but they also firebombed Dresden and obliterated Nagasaki.

Though it was released in 1936, The Grand Illusion, whose title refers to the fantasy that war accomplishes anything, still generates for me the greatest response of any film about escape from a POW camp. Stressing the common humanity of German guards and French, British, and Russian prisoners, director Jean Renoir was responding to a very different moment. It was easy then to feel revulsion for a recent catastrophic global war and dread for the next one soon to start. A powerful story powerfully told, The Great Raid dares us to match the discipline and courage of its uniformed characters. In The Grand Illusion, the prisoners of war who flee German captivity remove their uniforms as soon as possible. Renoir's film ask us to measure up to their model of tenacity, ingenuity, and empathy.


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