The Great Raid is another film that marks the return of the “old-fashioned” war movie. This return, however, may not be as straightforward a proposition as one might think. Or is it? Saving Private Ryan (1998) began the trend — a kind of “greatest generation” memorializing that sidesteps Vietnam and looks backward to the Good War — and everyone agrees it was an auspicious (re-)start.
Although Ryan seemed brand-new, an up-close, digitized nose-rub into everything terrifying and transformative and pitiable about combat, the more I thought about it the more it felt exactly like the great G.I. pictures of the 1940s and early ’50s, in that it brings us not only close to the action but next to the soldiers, whether via the clunky roll call of American ethnic/geographic types, or the more psychological approach – both equally open to parody.
Of course, any number of war films play with these categories, mixing and matching, and the end result can creak a bit, as “Brooklyn” or “Schwartz” — or “Texas” or “Martini” — or the buttoned-down clueless Second Looey or the shell-shocked shrieker/freezer or the Old Campaigner or the over-eager quasi-psycho trot through their various paces.
As I watch post-Ryan war films, I notice how easy it is to fall into those stereotypes. After all, even the earlier “anti-war” war films — Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987) — indulged in such character typing. It’s difficult to resist. Occasionally, though, what’s happening — the plot — is more important than to whom — the characters — and so the broad strokes subside to make room for what is essentially a military procedural.
John Dahl’s The Great Raid (2005) falls into this category, with satisfying results. I was intrigued to see that his credits include Red Rock West (1992), The Last Seduction (1994), Rounders (1998) and Joy Ride (2001), and while each has its own memorable characters, they remain genre pictures of a particularly garish — and often nasty — sort, I’ll admit featuring performances that stick with you — by Nicholas Cage, Linda Fiorentino, Edward Norton, Steve Zahn – but what I really remember about those movies is his attention to details, small touches, inside information, the otherwise decorative elements of a set or a shot or the film’s world, that allow even the most delirious moments — such as Joy Ride‘s finale — make sense.
Dahl brings these tendencies to The Great Raid, and aside from perfunctory but serviceable character-sketches for the principles, focuses on the events that unfold, and the precise moments that matter. It is an almost literally synchronized-watch film, especially in its masterful last half-hour – an exciting recreation of an “inspired-by-actual-events” 1945 mission to rescue P.O.W. survivors of the Bataan Death March, ticked off for us with clarity and expository precision.
You know, art and atmosphere and the glow of the human soul are all well and good, but when it comes to a war movie the real question is, can you film a battle sequence so that it is more than smoke and fire and noise? The Great Raid is such a display of craft, but it also affirms its commitment to narrative, while not entirely forgetting the people who, after all, made the narrative happen.
This marriage of character and action lies at the heart of movies I may not revisit, but admire as I’m watching. I was struck by how easy it was for me to suspend judgment and enter the movie’s spirit, whole-heartedly wishing someone would drive a bayonet into the brutal camp commander, feeling my heart swell with admiration for the Philippine commandos who held the bridge, mourning the soldier whose malaria claimed him just as he had been liberated. This may not be such a great achievement — I’m a sucker for such sharp and compelling demands — but Dahl never proselytizes; he merely ticks off the events, one after another, allowing me with natural ease to side with the tortured and neglected, and rail against the oppressor.
He wisely chose a rescue mission rather than a battle per se to wring these emotions from his audience until, despite the moral qualms that might lead one away from the battlefield, allows his audience to surge toward The Great Raid, siding with the innocent.
That is the great trick the war movie — or the crime film, or the Western — plays: It distracts one from moral dilemmas long enough to follow moral imperatives. And as long as at the end I can leave the picture and be myself again, I can forgive such films their sleight-of-hand.