NOTE: This Spoiler was sent in by William Gill who says: "...the movie was a very solid, accurate, moving and entertaining portrayal of the actual events that the movie attempts to recreate. As someone who is extensively knowledgeable in the events that surround this film I can tell you they did a much better job at handling the material and making it work than most other recent WW2 films have. Highly recommended!"
The film starts off with a brief voice-over synopsis by actor James Franco, who plays Captain Robert Prince. Princes commentary essentially describes the events of the WW2 in the Pacific leading up to the events of the raid. Essentially it recounts the sneak attack of Pearl Harbor and how that was the starting point for a massive Japanese assault on the entire Pacific region. One of the places the Japanese hit hardest following the attack on Pearl Harbor was the then American controlled Philippine Islands. Although the Americans and Filipinos carried on a desperate fight to defend the islands for months Prince explains, eventually Gen. Douglas MacArthur was forced to admit defeat, but he did so with a solemn pledge to eventually return and retake what the Americans had lost. The commentary then recounts how the American troops left behind were essentially left to their fate by a "Defeat Germany First" policy. The Americans taken prisoner were then taken on a forced march through the Bataan Peninsula during which many horrific atrocities were committed. This obviously being the "Bataan Death March". Anyway long story short (the commentary is a little bit tedious going on about a minute too long) its now January of 1945 and the Japanese victories of 1942 have now been reversed and the Americans have now fulfilled MacArthurs pledge to return to the Philippines. It is at this point that the movie shifts from just showing old authentic "black and white" footage of WW2 and into the actual film. We see a group of American prisoners being lead by Japanese soldiers at the Palawan POW camp (one of the main American POW camps the Japanese run in the Philippines. As we see them being lead Princes commentary continues telling us that as American soldiers continued their advance through the islands the Japanese were given specific instructions to eliminate any POWs before the Americans could liberate them. We see the American soldiers brought to a group of subterranean air raid shelters. The American POWs wonder why the Japanese are sending them inside. The truth then becomes horrifying clear as the Japanese throw fuel canisters into the shelters and set them on fire immolating the helpless Americans trapped inside. A few men set on fire manage to run out of the shelters but they are quickly cut down by Japanese machine gun fire. It is after this scene that the title card "The Great Raid" comes up.
The movie then shifts to a scene on a beach on the main Philippine island on Luzon in late January of 1945. The film explains that the events depicted take place during the last 5 days of January of that year. Princes commentary continues telling us how they main landing on Luzon involved more than 250,000 men. It is at this point that he begins telling us about himself and his men. Prince introduces himself telling us how he was a graduate of Stanford University. He is now a part of Americas 6th Army Ranger Battalion. Although he does not feel overly confident in himself and his abilities to perform within the squad he acknowledges he has no choice. We then the Battalions leader, Col. Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt).Mucci is clearly a formidable leader with a somewhat impulsive nature and a surly and churlish personality. However, despite this he is an extremely competent and capable leader. We are then introduced to a few less prominent members of the battalion. These include Lieutenants Riley and Foley. We then see Mucci talking with a general (played by famed war film actor and real life Marine Dale Dye) about a prison camp near the city of Cabanatuan. This POW camp run by the Japanese holds around 500 American POWs. The General explains to Mucci that just recently over 100 American POWs were burned to death at the Palawan prison camp primarily because American forces were advancing towards the camp and the Japanese did not want them to be liberated. With American forces now advancing towards the area of Cabanatuan concerns are clearly being raised that an incident very similar to Palawan will be repeated if someone does not rescue the prisoners in time. They begin discussing plans for a rescue mission.
The scene then shifts to the Cabanatuan camp itself. Here we meet Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) an American POW who serves as sort of an unofficial leader of the POWs in the camp. We also meet his close friend Capt. Redding (Marton Csokas). The two discuss with other POWs the recent news that Americans have landed in the Philippines and that liberation seems imminent. However, both Gibson and Redding express their doubts and how "we were abandoned once by MacArthur". Their misgivings about the American forces seem to be reinforced by the rampant disease and famine afflicting the camp. Redding then asks Gibson about the love interest he had in the Philippines before he was taken prisoner, a woman named Margaret Utinsky. Apparently Utinsky was married to another man who never really loved her or treated her right. Then she met Gibson and the two had a fleeting relationship. Margarets husband later died in one of the Japanese POW camps. Gibson expresses his skepticism about her stating that he wonders if she even thinks about him after all this time. Gibson also knows that Margaret now works with the Philippine underground resistance and that she probably has more pressing matters on her mind then him. We then see Gibson and Redding with a group of Japanese soldiers outside the camp. They are part of a detail of manual labor used to transport food back to the camp (nearly all of which goes to the Japanese). Gibson bribes one of the Japanese soldiers to let him go off and get some food. However, Gibson really uses the opportunity to get medicine for the sick prisoners from a Filipino resistance contact.
We then move to a warehouse in the capital of Manila. Here we meet Margaret (Connie Nielsen). She is performing one of her clandestine duties for the underground meeting with a group of Filipino smugglers. Margaret is attempting to procure vital medicine for the men inside the camp along with her cohort in the underground Mina (Natalie Mendoza) and a group of fellow Filipino underground members in a truck. Margaret strikes a deal with the nefarious smuggler and everything seems OK, but as Margaret makes her way back to the truck to get the money she tells Mina her intuition tells her this is a setup. She quickly jumps in the truck with Mina and a shootout ensues between the two groups. Shortly after this we see a group of Japanese soldiers emerge from a concealed position in a truck. Margarets premonition was correct. We see them run into the warehouse and try to stop Margaret from escaping but she manages to drive the truck outside through the streets to safety.
We then shift back to the main Ranger force. Col. Mucci is addressing his men about the forthcoming rescue operation. He tells them that while they are superbly trained soldiers they still have yet to be combat proven and that this is their chance. He says that the men in that camp have suffered greatly and endured tremendous hardship and that it is their duty to bring them home and that he has complete faith in his men to get the job done. The men cheer him and we then move back to Margaret. She is now back with the fellow primary members of the Philippine underground. They believe there are Japanese moles within their ranks and it is no longer safe. Although they ask Margaret to get to safety Margaret tells them this is not an option while there are still men in the camps. In the end they all follow her lead and agree to keep the operations going. We then briefly go back to the Cabanatuan camp where Major Gibson and Capt. Redding see an American POW being dragged and beaten by the Japanese. Redding comments that he tried to sneak food from the Japanese carelessly. The Japanese tie the man to a pole and beat him relentlessly while the POWs look on in sorrow and disgust powerless to help him. After a few more brief scenes including one involving Lt. Riley convincing Capt. Prince to let him go on the operation despite the fact he is married and the leaders want to discourage married men from going we then move to the next day.
The next day Major Gibson and the other POWs wake up to an unexpected site. The Japanese guarding their camp are now leaving. At first the man are puzzled by this. Redding explains that all Japanese are committed to the principle of fighting to the last man and their former guards are now going off to take positions to fight the oncoming Americans. Some of the men including Redding want to immediately flee the camp. Gibson tells Redding this is a huge mistake. Even unguarded the area is still abounding with Japanese soldiers who will kill them on site. Redding still persists on trying. Gibson then asks Redding of what will become of the sick men who cannot move from the camp on their own if the healthier men try and flee and leave them behind. Redding says he is not very concerned about them and that this is why he never made too many friends at the camp beyond Gibson. Redding and the others go outside the camps fences and get the dead man who was tied to a post and beaten to death the previous day. They then break into the Japanese dining tents to take what food they can. Gibson and the other man discover a huge stockpile of Red Cross packages full of food. Gibson tells his fellow prisoners that the food was meant for them and that the Japanese were starving them on purpose.
We then see the men of the 6th Rangers heading off on their journey to the POW camp. They pass through a forest and come to an area brimming with thick tall grass. The Rangers carefully negotiate their way through this grassland until they come through to a road. The Americans remain under cover because a Japanese convoy is passing through the area. Some of these men are coming from the Cabanatuan camp. Capt. Prince tells Mucci they obviously cannot continue this way without giving themselves away. He suggests going to a point where a river they need to cross is more shallow and can be crossed. Mucci realizes that such an area of passage is likely to be heavily patrolled by Japanese but the men now have no choice.
We see Margaret going on about her business for the underground. She acquires more medicine from the Manila hospital where she works as a nurse. She then hides the drugs on herself and tried to leave. However, on her way out a group of Japanese soldiers storm the building and bring everyone outside. The Japanese bring out a Filipino woman who is obviously an informant. The informant picks out a bunch of people from the line who have been helping the resistance, but she does not give up Margaret. The people picked out are then shot. Margaret severely shocked and traumatized by the killings makes her way away from the hospital. Later she meets up with Mina again on the streets. However, Mina is visibly shaken. She tells Margaret that a Japanese agent is following her. Margaret gives Mina the medicine she is carrying and tells Mina to flee. She says if Mina can possibly get the medicine to the camp to try but if she cannot just to flee with family to the mountains. Margaret then sends Mina off and crashes into the man pursuing Mina and attempts to occupy him until Mina can leave the area. However, as Margaret leaves we see another man begin following her.
We then rejoin the men at the camp again; they are lounging around enjoying their seemingly newly received freedom when a whole new force of Japanese arrives. Redding says the men do not look like regular military. Gibson confirms this and says they are elite military police who perform the works attracts to keep the populace repressed. A Japanese officer comes upon them and shoots one of the American prisoners attempting to remove a radio from a Japanese barracks. One of the prisoners infuriated begins to charge the officer, but Gibson holds him back. The leader of the new group of Japanese Col. Mori tells the officer to not bother since all the POWs will be dead soon anyway.
Later on in the evening we see the American Rangers sneaking near a bridge at the river crossing that was discussed early. Many Japanese are patrolling near the area. One of them goes down to a river near the Rangers to collect some water. The Rangers realize the imminent danger they are in. The Japanese soldier hears one of them and goes near to investigate. The Americans cannot shoot him but one of the Rangers sneaks up behind the soldier and strangles him. The Rangers quickly vacate the area.
The next day we see Margaret who has now been taken by the Japanese. They are interrogating her. The main Japanese interrogator asks Margaret about her Filipino underground contacts. However, Margaret reveals nothing and adamantly maintains she is Lithuanian, which means she is from a neutral country. The Japanese officer pulls out a Bible and asks if its hers. He shows Margaret a photo of a man inside. It appears to be Major Gibson from the POW camp. He asks her how this man is connected to Margaret but she still reveals nothing.
The focus returns to the Rangers again. They are now approaching a Filipino village. They see a large group of the villagers standing near a smoky ditch. As the Rangers approach they meet Filipino Guerilla leader Pejota (Cesar Montano) who will play a prominent role in the rest of the film. Prince asks Pejota what happened and Pejota explains that the Japanese brought up a force with tanks to the village and killed around 100 villagers for them helping the guerillas. The soldiers look at the charred corpses of the villagers with disgust. They then spot some Alamo Scouts who are special American reconnaissance who operate behind enemy lines. The scouts tell Mucci and Price that the camp has been reinforced by more Japanese and that even more are arriving. Mucci tells the scouts to go back and attempt to ascertain exactly how many Japanese the Rangers are looking at. Pejota says Mucci might have to delay the rescue, but Mucci is obstinate in his belief this must go forward and says the men inside have had 3 years of delays.
We then move back to the POW camp again. Major Gibson who is now deathly ill with malaria is taken from his friend Redding and is brought before the new leader of the camp Col. Mori. He explains to Gibson that anyone who escapes will have ten men killed in his place. Mori shows Gibson a photo of Margaret and asks him about his connection to her. Mori realizes that Gibson is clearly quite fond of Margaret and he tells him that the Japanese is now holding her. He tells Gibson that if he can convince Margaret to give up her contacts in the Philippine underground he will allow both of them to leave the islands together. However, Gibson recognizes that if they are talking to him then Margaret clearly was given the same offer and gave them nothing. He refrains from going along. Mori asks if Gibson has any reason to see the war end. Gibson replies, "I want to see you surrender".
We come back to Margaret. She is being shackled in an extremely straining position. However, the Japanese come in and release her from her restraints. Margaret is surprised the Japanese are letting her go. However, on her way out she sees the bodies of Mina and several others. They have clearly been shot by the Japanese. Margaret is not completely overwhelmed by what has occurred and leaves the prison looking in a state of shock. The main Japanese officer tells another man to have her followed so she can lead them to the other resistance members.
Mucci and Prince meanwhile are discussing the layout of the operation and how they will use the Filipino guerillas. Pejota insists he and his men can cover the two bridges on either side of the camp while the Ranger force assaults the main camp. However, Mucci is skeptical of the guerillas abilities and is unyielding in his desire that the guerillas merely protect the flanks of the Rangers. However, the Alamo scouts return with even more bad news. Not only has the camp been further reinforced with numbers now reaching around 250. The bridges on either side of the camp now are being watched by around a thousand men each, Mucci and Prince go with a scout party to have a look and see that these reports are accurate.
Meanwhile back at the camp Redding is clearly now determined to make a real escape attempt. Gibson now clearly very indisposed by his illness warns Redding that if he does this, 10 men will be killed because of it. Redding again says this is why he never made many friends at the camp. Gibson tells one of the other prisoners to get two men to watch Redding so he cannot leave,
We then see Margaret with Father Connor. A Priest who is one of the key underground members. They are in his church, Margaret tells Connor about the death of Mina but Father Connor assures her it was not her fault and that now she must focus on escaping into the mountains. However, a group of Japanese arrive and Margaret is forced to quickly depart once again as the church is overrun by the Japanese. She narrowly manages to escape.
Rejoining the Rangers, Mucci now comprehending the tremendous odds the Rangers face agrees to give the Filipino guerillas under Pejota a much more essential role in the forthcoming rescue. He agrees to let Pejotas men hold the bridges that lead towards the camp. Mucci expresses apprehension about the ability of the Filipinos to hold the bridges since the Japanese have well-equipped forces including tanks. Pejota says that they merely need to plant explosives on the bridge. Mucci tells Pejota they dont have enough to blow the bridges. However, Pejota insists they only need enough so that the bridge sustains enough damage to make it impassible to tanks. Mucci then claims that the Japanese will then just go around and try and flank the guerillas, but Pejota contends that the Japanese will not do this because the Japanese always underestimate the Filipino Guerillas and disregard their abilities and that because of this they will simply charge them. Mucci and Prince concur with the plan and get ready to make final preparations.
Back at the camp in the morning the two men who were guarding Redding awake to see one of them fell asleep while he was supposed to be watching him and he is now gone. However, a truck quickly arrives and Redding is dragged from it. Remaining veracious to his word Mori has ten men dragged out from among all the prisoners. Gibson and the other men watch in revulsion as Redding and the other men are all methodically shot to death one by one. We then briefly see Margaret in a scene where she is trying to depart with a group of Filipino refugees to safety.
Now we rejoin Captain Prince for the final phase of the film, the raid itself. First Prince goes over to a bit of loose ground and begins drawing out a depiction of the POW camp into and begins laying out the strategy that the Rangers will employ. Essentially this involves surreptitiously crawling towards the camp from cover across largely flat, open ground until nightfall. Once in position just outside the camp the Rangers will take positions along all the side of the camp and lay down a heavy barrage of fire to neutralize most of the defenders using surprise and then move into the camp itself and secure the prisoners. Special attention is given to a building within the camp that apparently shelters a few tanks. A bazooka crew is assigned to obliterate this structure.
We then move to the actual raid. We see the Rangers moving in clandestine fashion towards the camp and then getting into position. Lt. Riley who has been assigned the first shot initially hesitates to ensure everyone is in position. During this time we see the Filipino guerrillas taking up their place near the bridges getting ready to lay down a withering fire upon the Japanese once the Americans have launched their assault.
Finally with everything assured Riley lays down the first shot and the action begins. What follows is a series of spectacular and frenetic battles. The Rangers initially open up on the Japanese who are caught completely unaware and vulnerable. And many are cut down before they can adequately respond. Away from the camp the Japanese near the bridges hear the commotion and begin to move towards the camp only to be halted by the proficiently placed guerilla positions. It goes back and forth between the two groups for a while. The Rangers press further into the camp with the bazooka team destroying the building housing the tanks. The guerillas blow the bridge and the Japanese try and charge headlong towards them only to be mercilessly cut down. Mucci takes a small team of Rangers and guerillas to intercept a small contingent of Japanese attempting to flank the guerillas, while Prince moves into the prisoner barracks to find the bewildered men and tell them their time to go home has finally come. Prince finds Major Gibson who looks like he is nearly ready to pass. He says he will carry Gibson out of the camp and tells the others to start proceeding to the main gate out.
Around this time most of the Japanese in the camp have been killed. However, Col. Mori is still alive. He finds another Japanese soldiers and a few others near a machine gun, He asks the Japanese soldiers if the mortar near him is still operational and the soldiers tells him it is. He uses the mortar to target the prisoners making their war towards the gate with Prince while the other soldier mans a machine gun. Mori fires off a few shells that land near the POWs. Lt. Riley who is near the mortar position sees this and he and another man rush in to assault the position. They kill a few Japanese near it and then begin putting fire on the main mortar position. Riley tells the man with him to put covering fire on it while he flanks it. The soldier putting covering fire on the machine gun kills its operator. However, Mori picks it up and goes after Riley. He gets near Riley and fire off a burst at him. However, Riley hides back behind the building he is near. He then gets under this structure and waits for Mori to pass. He points his sub-machine gun at him and tries to fire but to his consternation the weapon jams. Mori tries to shoot him but Riley jumps on him. A struggle ensues and Mori tries to kill Riley with a knife but Riley manages to grab with 45 automatic and shoot Mori. He then pumps several subsequent rounds into Mori to ensure the job is done. With the situation secured Major Prince at the main gate with a look of disbelief that his men have pulled it off then fires off a flare signaling the operation is over and its time to evacuate with a look of exhilaration.
The Rangers and prisoners escape back to American lines and everyone has a look of jubilation. Mucci goes to see to one of the Rangers who was wounded upon hearing of the death of another Ranger to a sniper. He tells the wounded man everyone got out OK. Later back at the main American camp we see Margaret who is looking for Major Gibson. She finds him but tragically discovers that Gibson has succumbed to his illness and is now deceased. She sobs over his body and one of the soldiers gives her a letter he wrote to her shortly before the raid commenced. In it he expresses (this is done with voice over by Fiennes) his love for her and his deep thanks for everything she not only did for him, but for all of them men at the camp and that she is owed a great amount of gratitude for giving them hope during the worst of times. We then see Mucci and Prince back with the General from the beginning. He congratulates them on their success and tells them this operation will bring great pride not only to the army but also to the American people. We then see Major Price walking away and his voice over from the beginning returns. He tells us that the operation may have had no significance to winning the overall war, but it had a more important purpose. Righting the wrong perpetuated against the POWs by leaving them behind and helping to restore the honor and pride of the American people they lost when the islands were surrendered. We then see some brief information set against archival footage explaining the end results of the raid. That well over 500 men were rescued and that Mucci and Prince both received the Distinguished Service Cross.
"Once again if you have the opportunity to catch this it is definitely a lot more satisfying than most other efforts this summer."
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