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To Bataan and Back

The critics have misunderstood The Great Raid's greatness.

12:00 AM, Aug 19, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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LAST FRIDAY The Great Raid opened in theaters. The notices that greeted the film weren't mixed; they were almost uniformly negative, as exhibited by the collection of reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. But these reviews are utterly misguided.

The movie begins with an abbreviated account of the Bataan Death March. It then tells three intertwined stories: the imprisonment of the American soldiers who survived the march and were incarcerated at the Japanese POW hellhole of Cabanatuan, the tale of the Filipino underground, and the rescue mission of the film's title. It is a good movie with cinematic flaws. For instance, The Great Raid would have been improved by dropping one of the plot strands in order to focus the story and by having a script doctor scrub the dialogue. Nevertheless, the film tells an important story well. This story, as Henry Kissinger might say, has the additional advantage of being true. And moreover, this story is patriotic, inspirational, moving, and remarkably free of political correctness. The Great Raid is a movie out of joint with the times; perhaps this accounts for the critics' blinkered reviews.

Take, for example, Stephen Holden's review in the New York Times. Holden writes:

About the only thing to be said on behalf of The Great Raid, a tedious World War II epic that slogs across the screen like a forced march in quicksand, is that it illustrates a depressing similarity between reckless war-mongering and grandiose moviemaking. Historical films with vainglorious ambitions, like ill-fated imperial ventures, often overlook the human factor, a miscalculation that usually results in a rout.

On the other hand, Holden dismisses one of the film's great strengths in a single sentence:

The story meticulously re-enacts the against-all-odds liberation of 500 American prisoners of war from the heavily guarded Japanese camp at Cabanatuan, in the Philippines, by a band of untested American soldiers in January 1945.

One might think that this alone would be enough to warrant commendation, but apparently not. Another sentence in Holden's review sticks out:

Its scenes of torture and murder also unapologetically revive the uncomfortable stereotype of the Japanese soldier as a sadistic, slant-eyed fiend.

Contrary to Holden's implication, however, the brutalization of American soldiers by the Japanese has never been faithfully depicted in a big-budget Hollywood film. In fact this faithful depiction of the Japanese treatment of American POWs in the Pacific shows that the "uncomfortable stereotype" of Hollywood has failed to do justice to the depths of Japanese military depravity during World War II. That The Great Raid earns Holden's criticism on this ground itself suggests that it is a notable and worthy film.

ACCORDING TO HISTORIAN RONALD SPECTOR, 40 percent of the 20,000-odd American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines captured by the Japanese at the surrender of the Philippines died in captivity. (Spector adds: "Nine years later a survey found that of the men who had fought in the Bataan campaign, only one out of seven was still alive in 1954.") American soldiers held by the Japanese met with simply incomprehensible cruelty and mistreatment. David Gelernter has succinctly described "the bestiality of the Japanese":

The Japanese army saw captive soldiers as cowards, lower than lice. If we forget this we dishonor the thousands who were tortured and murdered, and put ourselves in danger of believing the soul-corroding lie that all cultures are equally bad or good. Some Americans nowadays seem to think America's behavior during the war was worse than Japan's--we did intern many loyal Americans of Japanese descent. That was unforgivable--and unspeakably trivial compared to Japan's unique achievement, mass murder one atrocity at a time.