Originally scheduled for a 2003 release, The Great Raid has been kicking around Miramax's schedule like an unwanted football. It didn't deserve such a fate. Director John Dahl's film is a well-produced, rousing feature based on one of those forgotten World War II episodes that make for great cinema.

The Great Raid takes place in January 1945, with U.S. forces about to re-take the Philippines from the Japanese. The order has come down from Japanese military headquarters that all American P.O.W.s are to be killed, so the U.S. Army decides to form a raiding party to rescue 500 G.I.s held at the Cabanatuan P.O.W. camp.

At this point, shortly into the film, The Great Raid splits its story up into three parts: There's the preparation for the raid, featuring Benjamin Bratt as a tough-talking commander and James Franco as the Stanford-educated ROTC grad who plans the whole exercise; the inside story of the P.O.W. camp, where Joseph Fiennes attempts to keep morale up, even as his men starve and are brutalized by their Japanese jailers; and finally there's the anti-Japanese underground in Manila, where nurse Connie Nielsen heads a group trying to smuggle much-needed food and medicine to the occupants of Cabanatuan.

All these strands are woven together surprisingly well under Dahl's strong hand, an even more impressive feat given that for most of the film, there's very little combat action. Instead, The Great Raid focuses on character, incident and mood, and doesn't get to the big shootout (well-handled and exciting) until the last half-hour of the picture. To add to the emotional impact, the film ends with historic footage of the P.O.W.s right after their release, including shots of the real characters played by Franco, Bratt and Nielsen.

Viewers prone to assessing films from a p.c. context should be forewarned, however: The Great Raid's depiction of the Japanese military is something straight out of a World War II propaganda film, with all the "Japs" portrayed as uniformly brutal and sadistic. Of course, given the real history of Japan's wartime atrocities, and the current inability of the Japanese to come to grips with their past, this might not be so offensive after all.
-Lewis Beale