Heroism and humanity in untold rescue story

Anyone who loves movies based on actual events will find “The Great Raid” a thrilling and inspiring drama. The story is based on the great raid on Cabanatuan, the daring exploit that liberated more than 500 U.S. prisoners of war from the Bataan Death March in 1942.

“The rescue was one of the most spectacular rescue missions ever to take place in American history,” said Director John Dahl (“Rounders,” “Unforgettable”). Based on the books “The Great Raid on Cabanatuan” by military historian William Breuer and “Ghost Soldiers” by Hampton Sides, this gripping film highlights the heroism of a small band of American soldiers during World War II.

The film is set three years after the Japanese Imperial Army imprisoned the 500 soldiers following the departure of General MacArthur from the Philippines.

Lieutenant Colonel Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) at the 6th Army Headquarters in nearby Luzon, is aware that 150 U.S. soldiers at nearby camp Palawan were forced into trenches, doused in gasoline and set on fire. He’s determined to rescue the prisoners of war at Cabanatuan even though his men are heavily outnumbered.

He assigns Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco of “Spiderman” and “The Company”) to lead the raid. While he and Mucci often disagree about the plan, Mucci knows that Prince is a brilliant military man. They recruit members of the Filipino resistance led by Capt. Juan Pajota (Cesar Montano), who becomes a valuable resource to the troops.

Mucci loves a good challenge, and Bratt (“Catwoman,” “The Woodsman”) plays him perfectly. He is often convinced his way is the only way, but he’s clever enough to know when to give in.

At the prison, Major Gibson (Joseph Fiennes) is weakened by malaria but determined that his men will survive. He risks his life over and over when he smuggles in medicines from Margaret (Connie Nielsen), a Catholic aid worker who has been assisting the Filipino Underground. Margaret and Gibson are actually in love with each other, but unable to do anything about their feelings in their present situation.

The sick and malnourished Gibson is one step from the grave, but he refuses to give up. Joseph Fiennes (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Enemy At The Gates”) lost a lot of weight under a doctor’s supervision for the role and is remarkable in his portrayal of Gibson. His character’s human resilience and long-lasting hope is vividly and genuinely brought to screen.

“The Great Raid” is not the typical John Dahl story, but he had an intimate connection to the story. His father, a World War II soldier, participated in the liberation of the Philippines.

“My father fought in the Philippines, so I was immediately attracted to the story,” Dahl said. “But, it also seemed to me that this was a really important untold story from World War II that had been shuffled to the back pages and ultimately forgotten.”

Dahl said the film teaches a lesson that could be valuable to Americans today.

“What I really liked about this movie is that it reveals that freedom often comes with a price of sacrifice,” he said. “And I also think it shows how our country has been able in the times of greatest need to really go deep and overcome huge obstacles. We did it in Cabanatuan and we will do it again when needed in the future.”

Dahl said he made some surprising discoveries while making the film.

“I learned just how heroic soldiers are,” he said. “I asked myself if there was a conflict today where men would storm a wall of bullets knowing they would die, like they did in WWII, where everyone knew it was an important day, a moment in history and they all had a small role to play in it, would future generations have the stomach for something that WWII generations did without hesitation? Now that I’ve met so many military men and women, I know they do. I just don’t know if the public does.”

The actors were sent through a boot camp and had a military adviser on the set.

“We made the boot camp a part of making the movie,” Dahl said. “The entire organization did a fantastic job. We sent 120 cast members to a special 10-day training session in Queensland, Australia, under the command of the legendary Capt. Dale Dye (adviser on “Platoon”), a retired Marine Captain and a military advisor. We had to know how to best portray the military, and that means Dale Dye.”

Anyone who sees this film will be awed by the performances of the cast, and spellbound by the depth of the story.

“The Great Raid” is playing at AMC La Jolla 12.