Daring rescue comes to the big screen

Director John Dahl tells the story of the largestever U.S. military rescue in ‘Raid’

Steven Snyder

It’s clear from the most basic synopsis of “The Great Raid” that enough drama exists behind the real story to warrant a movie – or two or three.

But according to director John Dahl, the major force behind the film’s final and more historically accurate version was the terroristic violence of Sept. 11, 2001.

Regarding the U.S. offensives in the Philippines during World War II and the historic raid on Canatuan, “The Great Raid” recreates the largest-ever U.S. military rescue operation with acute detail. The operation involved the rescue of more than 500 U.S. prisoners of war by a coalition of U.S. soldiers, Filipino soldiers and ordinary citizens in the antiwar underground.

While there is immense suspense and excitement to be found in the details of the real events, Dahl said the earlier version of the film’s script took greater artistic freedom with the historic account of events. The first copy of the script was created and read before the terrorist attacks in New York, he said.

“But once I realized it was based on real events, I asked the studio to send me the books, and I read those after Sept. 11th, (2001),” he said. “Miramax is based only blocks from Ground Zero, and as they were digging out, we started work on this film.”

It was then that Dahl and his distributor, Miramax Films, decided to rework the story into a script that was more closely tied to the real, incredible stories of these prisoners and their liberators.

He said the decision to helm this ambitious and historical epic was both personal and professional. His father fought in the Philippines, as did his mother’s cousin, and he said he felt his family’s history tied back directly to the stories of that place and time.

Professionally, as the former director of “The Last Seduction,” “Rounders” and “Joy Ride,” he was ready for the challenge of something bigger.

“What film student wouldn’t want to take on the challenge of this massive, military epic?” he said.

To tell this revised, more faithful recreation of the military rescue, the film’s cast – including Benjamin Bratt, James Franco and Robert Mammone – attended a 10-day boot camp to simulate the feeling of being imprisoned. Many of the actual men involved in the raid of Canatuan suffered for more than three years before being rescued by comrades they assumed had forgotten about them.

The film’s climax – the actual raid on Canatuan – was faithfully reconstructed by the film’s production team, and Dahl said one of the film’s biggest challenges was cutting between the film’s three earlier subplots while maintaining the suspense building up to the final firefight.

About a wartime rescue operation organized by an elite team of rangers, “The Great Raid” finds itself a rather timely release in a period of worldwide aggression.

Released during a time of war for U.S. forces abroad and only weeks after a team of Navy SEALs were killed in Afghanistan, and not far removed from the recent London bombings, “The Great Raid” is the first explicit war film released in a year when even most mainstream summer films seem acutely aware of world affairs.

Dahl, though, sees it as just coincidence.

“When you make a film, you work in kind of a vacuum, and who knows what will happen even over the next few weeks that will affect how people read this movie,” he said.

But he said he’s glad the film rings as a patriotic tribute to the “humble men” of the second World War

“I wanted it to be patriotic,” he said. “I love this country, and these men did incredible things. And now they’re getting older, and they deserve to be recognized.”