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Quirky filmmaker soldiers on

John Dahl, the master of noir, crafts a traditional war movie in "The Great Raid."

"The raid was so successful," John Dahl was saying, "that at the movie's first test screenings, audiences wouldn't believe it. We had to add titles at the end telling them it was a true story."

The titles come at the end of Dahl's new film "The Great Raid," and they summarize the results of a 1945 rescue mission when 120 Army Rangers and 250 Philippine guerrillas staged a surprise attack on the Japanese POW camp at Cabanatuan. The prisoners, 511 of them, were freed. The dead: 21 Filipinos, two Americans (one of them a freed prisoner), about 250 Japanese in the camp and another 650 at a nearby bridge.

The movie's ads call it "the most daring rescue operation of our times." The challenge: Move the Rangers and their guerrilla partners through Japanese-controlled territory, creep across an open field by daylight, make the final approach at night and stake everything on the element of surprise. There was another, more famous rescue raid in the Philippines at about the same time (2,146 prisoners were freed from a Japanese POW camp at Los Banos), but the Cabanatuan raid, smaller and more desperate, is ideal for a war movie: We understand the strategy, we follow the progress of the raid, we can keep track of individual leaders.

The movie, which opens Friday on about 800 screens, is a stark contrast to the silliness of the new high-tech action movie "Stealth," in which three Navy pilots and four airplanes mop up enemies in Tajikistan and Burma and rescue a downed pilot in North Korea. If only it were that simple. Dahl has made a well-crafted classic war movie, in which special effects are minimal and the focus is on soldiers and strategy.

The movie stars Benjamin Bratt as Col. Henry Mucci, who leads a Ranger battalion he calls "the best-trained soldiers in the Army." Well-trained, yes, but inexperienced; for many, the raid is their first action. James Franco (from "Spider-Man") is Capt. Bob Prince, his point man, and Cesar Montano plays Capt. Juan Pajota, a Filipino hero who leads the guerrillas. These three characters are from real life, and so is Margaret Utinsky (Connie Nielsen), an American nurse who stays in Manila during the war and is a resistance leader. But the role of Maj. Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), leader of the POWs, seems to be a fictional composite. Utinsky and Gibson are depicted as in love, but since they barely meet during the movie, the romance doesn't sidetrack the action as it did in the ludicrous "Pearl Harbor."

For director Dahl, "The Great Raid" represents a U-turn from the kinds of movies he had been making. Carefully and clearly told, "old fashioned" in the best sense of the word, the movie is a contrast to four earlier Dahl movies I admired enormously: "Red Rock West," "The Last Seduction," "Rounders" and "Joy Ride." The first two were modern, twisted noirs, "Rounders" was a thriller about poker and other matters, and "Joy Ride" was an extended combination of horror and a chase.

Dahl is still a little puzzled about why Miramax approached him to make the war movie. But he understands the timing. He showed "Joy Ride" at the Toronto Film Festival two days before 9/11. He flew to Los Angeles on 9/10. The terrorist attack perhaps made a film about traditional American military heroism more attractive than it might have seemed a few days earlier.

The screenplay, by Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, is based on the books The Great Raid on Cabanatuan, by William B. Breuer, and Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides. "At the time, Universal had optioned Ghost Soldiers," Dahl said, "so it was a question of who would make their film first. Harvey Weinstein got the rights away from Universal, and we were a go."

In earlier drafts of the story, Dahl said during a Chicago visit, a fictional raid was staged by 12 American heroes. In another version, the Filipino hero Cesar Montano was replaced by a Caucasian, who would be easier to cast with a movie star. All of those drafts were dumped in favor of the more realistic approach.

"We thought it was important to show what a crucial role the Filipinos played," he said. "There were things we didn't have time for in the movie -- for example, the total cooperation of the rural people, who rounded up all the dogs so they wouldn't bark and betray the silent troops. And the way hundreds of ox carts were quietly readier, to carry away the freed prisoners."

Dahl said there were a few facts he had to change. "A lot depends on the ditch where the raiders take cover before the attack. It was only 30 yards outside the prison fence, but that looked too close to audiences -- because, of course, we had to add fictional searchlights in order to shoot at night. The real raid took place during a complete blackout. So we moved the ditch back to 300 yards."

Another nod to storytelling techniques was the obligatory Chalk Talk Scene, done with a map drawn with a stick in the dust. Of course the raiders would already be well-briefed, but such scenes are necessary so the audience can follow the action.

The movie represents, for Dahl, yet another chance of breaking through to wide audiences. I can't think of another director whose films have been more praised by critics while being less embraced by audiences. "Red Rock West" (1992) was a labyrinthine noir starring Nicolas Cage as a job seeker who is mistaken for a hit man; a climactic scene in a cemetery is a classic combination of plotting, timing and gallows humor. "The Last Seduction" (1994) starred Linda Fiorentino in an unforgettable performance as a femme fatale who deceives her husband, steals $1 million from a cocaine deal she talked him into, goes on the lam, and then seduces a small-town patsy into being her fall guy.

"Rounders" (1998) starred Matt Damon as a onetime card shark who returns to poker to pay the debts of an old friend (Edward Norton) whose life is threatened by a Russian Mafioso (John Malkovich). "Joy Ride" (2001) is an extended chase thriller with Paul Walker, Steve Zahn and Leelee Sobieski; they play a trick on a trucker named Rusty Nail, who makes them very sincerely regret it.

"Red Rock West" and "The Last Seduction" bombed at the box office, and the other two grossed less than $30 million. There are perhaps reasons; "Red Rock West" was "funny but not a comedy, had action but was not an action picture," Dahl said, and the studio so lacked confidence in "The Last Seduction" that it was headed for video before a few good reviews won it a brief theatrical run.

These were all strong, exciting movies; Dahl has directed movies that should have been big hits except that, well, they weren't. He is philosophical. He recalls his start in life: "I was born in Billings, Mont. [in 1956]. My parents encouraged me to go to art school. I wasn't very good at fine art, so I switched to commercial art. I wasn't very good at that, either. I went into billboards. Nothing much happened. Animation. Same story. In 1982 I was accepted by the American Film Institute, in their second class. I got into directing. Francis Coppola liked my first film, 'Kill Me Again,' and that's how I got his nephew Nic Cage to appear in my second film. And so on. The way I look at, for a kid from Montana to even get to make movies is pretty good."

Perhaps "The Great Raid" will be his breakthrough. If word gets around that it is intelligent and gripping and not a dumb action picture, it may. If not, well, he's been able to show it to about 75 of the 100 living survivors of Cabanatuan. "They're all in their 80s now. They were told after the war that they wouldn't live past 40 because of the POW experience. Actually, that low-fat, low-calorie, high-fiber diet and all the hard labor they did was good for them. Now, with this movie coming out, the local paper will call them one more time. People will be reminded of what an amazing thing they did."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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