Combustible Celluloid

Interview with John Dahl

Making the 'Raid'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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San Franciscans know film noir, and we love filmmaker John Dahl. Back in 1994, after Columbia/TriStar had virtually abandoned Dahl's film Red Rock West, the Roxie Cinema opened the film for an unlimited run. Even after its home video debut weeks later, the film continued to do boffo business on the big screen, becoming one of the biggest hits in the Roxie's history.

"San Francisco saved my movie," Dahl says on a recent visit to the City. "My agent at the time said something like, 'if it weren't for that showing in San Francisco, you probably wouldn't have a career.'"

Dahl continued to make tough little nuggets in the crime genre, notably The Last Seduction (1994) and Rounders (1998). But there comes a time when everyone moves on, and Dahl has re-appeared with a new film, The Great Raid, a painstakingly detailed depiction of the rescue of American POWs from the Japanese prison camp at Cabanatuan in the Philippines in 1945. These were the soldiers that languished for almost the entire war, after having survived the infamous Bataan Death March.

The Great Raid opens with a huge collection of shocking archival footage, including footage of a Japanese woman jumping off a cliff to avoid capture by the Americans. Dahl explains that they had been indoctrinated by their military to believe that Americans were going to rape, pillage and destroy the Japanese countryside.

"When the G.I.s started handing out candy bars, it was mind-numbing," he says.

Unlike the films he saw during his youth, Dahl says that it's hard to make an old-fashioned, gung-ho war film today. "The war film now is more complicated because it's more deeply felt. When Die Hard came out in the 80s, it set a new tone for action movies. A war film doesn't really need to be that anymore. War is very complicated because you've got two distinct points of view that are so different that people feel like the only way they can really resolve it is to go out someplace and kill each other."

The filmmaker went one step further by focusing on a relatively untouched chapter of the war, complete with evil Japanese tormentors. "I don't think it's ever been PC to have Japanese bad guys," Dahl says. "People have a bad reaction to it, or they feel like it's inaccurate. It's largely due to the fact that we just don't talk about it. The biggest mistake you can make is to forget about it, or put it behind you."

July 19, 2005

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