On first glance, The Raid feels like a punchier, B-grade version of John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959). In time, it winds up being a fairly apt descriptor. The fact that the other Civil War piece is a lumbering giant gives The Raid an unpretentious edge. Because in the casting department it still has a fine ensemble to work with, despite its humble production values. When Lee Marvin is your fourth bill, the prospects for an absorbing experience are great.
Likewise, the story grabs hold of the real-life events, taking a few artistic liberties, but honing in on an interesting theme. It begins as a mere mission movie — a vehicle for revenge — only to evolve into something more nuanced and ultimately, heartbreaking. This time we see the action from the other side, beginning on September 26th, 1864. These are not rogue Union cavalry looking to wreak havoc but renegade Rebels preparing to break out of their prisoner-of-war camp.
In essence, we have Stalag 17 meeting not only The Horse Soldiers but some amalgamation of The Professionals and The Dirty Dozen, except, again, we are working within budget constraints.
Major Neal Benton (Van Heflin) is the calculating ringleader, who gets his men across the border to Canada in order to plot out the next plan of action. The Raid becomes a story of infiltration, watching and waiting for the best moment to strike. The man sent ahead to do the recon is of course Benton. He dons his best gentlemanly duds to make the necessary arrangement and takes on the name Neal Swayze as part of the masquerade.
News of General Sherman’s march to the sea stokes the flames kindling behind their ire. The purpose becomes twofold. They want to avenge their brothers-in-arms as much as they want to become a thorn in their enemy’s side. Their spot of choice is the Northern oasis of St. Albans. The undercover Rebel makes acquaintance with the local bank owner (Will Wright) and finds agreeable domicile in the home of a war widow.
Anne Bancroft’s role is not altogether demanding as she plays the docile love interest. Regardless, she does this well, even getting a few moments to assert herself. After all, she is the enemy with a human face and we care for her as much as we do for Heflin. This equal footing is key. It causes a schism because alliances have been split. We begin to understand the deep fissures running through the ravaged society.
Even with the mistrusting Captain Lionel Foster (Richard Boone), it’s less about him thinking the other man is traitor and more so, his belief Swayze is elbowing in on his territory. After all, he’s known Katie Bishop far longer. He’s protective of her.
So with time, these relationships grow and Swayze receives a generous amount of acceptance. Soon the Confederate forces slip into town incognito, ready to tear it apart and hit the Yankees where it’ll hurt — in their pocketbooks. An auction of scavenged Rebel goods boils the outsider’s blood. It instigates a contentious bidding war that he finally diffuses. It’s not yet the time for action.
Lee Marvin, forever the loose cannon, all but blows their cover, threatening to set off a disastrous chain reaction. After going on an alcoholic binge, he gets it together just in time to stumble into the local sanctuary of worship. Their hard-sought plans look perilously close to being spoiled. Swayze steps out of the house of God a local legend and feeling even more like a heel.
As such, The Raid is this strange jolting empathy machine. This crisis of conscience comes to bear because the enemy has surprised him and welcomed him into the fold as a fellow human being. Of course, he can barely look them in the eye much less take their generosity, knowing full-well what he has been commissioned to do — completely obliterate their homes.
After all, their soldiers did little better to his home in the South. If we were simply to go by the eye-for-an-eye mentality, and the fact this is wartime, he has more than a right. However, this does not make the endeavor any easier. On top of the logistical elements, Northern troops patrolling through, and the need for stealth and efficiency, all of a sudden he has to deal with complicated relationships.
In the form of the widow Anne Bancroft and her precocious son, the local banker Will Wright, and even the standoffish Richard Boone. He starts to soften to these folks. The most impressive evolution is with Captain Foster. He shows a vulnerability and an ultimately retained dignity as the plot progresses. He would be so easy to villainize because Boone, Marvin, and Claude Akins were so good at those parts. And yet they can all be in this picture and function differently. Boone actually comes out looking extraordinarily sympathetic.
The fact that these characters become more and more like human beings, makes his mission all the more perplexing. This very element gets at the core dissonance of the Civil War because we were literally turning brother-against-brother, sometimes across arbitrary lines of distinction.
What this film suggests is that we have more bringing us together than separating us. Still, we stand doggedly to our presuppositions. Certainly, we cannot downplay the crucial issue of slavery (though it doesn’t play into this tale at all), but I think there are already some intriguing implications.
The line between feelings and duty become perilous roads to traverse. Van Heflin, while never the classically handsome lead, had something far more compelling. There’s an inherent honesty within his stock. He can be genial, pragmatic, even harsh and unfeeling. Whatever he is you never feel like he’s being inauthentic as both hero and villain. This ability carries the picture’s emotional core opposite Bancroft and the stellar troop around them.
Events run their course and yet there is an unquestionable toll to them. A war picture often fails if we don’t feel abhorrence for the violence. But there also needs to be a human connection. The Raid somehow manages both with relative ease. Movies such as this never grow tiresome because they carry with them an invigorating life, in spite of the inherent restrictions hoisted upon them.