WASHINGTON – John Dahl's (search) career can be summed up in four words: good movies, bad timing.
Dahl does not dispute this characterization, which extends even to his latest project, the World War II drama "The Great Raid." (search)
The movie sat on the shelf for a year while Miramax co-founders Bob and Harvey Weinstein went through a messy public divorce from parent company Disney. Now, Miramax is releasing a spate of films before the Weinsteins leave the company Sept. 30.
"The Great Raid" hit theaters on Friday — mid-August not being the ideal time for a sober-minded period film with an ensemble cast (including Joseph Fiennes (search), Connie Nielsen, Benjamin Bratt and James Franco).
But Dahl isn't focused on the potential indifference of late-summer crowds. Rather, he feels fortunate to have made the film and to receive the praise of veterans who survived Japanese POW camps in the Philippines.
"Very few studios would say, 'Let's get that guy who did the poker movie ("Rounders"). Let's have him do a World War II film,'" Dahl said. "I remain grateful for the opportunity to do something that's completely different from the kind of films that I've done before."
Dahl had carved out a reputation as a master of contemporary film noir. His first three movies, "Kill Me Again" (1989), "Red Rock West" (1992) and "The Last Seduction" (1994), were stories of morally compromised men and dangerous, seductive femmes fatale, with guns and suitcases full of stolen cash.
But despite glowing reviews, none caught on with the public — largely because of circumstances beyond Dahl's control.
"Kill Me Again" played in one major market: San Francisco, in the aftermath of the 1989 earthquake. It quickly disappeared from theaters. The next two films were made amid turmoil at the studios that financed them, and each ended up being shown on cable before touring the festival circuit and creeping into commercial theaters.
Dahl's next film was "Unforgettable" (1996), a Ray Liotta vehicle that was anything but, followed by 1998's "Rounders." Talk about bad timing: The atmospheric drama about poker players, starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, was released about five years before Texas Hold 'Em exploded in popularity.
"Rounders" was not a big hit, but Dahl believes it helped sow the seeds of the current poker craze.
"I remember a few years ago seeing the World Series of Poker on ESPN, and thinking there is no way that Johnny Chan's face would be plastered all over ESPN" if not for his role in "Rounders," Dahl said.
After "Rounders," Dahl made the thriller "Joy Ride," with Steve Zahn and Paul Walker as brothers who get on the bad side of a psychotic trucker. Again, it got respectful reviews, but had the misfortune of being released less than a month after Sept. 11, 2001.
Shortly thereafter, Dahl turned his attention to the story of U.S. soldiers who were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines and survived the Bataan Death March — in which tens of thousands of American and Filipino troops were forced to march 65 miles with little food, water or rest — only to languish for three years in a POW camp before being rescued.
The original script for "The Great Raid" took plenty of dramatic license with an event that is not well-remembered today. But as Dahl began to speak with World War II veterans and military consultants, he decided that the truth was more compelling than anything a screenwriter could invent.
And he came upon his approach for "The Great Raid" — make it a throwback to World War II films, rejecting what he calls the "Vietnam sensibility" that has permeated so many war movies since that conflict.
It was a major adjustment for Dahl, 49, an admitted cynic whose dark sense of humor was the creative force behind his earlier tales of crime and treachery. He thought about the mindset of the soldiers who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
"About 5,000 U.S. soldiers died in about half an hour. And to go wading ashore into certain death like that, you had this feeling that somehow these people knew what was at stake. They knew the importance of what they were doing. ... There wasn't really any room for a noir sensibility there."
The raid of the title took place Jan. 31, 1945. So, Dahl said, "I wanted to make a movie and pretend as if Feb. 1, 1945, never happened, or any date after that. It was kind of like going back to that time period and making it as genuine to that time period as possible.
"In the '40s and '50s, action movies were war films. The conflict is obvious. You don't have to ask, `Is it really the right thing to do?'"
As a result, Dahl also eschewed plumbing the psychology of the soldiers. He stages a muted, understated conflict between the brash commanding officer Lt. Col. Henry Mucci (Bratt) and the cerebral Capt. Bob Prince (Franco) as they plan the raid.
"It would have been great to have them screaming at each other," Dahl said. But the reality is that there would be respectful disagreement between the two officers, and ultimately it's the colonel's say. "That's just the way the military works."
"The Great Raid" takes more artistic license in weaving the tale of Maj. Gibson (Fiennes), the highest-ranking of the surviving soldiers at Cabantuan prison camp, and Margaret Utinsky (Nielsen), the nurse who loves him — and who smuggles medicine and other supplies into the camp. Both characters are composites of real people.
On a recent morning in Washington, Dahl, the producers and members of the cast participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the World War II Memorial to commemorate the lives lost on Bataan and at Cabantuan.
Speaking to the crowd of about 200, producer Marty Katz said: "There is no Hollywood version of the story that can be better than what really happened. It was truly the most remarkable rescue in American history."
For Dahl, the enthusiastic response of veterans has been gratifying, and it has left him reluctant to return to his noir roots unless he can find a worthwhile challenge.
"I've been working on a script that's more like what I normally do. It's a group of guys who rob a bank ... they go to Mexico and then everything goes wrong. But this film has affected me in a lot of ways, so I'm not sure what I'm going to do next."