By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place
You know that Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is more resourceful
than your average Navy pilot from the get-go of Werner Herzog's Rescue
Dawn. He has a quartermaster onboard the aircraft carrier Ranger
make him a special sleeping bag of clear-plastic sheeting with a mesh
breathing space. He also has him sew a little pouch in his boot, where
he can hide his passport. Resourceful, yes, but that's of little help
when Dengler is shot down on his first bombing run over Laos. The plastic
sleeping bag helps him make it through the first night, but he's captured
the next day.
Based on the true story of the only U.S. pilot ever to escape from
one of North Vietnam's jungle prison camps, Rescue Dawn is Herzog's
second attempt at telling Dengler's remarkable saga. In 1997, Herzog
did a documentary about the pilot, whose childhood like Herzog's spanned
the rise and fall of the Third Reich. In both films Dengler recounts
how the sight of an American fighter pilot strafing his mountain hamlet
convinced him he had to be a flier. Fellow prisoner Duane (Steve Zahn)
marvels, "He tries to kill you and you want his job."
Dengler's first stop after his capture is a hamlet of a different
sort, where a Vietnamese interrogator encourages him to sign a confession
denouncing the war and his country. Dengler admits he joined the Navy
to fly planes, not to fight wars. Still he steadfastly refuses to sign,
resulting in some nasty torture scenes before he's hiked deeper into
the jungle. The tiny prison compound pits six prisoners, three of them
American, against a like number of Laotian guards.
Herzog doesn't belabor the obvious hardships. Rather he punctuates
harsh reality with flashes of Monty-Pythonesque black humor. Dengler's
stay in the camp lasts long enough for each of the 12 inmates (and,
indeed, the guards are as much prisoners of the jungle as are the real
POWs) to develop into a recognizable, unique human being. In some sense
the harrowing escape is anticlimactic.
Nonetheless, Dieter and his companion Duane deal with an ample amount
of perils--monsoon floods, unanticipated river rapids, hostile Laotian
peasants--to get the point across: the real prison was never the bamboo
stockade. It is, indeed, the jungle itself.
In Rescue Dawn the meaning most certainly is in the journey,
never the goal. We know Dengler makes it home. The force of will--the
will to laugh at adversity, to eat everything from live grubs to fresh
snake, to shift the only boot sole you own from one foot to the other--is
the power of the film itself. Asked at the end of the film what advice
he might give his shipmates, as they face perils of their own, he replies,
"Empty what is full and fill what is empty." After two hours
with Dieter Dengler in the air, in the camps and in the bush, somehow
you get that at the gut level.
Herzog not only directed. He also wrote the script. Who better to bring
us this epic tale than the filmmaker who has taken his fans into other
jungles, usually through the eyes of his favorite star and collaborator,
the late Klaus Kinsky. Kinsky's characters were usually obsessed by
some overwhelming passion that drove them into the heart of darkness.
Dengler's first obsession was with flying. His wings clipped, his second
obsession is with survival and, ultimately, freedom.
The film offers one twist. When at last he's rescued, Dengler at first
seems to have leaped from the frying pan into the fire. Two cardboard
CIA men take control of his person, declaring him a "matter of
national security." His second escape takes a little help from
some friends. Suffice to say that Dieter Dengler survives it all and,
according to a screen message at the close of the film, walks away from
four more plane crashes in his later career as a civilian test pilot.
This writer for one thought all the "big" Vietnam War movies
had been made: The Deer Hunter, Platoon, Apocalypse
Now, Full Metal Jacket. Herzog with this, his first Hollywood
film, has added a substantial entry to that list.
Rated PG-13 - For violence.