The History Place - Movie Review

Rescue Dawn

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.

Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost and Associate Legal Counsel at Rider University and a 2007-08 Academic Fellow on Terrorism of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies..

Rescue Dawn - Official Website
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