“Rescue Dawn” - Werner Herzog (2006)


Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (2006) covered the same territory as his earlier outstanding documentary film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998), but now in a fully dramatized format. The subject matter concerns the extraordinary and true experience of German-American Dieter Dengler, who was captured as a prisoner of war in the US-Viet Nam War and somehow managed to survive the horrific conditions of that experience.

As always with Herzog, there is a fascination here with doom and profound existential loneliness, which is why he is a master of expressionistic horror cinema, both in the fiction and documentary film genres. In many of those cases, Herzog places his characters in an expressionistic environment where the threatening antagonistic element is even difficult to identify.  Often the protagonist exhibits extraordinary resolve in the face of these daunting circumstances.


Little Dieter Needs to Fly provides some backstory material concerning how Dengler came to America from Germany at the age of 18 and his attempts to satisfy his passion of becoming a pilot, which eventually led to his enlisting in the US Navy. But Rescue Dawn omits any such background information and starts with Dengler’s assignment to an aircraft carrier squadron in late 1965, where he was assigned to participate in the clandestine US bombing missions over Laos [1].  Throughout the film the focalization is exclusively on Dengler.  On an early bombing mission, his plane was shot down and crashed in the jungle.  Dengler had no time to bail out and wound up crashing with the plane, but somehow he survived the crash.

He is quickly captured and tied up by Pathet Lao guerillas, who first beat and torture him and then force-march him over some distance across the Laotian terrain to reach a jungle prison camp run by the guerillas but under the command of the North Vietnamese army. There he discovers that he has some fellow inmates: two other Americans and three Thais [2]. They have been prisoners for some time – some of them for more than two years -- and it is immediately evident from their emaciated condition and demoralized, neurotic behaviour that the conditions of confinement are unbearable. Dengler tells them he intends to escape, but his fellow prisoners advise him that survival prospects outside in the jungle are even worse than in the prison. In any case, survival would be impossible before the rainy season commences, which is months away. 

So Dengler bides his time and schemes. He craftily uses a filed nail to pick the prisoners’ handcuff locks in preparation for their planned future breakout, which can only be carried out at a specific moment in just the right circumstances.  As time passes, conditions become worse.  There is apparently a drought, and the prison staff are suffering from lack of food, too.  The prisoners are reduced to eating worms [3].  One of the Thai prisoners who could understand the Laotian language overhears the prison guards discuss their intentions of returning to their home villages in order to find food for their families.  To enable them to leave the prison, they plan to take the prisoners out into the jungle the next day and kill them all, making it look like there was a  rebellion, so that there will be nor further need for prison guards.  So Dengler and the prisoner decide to carry out their planned escape immediately. 

With careful timing, Dengler and fellow prisoner Duane Martin steal the guards’ guns, shoot most of the guards, and then head off into the jungle. The other prisoners move out in other direction [4].  Dengler’s plan is for himself and Martin to build a raft and float down tributary rivers that lead into the Mekong river and eventual safe haven in Thailand. But they soon find this won’t work and barely avoid getting swept to crashing death over a waterfall. In the meantime they out of food, are getting eaten alive by insects and leaches, and are suffering from malaria. When they finally stumble into a Laotian village and kneel down before the residents begging for food, one of the frightened villagers runs up with his machete and beheads the kneeling Duane Martin. Dengler goes berserk at the horror, and amazingly, the villagers run away temporarily.  This gives Dengler just enough time to escape into the jungle again. 

Finally, and very luckily after 23 days in the jungle, Dengler was able to signal an overflying US plane, and a helicopter was brought in to rescue Dengler by dropping a rope and lifting him to safety. The final scenes show the emaciated Dengler being attended to by US healthcare workers and then being triumphantly welcomed back in front of his Navy shipmates.

As confirmed by the information provided in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the material provided in Rescue Dawn is not exaggerated and is carefully based on fact [5]. It’s interesting to compare the two films in terms of the degree to which they convey reality. After all, every film is necessarily an interpretation of reality by the narrative creator, and here we have two narratives that were created by the same auteur about the same subject and sequence of events but in different formats [6]. Of the two, Rescue Dawn is more concrete, and it instantiates in real, physical imagery what is only more or less talked about in a schematic fashion in Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Yet, for me, the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly is more horrifying and ultimately more disturbing.  Even though the awful events outlined orally in the documentary are given instantiated, physical presence in Rescue Dawn, the viewer’s empathic feeling of horror can be even worse when he or she imagines it, as one must do when watching the documentary. Also, Herzog's overall tone in Little Dieter Needs to Fly has more sombre overtones. 

Rescue Dawn’s immersion of existential loneliness in the real, physical world also points to why it is superior to Life of Pi (2012).  Both films involve an isolated young man in a savage environment who must rely on his own will and resources in order to survive.  Both films demand and evoke belief in a potential positive outcome in the face of near impossible odds.  But Rescue Dawn’s reality-based grounding make us believe more than do the artificial contrivances of Life of Pi.

Note that the presentation of Dieter Dengler as an amazingly resourceful and relentlessly positive personality in Rescue Dawn is confirmed by what is shown in Little Dieter Needs to Fly.  So Christian Bale’s generally congenial and upbeat portrayal of Dengler in Rescue Dawn is not just a Hollywood softening of brutal conditions – Dengler was really like that. In general, the acting performances are very good, particularly that of Steven Zahn as the prisoner, Duane Martin. But Herzog did choose to omit some scenes from the final cut of Rescue Dawn that were particularly gruesome, such as the occasion when a North Vietnamese commander peremptorily cut off the beringed finger of a Laotian villager so that he could return the stolen ring to Dengler [7].

Nevertheless, Herzog went to considerable length to portray reality, as he saw it.  The filming was done in Thailand, so that the actors could experience the true native bush of Dengler’s ordeal. This contributed to the authentic sense of a claustrophobic and impenetrably clogged jungle that Dengler had to pass through. Herzog even had his actors undergo massive weight losses so that they were truly emaciated when filmed in the prison [8]. There are no subtitles offered for the Laotian language spoken in the film – the (non-Laotian) viewer must make out of what is spoken in those exchanges in just the way that the protagonist Dengler had to do.

Despite the killing, the pain, the anguished suffering, and the hopeless brutality of war, Rescue Dawn comes off as surprisingly positive.  Dengler was one of only a handful of soldiers to escape and survive a Vietnamese POW camp.  But Herzog is a poet, and this is not a typical war film.  The music by Klaus Badelt offers a further haunting and reflective counterpoint to what goes on visually.
★★★ 

Notes:
  1. For further information about Dengler’s experiences, see the review of Little Dieter Needs to Fly: http://www.filmsufi.com/2012/06/little-dieter-needs-to-fly-werner.html.
  2. In Little Dieter Needs to Fly, there were four Thai inmates, but for pragmatic reasons Herzog decided to reduce the number in Rescue Dawn to three.
  3. Christian Bale actually did eat the worms shown in the film.
  4. The fates of most of them were never known. 
  5. But some of specifics concerning the depiction of prison inmate Eugene Debruin have been challenged, and Herzog has accepted that this characterization was probably an unintended misrepresentation.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugene_DeBruin.
  6. In both cases the story told to us is based on the story that Dieter Dengler told to himself and then told to others.
  7. This event is mentioned in Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and it was something that afterwards evidently haunted Dengler all his life.
  8. For Christian Bale this must have been a real roller coaster ride in dieting.  He had lost 27 kilograms in preparation for his performance in The Machinist (2004), then put on 45 kilograms to bulk up for his next performance in Batman Begins (2005).  Then he had to go back down again.

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