July 27, 2007, - 5:25 am

“Rescue Dawn”: Movie of the Year

By Debbie Schlussel
**** UPDATE, 08/16/07: “Rescue Dawn” Defames Heroic POW Gene DeBruin. Read my update column on how this movie wasn’t what I originally thought. ****
Every American needs to see “Rescue Dawn,” in theaters nationwide today.
If it’s the only film you see this year, you’ve done yourself a great service. It is the best movie of the year.
The silver screen story of Dieter Dengler–a Navy pilot shot down over Laos and imprisoned in a Viet Cong-allied Pathet Lao POW camp–is not only a great movie.
It is patriotic, heroic, inspiring, and a primal adventure. It is the story of incredible survival against all odds, and the story of a man who refused to denounce his adopted country, the United States of America, risking his life in the process. And it is the story of camaraderie of America’s fighting men who stick together as far as they can to fight and escape the enemy, even at the height of their suffering at their hands.

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Christian Bale is Dieter Dengler in “Rescue Dawn”

On February 1 1966, Dengler–masterfully played by Christian Bale–was flying a classified mission over Laos, when his plane was shot down and he was soon taken to the Vietcong camp. There he endured five months of physical and mental torture, starvation, and attempts to get him to denounce America.
But Dengler refused to attack his adopted country. And that’s the back story, which the movie alludes to but could have given more of (and that’s the one flaw of this film). At the age of 18, the German Dengler emigrated to America to recognize his dream of flying. He lived on the streets of New York as a homeless man for a week, until he could get to a recruitment office and sign up with the U.S. military and learn to fly.
In the movie, shortly after his plane goes down and he is captured, tortured, beaten, and degraded. Removed from the shackles, a Viet Cong official asks Dengler to sign a document denouncing America, which will buy him freedom. He refuses. “I love America. America gave me wings. I will not sign it. Absolutely not.”
Here and throughout, we see what true love for America really is. Dengler soon finds himself in a camp with a few others, Americans–one of whom looks, sounds, and acts jarringly like Charles Manson (and the actor, Jeremy Davies, actually played him in the TV movie, “Helter Skelter“)–and Asians who were allied with America. They are beaten, fed nothing but maggots and worms, and shackled by their ankles under heavy iron and wood bars at night.
Unlike other war films, this movie shows us reality: We see the pure evil and sheer joy in the eyes of the violent Viet Cong/Pathet Lao captors, who enjoy torturing Americans for sport and get their jollies out of watching American soldiers suffer. That’s a view we get little of in the media, today. And sadly, we got little of it then, during the Vietnam War, also. Perhaps if we did, America would have felt differently and not lost the war, protesting on the streets and on the nightly news with Walter Cronkite.
That Dengler managed to survive almost half a year in a camp where many of his colleagues died, was a feat itself. But then, staged a daring and successful escape and then managed to survive the brutal Laotian jungle (extremely hot, lacking water, and full of poisonous snakes). Dengler is said to be the only American ever to escape a POW camp in the Laotian jungle.
In the movie as in his real-life story, Dengler yearns to be free and chose to risk death rather than be enslaved and face certain death. He plans his escape with the other prisoners for–what other day is there for an American patriot?–Independence Day, July 4th. But soon, the inmates learn that they are to be executed. So, their escape must come a day early. Dengler, who trained as a locksmith in Germany, has fashioned a nail into a makeshift skeleton key. He uses it to pick the locks of their shackles, and he soon finds himself shooting his way out of the camp.
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Dieter Dengler Upon His Escape from Laos; As a Pilot and Later

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Dieter Dengler’s Grave at Arlington National Cemetery

And “Rescue Dawn” is the story of loyalty and brotherhood among American soldiers against the enemy. Although it is every man for himself in the brutal Laotian jungle, Dengler–ever the loyal American soldier–helps his far weaker fellow POW 1LT Duane Martin (well done by actor Steve Zahn) survive the jungle as long as possible. “I am your true friend,” he tells him. “I will never let you down.” And he keeps his word.
Eventually, after 23 days in the brutal jungle and down to 90 pounds, Dieter Dengler is finally spotted by U.S. helicopters and rescued. But the movie is not about the rescue. It’s about surviving–and doing so with dignity and loyalty to country intact.
“Rescue Dawn” is less about rescue and more about self-preservation and the true grit, ingenuity, and will of an American patriot to survive. Dengler’s story, his desire to risk everything to be free– just as he risked everything to come to America to learn to fly–is a uniquely American characteristic. And Dengler’s patriotism–including in the movie’s great ending–is displayed in so many ways, subtle and less so in this movie.
Ironically, the movie is brought to us by another emigre, Werner Herzog, who like Dengler has made America his home. Herzog originally made a documentary about his friend, Dengler, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” Dengler, as a little kid during World War II, saw American and allied planes fly over his home. And he decided, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” The movie is based on the documentary and on Dengler’s book, “Escape from Laos.” The movie is beautifully shot, with vivid cinematography and an excellent musical score. You really get the feel for brutal life both in the POW camp and in the deceptively gorgeous but deadly jungle. But shining through it all is Dengler’s bravery, resourcefulness, will to survive, and patriotism. First he refused to surrender to man, then he does the same against nature.
And yet another immigrant, Christian Bale’s, performance in “Rescue Dawn” cannot be overstated. He is Dieter Dengler, losing a ton of weight, doing his own stunts, and even eating the worms to have us believe. And we do. His transformative acting ability is just one reason why he’s my favorite actor.
Sadly, Dengler is not alive to see “Rescue Dawn.” He died in 2001 from ALS at the age of 62. But his legend lives on in the silver screen sensation and in American military history. Dengler was awarded the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart and the Air Medal. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
While “Rescue Dawn” is very clear in its message, some film critics don’t get it. In an early review just before the Fourth of July, USA Today film critic Scott Bowles simply can’t understand why American soldiers shot down in an enemy country would have the will to survive a brutal prison or why they’d continue to be loyal to America. While giving a positive review, he found it bizarre that Dengler would love America so much and remain so loyal, calling the movie “military jingoism” and “simple stereotypes.” “Jingoism,” FYI, is the standard left-wing insult for patriotism.
But the lexicon of the left can’t take away the real life heroism of Dieter Dengler or hundreds of thousands of patriots risking their lives for our freedom every day. If anything, this movie understates his suffering and heroism.
Two decades ago, another “jingoistic” film, “Hanoi Hilton,” about American POWs in Vietnam, was blackballed from major theaters because the left didn’t want you to see the Viet Cong’s brutality against American men. But times have changed for the better with “Rescue Dawn” in wide release across America. I’m glad to see a “jingoistic” movie like “Rescue Dawn” reach the big screen–and to such wide critical acclaim.
If only all Americans were so afflicted with Dieter Dengler’s “jingoism.”
***
Watch the “Rescue Dawn” trailer.

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10 Responses

Thanks for the review. I’ll see it this weekend.

Thee_Bruno on July 27, 2007 at 8:54 am

I feared getting captured more than getting killed. Thank God neither happened.

John Cunningham on July 27, 2007 at 8:56 am

Debbie, I saw a screening of the Simpsons Movie last night. I loved it and so did the rest of theater. Will you be doing a review?

izzyhot on July 27, 2007 at 9:05 am

Transformers, Rescue Dawn and Bourne Ultimatum are the only movies this summer that are worth seeing and that I’ve been jonesing for. Too bad its in limited release. The nearest theater playing this movie is about 35 miles away.

RadicalRightWinger on July 27, 2007 at 9:45 am

Hello Debbie and all
I was watching the trailer and in there Dieter Dengler asked fellow POW’s how long were they in the camp and one said 2 and a half years which surprised Dieter Dengler.
I was listening to the SCHIFFERREPORT with Paul Schiffer at RIGHTALK.COM and Paul Schiffer had a 5 part series talking about the book called “AN ENORMOUS CRIME: The Definitive Account of American POW’s Abandoned
in South East Asia”
Paul talked to the authors and others that said POW’s from the Vietnam war might still be there and alive, and our government is lying about the evidence.
Go to SCHIFFERREPORT.com and go to ARCHIVES. Under ARCHIVED listen to Past Schiffer Programs from June 14, June 19, June 21, June 26, July, 3.
They are very interesting and it will make you made at our government.

INFINITE on July 27, 2007 at 12:12 pm

Sounds like a great movie which is very rare these days.
An even better one would be a remake of the 1950′s “To Hell and Back” about and staring Audie Murphy as himself.
I will bet that most Americans these day have never even heard of him.
“Originally published in 1949, To Hell and Back was a smash bestseller
for fourteen weeks and later became a major motion picture starring
Audie Murphy as himself. More than fifty years later, this classic wartime
memoir is just as gripping as it was then.
Desperate to see action but rejected by both the marines and
paratroopers because he was too short, Murphy eventually found a home with the
infantry. He fought through campaigns in Sicily, Italy, France, and
Germany. Although still under twenty-one years old on V-E Day, he was
credited with having killed, captured, or wounding 240 Germans. He emerged
from the war as America’s most decorated soldier, having received
twenty-one medals, including our highest military decoration, the Congressional
Medal of Honor. To Hell and Back is a powerfully real portrayal of
American GI’s at war.”
“Audie earned a battlefield commission for his courage and leadership ability, as well as, every medal for valor that America gives. He was also awarded three French medals and one Belgian medal. Lieutenant Audie Murphy is the highest decorated soldier of World War II.”
“By the end of World War II, he was a legend within the 3rd Infantry Division as a result of his heroism and battlefield leadership.”
“The Army itself has
said “There will NEVER be another Audie Murphy”!”

feralcat9 on July 27, 2007 at 4:08 pm

If you are interested in Audie Murphy then I recommend “No Name on the Bullet”. The book arcs over his whole life, his post traumatic stress that led to gambling and his cagey restless tough times adjusting to life after his wartime experience. It also shows how different Hollywood was at the time. James Cagney took him under his wing and tried to help transition into a normal life. Interesting to me, I have yet to see it though, is that he played the lead in the original (Graham Greene) “The Quiet American” movie, if I remember the title correctly, circa 1958.

code7 on July 28, 2007 at 12:45 am

uh, excuse me, but what about Michigan’s greatest soldier Col. Matt Urban?!! Not that Maj. Murphy -yes he did attain that rank- isnt spectacular but we need a Matt Movie too dammit!! 7 purple hearts?
Great extra info in the post Ms.S. while the lumpen are watching Groenigs cartoon or making Moore richer, I’ll be in the line to this one.

playertwo on July 30, 2007 at 2:46 pm

Thanks, Debbie, for the review. It’s great to see that some good movies actually slip past the Hollywood censors. I’ve seen one Audie Murphy film, “Gunsmoke,” which was good. No, it’s not the TV series of the same name.
Most of your readers should remember the 1984 film, “Red Dawn,” starring Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, and Jennifer Grey. All of the stars went on to other projects and even greater fame, but the critics called the film “fascist” and other derrogatory names. Yet we knew that it was a realistic portrayal of how the Communists would behave if they ever invaded America. Thank G-d and Ronald Reagan we never found out.
Unfortunately, nothing has changed.
Fortunately, this film got past the Hollywood censors.

Loser on July 31, 2007 at 4:37 pm

Hi:
Great movie. My wife and I saw it two weeks ago. When it first started I was a little uncomfortable about what would be the content. If the scenes were too realistic, a commercial audience wouldn’t tolerate sitting through it. Herzog had the wisdom not to do that. I’ll explain. My wife and I knew a fellow high school student who lived in the Polish Catholic Warrendale community on the West side of Detroit. A petite blond, I was told that she spoke seven languages. She enlisted in the service and served as a linguist in Southeast Asia. As you can probably guess, yes, she became a POW and was tortured. What they did to her was worse than anything you could ever see in a Wes Craven movie. When she returned home, she was psychotic and never recovered. Once she sent us a letter, which was essentially a verbal salad, reflecting her mental state. Thinking that if there were only something I could do to help her, I asked my wife if we could go visit her. She declined. It was just too painful to see her like this, so I didn’t press the issue. I could never forgive the people who did this to her. Too bad there isn’t some sort of Nuremberg trials for the miscreants who did this to her and others.
We are surrounded by heros.

marsh113 on August 8, 2007 at 6:47 pm

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