July 27, 2007, - 5:25 am
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.
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.
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.
Tags: 4th of July, actor, America, Arlington National Cemetery, Charles Manson, Christian Bale, Debbie Schlussel, Dieter Dengler, Dieter Dengler Upon His Escape, Dieter Needs to Fly, Duane Martin, favorite actor, film critic, Gene DeBruin, Germany, Hanoi Hilton, Helter Skelter, Independence Day, Jeremy Davies, Laos, Laotian jungle, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, locksmith, New York, pilot, Rescue Dawn, Scott Bowles, starvation, Steve Zahn, U.S. military, United States, United States of America, USA Today, Viet Cong official, Vietnam, Walter Cronkite, Werner Herzog