by Margaux Williamson
(I saw this while in a hut on the coast of Mexico. For dinner, I had split a can of beans with my boyfriend while we looked through the movies I always bring with me when I travel. They are movies that I sort of want to watch and sort of don’t want to watch so they keep for a while. Rescue Dawn was there in a sleeve along with Old Boy, Dawn of the Dead and a Cassavettes movie. We decided on Rescue Dawn. It ended up being a great movie to watch in the tropical dark while the palm trees shook around outside, ants climbed into my drink and giant cockroaches walked by.)
Rescue Dawn is a drama based on the true story of Dieter Dengler’s crash into enemy territory during the early days of the Vietnam War. It was made by Werner Herzog who, ten years previous, made a documentary about Dieter Dengler called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The drama is pretty accurate, the documentary (one of my favourites) takes some liberties.
Rescue Dawn begins and ends within the time of Dieter Dengler’s U.S. Navy service. Little Deiter Needs to Fly is focuses on Dieter as a middle aged man who lives in California. In California, Dieter tells and reenacts the story of his life to Werner Herzog. He is handsome and thoughtful. He is not resentful of anyone he recalls and is quick to smile. He looks a touch uncertain of Werner Herzog’s process but also completely committed to it.
In the documentary, he tells us about his childhood in World War II Germany. It involved being hungry and bombings from the U.S. military. He tells us that during a raid on his village, as he stood in an upstairs window watching the chaos, that he caught the eye of a U.S. pilot who happened to be flying by the window. He said it was then that he knew he had to fly.
He immigrated to the U.S. when he was 18 and joined the navy. He eventually went to Vietnam where, on his first mission, he crashed a plane into enemy territory. This was followed by his capture, his imprisonment at a POW camp, an escape from the POW camp, a journey through the jungle and an eventual rescue by the U.S. Navy. Hunger is also a big part of this part of the story.
When Dieter tells his story, there is very little dramatization or emphasis on emotional pain, very little emphasis on the cruelty of others. It is easy to believe that there is no repressed rage or revenge fantasies for this man – only an endless depth of successful defense mechanisms and a mountain of hard-won understanding on human life. Later, in California, he shows the camera his stockpile of dry food that he keeps in giant barrels under his suburban floorboards. This is almost the most painful part of Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and here he doesn’t say anything. We understand that he is both optimistic enough to survive the unimaginable but also realistic enough to survive it too.
I probably would have watched Rescue Dawn earlier had that one person at the Toronto Film Festival not told me that it was very bad and had that movie poster featured a goofily beaming Christian Bale instead of a serious Christian Bale. Also, I loved the documentary so much and had seen it several times so I wasn’t sure it was necessary to see it dramatized.
Though after watching Recue Dawn, I remembered that what is even better than a favourite movie is a good story that is worth repeating. Had I not watched Rescue Dawn, I might have missed that within one of my favourite movies was also one of the best stories that I know.
In Rescue Dawn, as we witness the actors committing themselves to their roles within the story’s parameters, it is easier to make some sort of logic out of Dieter Dengler’s ways. In one illuminating moment, after a fair amount of ill treatment at the hands of his captors, one of them blows a shot gun close to Dieter’s head – knocking out his hearing for a moment but not hurting him otherwise.
After, already, a fair amount of suffering, Dieter finally looks genuinely startled by the blast. “NEVER, NEVER do that again!” he screams, still contained in his handcuffs, surrounded by enemies. It was as though he had been in reasonable negotiations up until that point but now they had really crossed a line. His scream was a warning to not cross that unreasonable line again. Here we understand immediately how reasonable he thinks humans are, how much he is relating to them – even the ones that don’t speak his language, who drag him through the jungle in chains and point a gun at his head. It is as though he really understands that he could have been in their position as captors. But still, he is screaming, he has limits.
This is a person who had somehow managed to be on the ugly side of two ugly 20th century wars, was a victim of both and who voices no complaint. It is fair to say that with this complicated history maybe he did not so easily choose to make villains out of others.
Apart from Werner Herzog’s brilliant Little Dieter Needs to Fly, we now have more of the story of Dieter Dengler, a person whose kind, knowing and careful eyes and whose piles of food under his Californian house’s floorboards still have a lot to tell us – something about how to be insanely optimistic about other humans while staying realistic to the core.