Filmmaker Werner Herzog's second approach to the story of Dieter Dengler, a German born American bombardier (*1938 - 2001) who got shot over Laotian territory in the early Vietnam War in 1966. The movie is based on Herzog's own documentary 'Little Dieter needs to Fly' (1997) and Dieter Denglers book 'Escape from Laos'. The movie is based on a true story.
The movie starts with an intro of a bombardement of a rural landscape with a few bamboo cottages. The tone is off, only music is to hear. It's a dreamlike scene. The music in it's harmony stands in sharp contrast to the terror and destruction.
The first scenes of 'Rescue Dawn' show a bomb raid of a rural spot.
Later there is a briefing of American bombardiers shown on board of an aircraft carrier. All the pilots, among them Dieter Dengler, are jolly fellows, appearing completely indifferent of what for a harm they are going to cause. They get instructed not to tell anybody outside what they were doing, because the operations were 'classified'. Officially America wasn't in war with Laos.
The first mission. Denglers plane, a propeller machine (an A-1 Skyraider), gets hit by anti-aircraft fire and starts burning. He's losing control and crashes into a rice field. Dengler survives the crash unhurted and escapes into the jungle.
After being caught by a patrol of Phatet Lao guerillas (the communist revolutionary army of the time) he is brought to a high official who offers him release within a fortnight when he signs a paper in which he speaks out against the American aggression. Dengler refuses categorically to sign it and substantiates it with the words: "I love America. America gave me wings". He also claims that he never wanted to be in war, but he only wanted to fly. Flying is Denglers life dream, and he will be living this dream for the rest of his life.
After that he gets tortured in a Laotian village.
Later he is brought into a very small prisoner camp into the jungle where he meets two other Americans, three Thai and one Chinese fellow prisoners. The prisoners are guarded by some of the Phatet Lao.
The prisoner camp is in nothing familiar with prisoner camps one has normally in mind, let's say with Changi Prison in Singapore with baracks, stone walls around and barbed wire. It consists of a few bamboo huts surrounded by a simple bamboo fence. At night the prisoners are footlocked and handcuffed.
Dieter Dengler thinks about escape from the beginning on. One of the American prisoners (Gene) is opposing his plans and tells him he would warn the guards. The other American, Duane, who later changes his mind and follows him, warns: "The jungle is the prison". Dengler doesn't change his mind, though. He also makes up a plan to take the camp over.
When the food is running short for the guards and the villagers around, the situation in the camp worsened. Now the guards are listened by the Thai inmates making plans to execute the prisoners for saving the outrunning food and to leave the camp. It's time to take action now.
The plan is to take the guards weapons while they all are having lunch and surround the kitchen to take the guards capture. At night they would give signals then to American patrol planes. The plan failes for Gene and the three Thai/Chinese prisoners forsake the plan and leave the camp immediately through a hole in the fence. Dengler and Duane appear alone at the kitchen and it comes to a shooting. Dengler kills the guards except one (Jumbo) whom he let escape.
Later Dengler and Duane meet Gene and one of the Thais outside the camp. It comes to a verbal confrontation and Dengler decides to split up from them. Gene turns out to be disorientated and helpless, not knowing where to go and what to do. From now on the other prisoners don't appear anymore in the movie.
A long journey through the jungle begins for Duane and Dengler. Rainy season just starts and changes the environment. Lot's of rain, slippery, earth slides, leeches, insects... Being lost in the jungle it's generally a good strategy to look for a stream or a river and follow it downstream. It will join other streams and rivers and they will get bigger. Sooner or later settlements will appear at the banks. The two were heading towards the Mekong River to cross it, reaching safe Thailand. They build a raft, but end up at a deep waterfall.
Duane becomes extensively exhausted and couldn't walk any further. He wants Dengler to continue without him. Short before he dies, two American helicopters appear, flying directly over them. But they don't see the both on the ground, who are giving them signals.
Dengler waits until nightfall and sets a whole abandoned village in fire to attract the attention of American planes. When the helicopters come along next time they open 'friendly fire'.
The two continue their walk and encounter a Laotian village. The villagers react hostile and kill Duane with machetes. Dengler manages to chase them away and escapes the place.
He starts to halucinate and lose completely orientation. He urgently needs food and catches a snake. The raw snake isn't edible, but he put the snake into his shirt, carrying it with him.
In fact Dengler never came further away from the camp than a few miles, walking in circles all the time.
Finally, after 23 days in the jungle, Dengler was rescued by two American helicopters and carried to an airport in Thailand which looks, by the way, very much like the Thai military airport in Prachuap Khiri Khan (the movie was shot in Thailand). First thing at arrival is that he gets isolated from all contacts by CIA agents in a hospital.
Interrogations start and it looks the CIA wants to bring Dengler to Guam, a US military base on the Mariana Islands (what is non-incorporated territory of the USA in the Pacific Ocean with a permanent US-military base).
Four crew members of Dengler's appear in the hospital and manage to hijack Dengler and bring him to his war ship where he is welcomed by his comrades in triumph as a hero. This ending is quite conventional for a Hollywood movie and occurs exaggerated and pathetic.
In reality there broke a conflict out between the Navy and the Air Force who was to debrief Dengler. The airforce kept him in a hospital and the Navy sent a team of SEALs to hijack him.
Dieter Dengler appears as a charismatic, sympathetic and strong personality in the whole movie. He is kind of a classical hero. Also the story of an escape is following the line of a classic adventure.
I couldn't get rid of the feeling that the movie depicts kind of a black/white scheme. The Americans are the good ones in high spirits, best mood and morals and the Laotians/Vietnamese are all in the role of the bad ones (with one slight exception, and that is Jumbo who kindly gives the prisoners a small ball of the so scarce rice in one scene).
In the whole movie there is no hint pointing to the background of the American aggression and war crimes in Indochina. After all America bombed Laos without even declaring war, leading a years-lasting secret war in Laos, afflicting huge and long-term terror and destruction. It seems to be helpful for a better understanding of the whole story if this background would be at least shortly mentioned for the audience.
Sure, it's not nice to see the ugly tortue scenes in the Laotian village. But, as everyone who wants to know can know that American 'interrogations' as they happen in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Graib, Baghram and many other American torture camps are much more ugly and much longer-lasting. Is it exaggerated to call the carpet bombing of peasant villages, who never did anything else than their farming and have no clue where America lies a terrorist act? Or is it merely a peace mission and western war pilots do a really good job for democracy and freedom?
Under the given circumstances it's more than understandable that captured American bombardiers were not treated mildly. On the contrary it's rather a question why the Laotians didn't kill the prisoners immediately. They were of no advantage for them, they had to feed them although food was short for themselves and they bound resources (the camp, the guards and their weapons) who were needed elsewhere.
US Navy Douglas A-1K Skyraiders over Laos as shown in the picture.
'Rescue Dawn' is pretty much a Hollywood movie which contrasts Werner Herzogs other movies like for example 'Aguire, Wrath of God', 'Fitzcarraldo' or 'Grizzly Man'. There remains a strange feeling of a weird fascination on the story of Dieter Dengler, who was maybe not only the 'jolly good fellow' he is shown as, but lacked a further insight in what he really did. In none of the critics on the movie I read I found a word about that. When I listen to what Howard Zinn, a World War II bombardier, tells about his experiences bombing targets in Germany and France, then I get a much more reflected image of what bombing means, as well as of it's political implications.
John Plummer, the presumed commander of the naphalm attack which hurt Kim Phuc, the famous 'girl on the picture', suffered later a deep crisis of conscience and changed his life thoroughly. While the Vietnam War was still going on there was an activist group in the USA calling themselves 'Vietnam Veterans Against the War' (VVAW). I don't find a hint that Dieter Dengler was haunted by any doubts about his war deeds. Dengler remains a classical 'hero'.
There are some historical inaccuracies in the film. The role of the prisoners is controversial. There are claims of family members of Dengler's fellow prisoners that the plot in critical parts does not meet reality. At the beginning there is a hint overlayed "Inspired by true events in the life of Dieter Dengler".
No doubt that the actors are brilliant, the story is fascinating and how Werner Herzog is showing the jungle was always great.
Nevertheless, after all it's not understandable why the critics cheered the movie so much up.