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Movie Review

All Dieter Dengler really wanted to do was fly. He'd seen American pilots and planes while growing up in war-torn Germany, and rather than getting angry at them, he decided he wanted to become one of them. So he moved to the United States and joined the Navy.

In the early days of the Vietnam War, we watch as Dieter confidently climbs into the cockpit of his bomber for a covert strike in Laos.

It's his first mission.

Dieter's plane gets shot out of the sky before moviegoers can swallow their first fistful of popcorn. His flight and subsequent crash, in Hollywood time, last all of 90 seconds. And then the banged-up pilot is running for his life, plunging through rice paddies and dense rainforest foliage.

But it's to no avail. He's soon captured, tortured and marched to a Viet Cong prison camp, where he meets a clutch of emaciated, slightly crazed American and Asian prisoners, some of whom have been there for two-and-a-half years. There's Gene, an Air America pilot who seems to be channeling Dennis Hopper as he spouts conspiracy theories and unfounded hopes for an imminent rescue. And there's Duane, a former military man who lost a good chunk of his courage when he was captured.

Dieter also gets "acquainted" with his vicious prison guards. But he has no intention of sticking around long enough to get "friendly." He wants to escape, and eventually he persuades most of the other prisoners to break out with him. Getting away from the sadistic guards may be the easy part, though. The surrounding jungle can kill just as surely, if not as swiftly. Gene, who threatens to inform the guards if Dieter tires to escape ("I would much rather they shoot you than me or any of us"), insists, "The jungle is the prison.

Dieter is not deterred.

Positive Elements

Rescue Dawn is about persevering, no matter the odds. As Dieter's plane plunges into the Laotian jungle and his commanding officer implores him to eject, Dieter hollers back, "I'm not going to bail out!" And he doesn't: not then, not ever. Unflagging confidence and optimism keep Dieter's hope afloat, even though his fellow prisoners have little of either.

After capture, Dieter is asked to sign a statement denouncing the "imperialistic" machinations of the United States. The pilot refuses, saying he loves his country. The next several months of Dieter's life subsequently become wall-to-wall misery. Despite the torture he endures, the pilot bravely shrugs it off, saying, "The man who will threaten me hasn't been born yet."

Determined to flee his captors—in true MacGyver-like fashion—Dieter uses his skills as a former tool-and-die maker to reshape a nail into a key that releases the POWs' handcuffs.

And throughout it all, he never loses his head or his sense of compassion. When Dieter and Duane escape and are separated from the others, Dieter cares for his comrade almost like a mother, giving him the sole of a boot they find in the jungle (they're both barefoot) and tucking him under gigantic leaves at night.

[Spoiler Warning] Even after Duane is killed, Dieter can't stop himself from trying to help his friend. In hallucinations brought on by fatigue, starvation and grief, Dieter again (symbolically) gives him the sole of the boot.

Spiritual Content

Though the film touches obliquely on spiritual issues (which I'll deal with in more detail in my "Conclusion"), it mostly steers clear of explicit faith references. Dieter's clearest prayer to God is equal parts plea and rebuke: "God, why don't You help us when we need You the most?" Another time, a potentially profane use of God's name morphs into a desperate petition of sorts: "God, we need the rain. God, we need the rain to come quick."

Gene wears a ratty shirt with the handwritten words "Quo Vadis" on the back. It's a Latin phrase that means, "Where are you going?" It's a phrase spoken by Peter in John 13:36. And it's the title of a 1951 epic set in the time of the bloodthirsty Roman Emperor Nero, when Christians were being thrown to the lions. The poignancy of the shirt's repeated appearances is underscored by the fact that after the prisoners escape, a disoriented Gene perhaps refers to that phrase when he mournfully asks again and again where he can go.

Sexual Content

Before his ill-fated flight, Dieter complains to his fellow airmen that he only got one night to cavort with Saigon's "go-go girls" and to partake of the city's infamous massage parlors. The flight crew watches a safety film about jungle survival, and one of Dieter's buddies jokes about the film's actor, saying, "He's got a nice a-- for a sailor." After the laughter subsides, he adds, "I don't mean that in a wrong way."

Dieter develops a fleeting crush on a female Viet Cong soldier and admits to his fellow prisoners that, at that moment, he wished they weren't at war. "I thought you were engaged," Duane says to Dieter, who replies that he is engaged but he wonders if his fiancée will wait for him.

In prison, men fantasize about food more than women. Duane dreams of one day feasting on a chicken with breasts "the size of Jane Mansfield's."

Violent Content

Rescue Dawn isn't R-rated. But it is still an intense film about imprisonment and torture during wartime. Its violence isn't bloody in the way, say, Flags of Our Fathers is, but it is raw and visceral.

Dieter's crash landing in the jungle is realistic and jarring. The torture inflicted upon him by the Viet Cong is relatively bloodless, but disturbing nonetheless. He is dragged across a dirt courtyard by a water buffalo, dunked and nearly drowned in a well, and hung upside-down (and spun around) with an enormous ants' nest strapped next to his face and torso. And that's before he even gets to the prison camp. More hardships of nearly biblical proportions await: famine, flood, leeches, snakes, maggots and some very violent people.

The prison guards repeatedly hit, kick and throw the POWs to the ground. One of Dieter's tormentors fires a rifle near his face, apparently to frighten him. Another gunshot grazes Duane—not a serious injury, but enough to draw blood. Later, two of the Laotian guards aren't so lucky. Dieter's initial escape plan involved stealing their weapons and taking over the camp. When that plan disintegrates, Dieter and Duane are forced into a firefight with their captors. Two of them are shot and killed, with Dieter's machine gun blasts graphically perforating one guard's torso.

[Spoiler Warning] Duane is ultimately killed. And his final moments are sudden and gruesome: A villager wielding a machete opens a bloody gash in his leg. Screams of pain are silenced by his offscreen decapitation moments later. From a distance, we see the indistinct forms of Duane's body and head lying apart from one another.

Crude or Profane Language

About 15 s-words are used as nouns, verbs and interjections. An indistinct f-word may be uttered once during a loud argument. God's name is abused about a dozen times. (Half of the time it's combined with "d--n.") Jesus' name is taken in vain once. Roughly 15 to 20 other milder vulgarities ("h---," "a--," "b--ch," "b--tard" and "p---ed") pop up as well.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Dieter smokes a cigarette before his mission. A young village boy is shown taking a toke on a bamboo pipe. Likewise, a guard can be seen smoking something from a bamboo pole.

Duane fantasizes about a six-pack of Bud to go with his voluptuous foul; Dieter longs for a stein filled with foamy Bavarian beer. As Dieter drinks the "juice" from squished insect larvae, he jokes, "This is a very good year."

Other Negative Elements

n the name of realism, Rescue Dawn evidences a preoccupation with bowel movements. During his first day in captivity, Dieter is denied bathroom privileges and (he tells his captors) defecates in his pants. Duane can't make it through a single night without the same problem. The prisoners are shackled together each evening, and we hear groaning as Duane relieves himself for what Gene claims is the 2,207th time during their confinement.

Another gross-out scene features a cruel guard serving the prisoners a large bowl of maggots and worms, which Dieter chokes down with a smile on his face. Later, Dieter sinks his teeth into a live snake, then pulls out a sinewy string of flesh. Dieter and Duane painfully pull leeches from their chests, abdomens and fingers. Duane vomits during the escape.

[Spoiler Warning] In a convoluted scene after the escape, Gene has apparently betrayed Dieter and Duane by failing to attack the guards as they've planned. Two of the other prisoners have disappeared, and it's unclear whether Gene may have killed them or whether they simply ran into the jungle on their own at the first hint of freedom.


As a story of pure human courage, Rescue Dawn is inspiring. But of course it's more complicated than that. Christian Bale is outstanding as Dieter, and the jungle—the film's real co-star—is showcased as a breathtakingly beautiful and heartless killer. It is based on the true story of Dieter Dengler, a Navy pilot held in a Laotian prison camp for five months. After his escape, he survived another 23 days in the jungle. By the time he was rescued, Dengler weighed 90 pounds.

"People say it was a miracle," he said in a 1979 interview. "I came out because I was meant to come out. I cannot say it was my doing. It's beyond [my] strength to do something like that. Something, Someone has to help you."

Rescue Dawn apparently adheres pretty closely to Dengler's story of his imprisonment and escape. The crash, the torture and the killings match Dengler's account of what happened. It's a harrowing tale of survival against all odds, one that's occasionally punctuated by subtle spiritual statements.

[Spoiler Warning] But if director Werner Herzog (who first told this story in documentary form in 1997) has a spiritual message in Rescue Dawn, it may be darker than Dengler's own testimony. God seems at best distant and at worst sadistic here. Dieter's prayer—where he asks God why He won't help "when we need You the most"—seemingly goes unanswered. In fact, Duane is butchered the next day. When Dieter is finally rescued, someone asks him what he believes in: God? Country? Dieter answers enigmatically: "Empty what is full, fill what is empty, scratch where it itches."

If Herzog's message is dark, it may not be altogether bleak. The use of the phrase Quo Vadis on Gene's shirt is intriguing. And rescue comes only after Dieter makes one final sacrifice—giving his sole to a needy (albeit hallucinated by this point) friend. Perhaps in Herzog's telling, God isn't so much absent as He is testing.

Admittedly, such a discussion ends up being a pretty obscure point within this context. It, along with the film's larger, more visible effort to use a real-life tragedy-and-triumph story to inspire viewers are ultimately burdened by vulgarity, depictions of violence and unremitting anguish.

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Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler; Steve Zahn as Duane; Jeremy Davies as Gene


Werner Herzog ( )





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Paul Asay

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