S. T. Karnick examines Warner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, now available on DVD and pay per view.

Image from Rescue Dawn 

Rescue Dawn, directed by the talented and eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog, is one of the very best movies of the past year. It is truly a must-see.

The film recounts the story of Dieter Dengler, a German-American bomber pilot shot down over Laos in 1965. Captured by enemy troops, Dengler is subjected to physical abuse and then incarcerated in a Vietcong prison camp in Laos. He immediately begins planning his escape, and is intent on bringing all his fellow prisoners out with him.

The planning and the escape provide the film with a much stronger narrative drive than is usual for Herzog, and they make Rescue Dawn both emotionally compelling and intellectually stimulating.

The conditions in the camp are appalling. The half-dozen or so prisoners are kept chained together at night and are given little food or exercise. The guards brutalize them regularly, on entirely unpredictable pretexts.

As the living conditions in the surrounding areas deteriorate, the guards become even more abusive, the food even scarcer, and the need for escape even more dire. The guards increasingly see the prisoners as an unnecessary burden, and they ultimately decide to kill them so that they can return to their villages.

The scene in which the prisoners are given nothing but a bowl of insect larvae for their daily meal conveys the desperation brilliantly. Also highly telling is Dengler’s enthusiasm in gobbling up this unexpected source of protein.

Image from Rescue Dawn

Herzog’s characteriziation of the guards as distinct individuals with real personalities, instead of ciphers or caricatures, is extremely important to the film’s overall effect. The fact that each of the guards treats the prisoners in a way different from the others shows that they do indeed choose their actions. This emphasizes the fact that even in war, individuals have choices to make that have moral implications.

It also illustrates the great difference between the worldviews motivating the two sides of the conflict. Whereas we know that the Americans have a sense of honor toward their prisoners, for the communists the prisoners are a bargaining chip and not to be seen as human. This is a choice, and it is based on the individual’s view of the world.

This point is made very clear by the fact that the only guard who chooses to act humanely toward the men, and is the only one who ever smiles at them, is rewarded in the end.

In fact, if anyone ever needs an argument against mistreatment of prisoners of war at Guantanamo Bay or elsewhere, Rescue Dawn provides a vivid example. The fact that the treatment of prisoners is so deeply embedded in the two conflicting worldviews and is so important to what is good in the Western mind makes this argument brilliantly.

Also important is the fact that the other prisoners in the camp are mosty Asians, with only two Americans other than Dengler. This expertly conveys the war as not a simple local conflict but instead a clash between two completely different visions of civilization, and thus emphasizes the implications of those two worldviews.

A very important and insightful aspect of the film is the other prisoners’ reactions to Dengler’s suggestion of an escape. Most are initially skeptical, citing practical difficulties, but they are soon convinced by Dengler’s ability to answer the objections with ingenious counter-measures. One of the prisoners, however, continuously opposes the plan until it becomes entirely clear that their captors are about to kill them all.

This character, Eugene, opposes the escape because he believes that the prisoners will soon all be released as a result of peace negotiations he believes are taking place. He has no evidence whatsoever that such talks are occurring, but is nonetheless convinced that they are.

Eugene thus vividly represents the Western Left’s blind faith in negotiations with our enemies, and their greater respect for our civilization’s opponents than for their own protectors. The fact that Eugene is entirely deluded about the supposed peace talks further condemns this unfortunately common point of view.

Also important is the fact that Herzog does not neglect to show the destructiveness of the Americans’ bombing runs or the asininity of some of the American civilian and military leaders. His treatment is fair, and he is correct in not dwelling on the matter. In fact, he pointedly refrains from suggesting any equivalence between the Americans and the communists.

On the contrary, Herzog strongly conveys the difference between the two mentalities. Despite their flaws, the Americans and their Asian allies clearly have a sense of honor, whereas the communists believe that rules are good only for hamstringing the opposition.

Interestingly, this is also the attitude of the Western progressive left, and the film’s characterization of this mentality is one of its most pointed effects.

Bale’s performance is thoroughly brilliant and certainly deserved an Academy Award nomination. He deftly depicts Dengler’s optimism and perseverance while always conveying the character’s great intelligence and strength of character. It is a highly complex performance, and Bale’s ability to make a truly good man immensely interesting is laudable.

The other performances are uniformly impressive as well. Overall, this is a truly brilliant film that expertly balances entertainment, artistry, and intellectual sophistication. It is one of Herzog’s best films, perhaps his finest.

Rescue Dawn: Most highly recommended.