What would happen if Werner Herzog made a mainstream, Hollywood-style heroic war movie? Apparently, it would turn out very well, be praised by critics, and nobody would watch it.
The 2007 film Rescue Dawn dramatizes the true story of navy pilot Dieter Dengler. He flew the A-1 Skyraider off of the carrier USS Ranger. The plane Dengler was piloting was downed by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing mission on February 1st, 1966. The next day, he was captured by Pathet Lao (Laotian Communist guerrillas) and taken prisoner. He was held for roughly five months before he was able to escape. After 23 days in the jungle he was spotted by a friendly pilot and was rescued. He was then “rescued” again by Navy SEALs who liberated him from hospitalization under care of the Air Force and returned him to his ship.
Like Herzog, Dengler was born in Germany and later moved to the United States. In Dengler’s case, he was a still a teenager when he came to American, and he traveled here with a dream of becoming a pilot. He set to work fulfilling that dream, which included both enlisting in the Air Force (they did not teach him to fly) and then, after college, joining the Navy (they did). Service in the Navy took him to the Vietnam War.
Herzog had already told Dengler’s story in 1997 through a documentary, Flucht aus Laos. Translated literally this would mean “Flight (or escape) from Laos.” In its release for English-speakers the film was called Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The title is, apparently, a reference to the moment during the Second World War when Dengler realized he wanted to be come a pilot – while being strafed by an allied aircraft that was attacking Dengler’s town.
Unlike Herzog’s first go around, Rescue Dawn is not a documentary. While it generally follows an accurate account of Dengler’s imprisonment, it does take some liberties for dramatic purposes. In particular, the dramatized account makes use of fellow prisoner Eugene DeBruin as an American foil for Dengler’s daring. The portrayal of DeBruin’s weak character was protested by his family and by Thai national Pisidhi Indradat, who also escaped with Dengler, DeBruin, and the others and, like Dengler, made his way back to freedom. This fellow witness to the portrayed events said the DeBruin, himself, showed bravery and generosity while in captivity and during the escape. Sometimes history needs to be bent a little bit to make a good story and, as far as these things go, Rescue Dawn seems more accurate than most. I certainly appreciate the objections on this one point, though.
Rescue Dawn cost a fairly modest $10 million to make but failed to make it back (earning roughly $7.2 million) at the box office. It has been more successful in DVD form, with estimates being in the $24 million range for DVD sales. I guess it just takes us some time to warm up to the idea of watching this one.