Out of curiosity, I watched Werner Herzog’s 2006 movie “Rescue Dawn” on Showtime the other night. This is a movie based on Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s escape from a Laotian prison camp in 1966 that I could not help but lump in with similar efforts involving Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris. Perhaps I am a glutton for punishment, but I then watched Herzog’s 1997 documentary “Dieter Dengler Needs to Fly” on Neflix online (my first stab at this-not bad all in all), his first stab at glorifying a killer in uniform.
As many of you probably know, Werner Herzog has an attraction to the grotesque that is only exceeded by David Lynch’s. Additionally, both have questionable politics. Lynch was a Reaganite, but it is difficult to detect any kind of political statement in his movies. For his part, Herzog claims to be above politics but when it comes to the wars in Nicaragua and Vietnam, his films clearly had a rightwing tilt even if they are couched in his peculiar aesthetic.
“Little Dieter Needs to Fly” is a fairly worshipful view of the German child who decided to become a pilot after watching an American fighter pilot coming in to blast his home town in Germany in 1945. It is clear that Dengler has his priorities screwed up. Most children would be horrified by such a sight, but he was transfixed so much so that he came to the U.S. as a teenager to join the air force, as war-ravaged Germany had not yet created its own.
After joining the air force, he learns that his duties will not include learning to fly. Undaunted, he goes to college in order to help smooth the way toward his next bid at flying, this time in the U.S. Navy in 1965 at the start of the Vietnam War. Herzog claims that his movies about Dengler make no political statement because his subject had no intention of getting involved in fighting and assumed that the war would be over in months. Clearly, Herzog had little interest in bothering about ancillary issues such as the right of Vietnam to live in peace since they would only interfere with his mission to make the ultimate adventure story.
In a way, “Rescue Dawn” could never meet the expectations of the typical Chuck Norris fan (like Mike Hucklebee) since it is so imbued with Herzog’s mannerisms and oddball sensibility. Typically, he cast Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler. As a latter-day Anthony Perkins, Bale is the first actor casting actors will call if they are looking to fill the role of some lunatic or other.
Herzog must have decided that he would be right for the role since Bale had lost 63 pounds in order to play the deranged hero of “The Machinist”. In striving for verisimilitude, Herzog had his actors lose weight to play the captive American pilots. The Thai actors playing Air America (the CIA air company, not the liberal radio network) prisoners all had the good sense to maintain proper food intake. Just to show how gung-ho he was for the role, Bale eats live maggots direct from a bowl in one of the movie’s more unpleasant scenes.
Bale has garnered quite a reputation as a madman on the set as well, making him quite a match for Herzog. During the filming of the latest Terminator movie, he threw a tantrum when a lighting technician got on his wrong side.
Perhaps the most off-putting and least realistic aspect of “Rescue Dawn” is the treatment of the captors, who are rendered as over-the-top grotesques. The ringleader has hair down to his shoulders in a look that evokes the villains in Jackie Chan movies from the late ’90s rather than Communist guerrillas. One of his henchmen is a martial arts devotee who periodically flails at unseen enemies for no apparent reason. Another is a perpetually grinning dwarf who seems oblivious to everything, most of all the fact that a war is going on. Like David Lynch, Herzog seems to have a thing for dwarfs. In 1970 he made something called “Even Dwarfs Started Small” that depicted dwarfs in a mental institution run by other dwarfs. Although I have not seen it, it supposedly has a grand climax in which the rebel inmates uproot a palm tree, burn flowers, kill a pig, crucify a monkey and hurl live chickens against the guy in charge. One critic feels that Herzog was trying to make a statement about the 1968 student revolt. Whatever.
In order to increase the alienation effect, Herzog does not bother to use subtitles when the guards are shouting at the prisoners. This means that the audience will not be discomfited by the enemy telling their captors why they are being mistreated. Who would want to hear something like this? “Take that, you killer. Your fucking napalm killed my wife and our five kids.”
Despite his best (or worst, perhaps) intentions, Herzog did not endear himself to people connected to the prisoners, including the brother of prisoner Gene DeBruin. (Dengler died in 2001 so he would not be able to comment.) He set up a website called Rescue Dawn: the Truth that takes exception to his brother being portrayed as “an uncaring, deranged and derelict Charles Manson type entity, devoid of humanity.” What was he expecting? After all, this was not a Chuck Norris movie.
This was not the first time that Herzog cooked up an ostensibly rightwing propaganda piece that was undone by his unwillingness to settle for the pat. In 1984 he made “Ballad of the Little Soldier” on behalf of the Miskito counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua. The movie can be seen on Youtube in five parts and all but the last part consists of Miskitos denouncing the FSLN as a bunch of Communist killers. Herzog made no attempt, of course, to get the other side of the story.
But the last part, an interview with 10 or 11 year old Miskito soldiers in training, undermines any attempt to build blind loyalty to their cause. Their instructor tells Herzog, “This is the best age for training. Their minds are clean, not corrupt yet, we can teach them.” Denis Reichle, Herzog’s co-director who apparently is not as gung-ho as Herzog, tells the instructor: “You mean you can brainwash them.” The instructor replies, “Yes, we can brainwash them and show them the reality of why they are fighting today.”
Coming full circle to the end of WWII, when young Dieter was discovering the need to fly, Reichle tells the camera that the young trainees remind him of the German children who put on Nazi uniforms and carried weapons in the final months of WWII.