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    Rescue Dawn (2006) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | August 5, 2007

    Christian Bale and the "Hollywoodized" version of Eugene DeBruin, as played by Jeremy Davies

    Christian Bale and the "Hollywoodized" version of Eugene DeBruin, as played by Jeremy Davies

    Eugene DeBruin in reality, before his capture. He is still MIA

    Eugene DeBruin in reality, before his capture. He is still MIA

    A Tale of Two Heroes

    [xrr rating=4/5]

    Rescue Dawn. Starring Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Marshall Bell, Zach Grenier, François Chau, Pat Healy, Teerawat Mulvilai, Yuttana Muenwaja, Chorn Solyda, Kriangsak Ming-olo, Abhijati ‘Meuk’ Jusakul, Lek Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat, and Andy Loftus. Music by Klaus Badelt. Art direction by Arin ‘Aoi’ Pinijvararak. Costume design by Annie Dunn. Cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger, B.V.K.  Edited by Joe Bini. Written and directed by Werner Herzog. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Gibraltar Films, 2006, Color, 126 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13).

    Rescue Dawn is a great motion picture. German director Werner Herzog’s biopic is an inspiring film that recounts a daring POW camp escape during the early years of the Vietnam War. Recalling Steve McQueen’s role in Papillon, Rescue Dawn is a story about one man’s struggle against all odds—indeed, often against the inertia and fright of his own fellow prisoners—to break through to freedom.

    It’s exactly the kind of audacious filmmaking you’d expect from Herzog, an equally audacious personality. In 1982, he directed the fantastical Fitzcarraldo, a sprawling epic about an obsessive hero: Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald (Klaus Kinski) longed to build an opera palace in the midst of the dense South American jungle, bringing legendary tenor Enrico Caruso there to perform. To realize his protagonist’s grandiose ambitions, Herzog staged what has got to be the cinema’s most spectacular scenes, beyond even Cecil B. DeMille’s wildest dreams. Hundreds of Indians moved a steamboat out of the river and onto land, bypassing dangerous rapids.

    Thus did Fitzcarraldo’s impossible dream become Herzog’s own. One reason I’m so blasé about CGI special effects is from having seen this breathtaking sequence: No special effects or miniatures, but hundreds of extras breaking their backs, and the bizarre spectacle of a steamboat emerging through the clouds over a mountaintop summit.

    A quarter-century later, Herzog returns us to the heart of darkness of the Laotian jungle in this equally excruciating work. Christian Bale gives a fervent, stirring performance as German-born U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler. From early childhood, Dieter’s sole wish was to fly: As a small boy growing up in Nazi Germany during World War II, he experienced an epiphany as Allied pilots bombed and strafed his Bavarian village of Wildberg. Witnessing the attack in awe, he vowed to become a pilot when he grew up.

    Shot down on one of his first missions over Laos in 1966, Dengler had to claw his way back to freedom, hacking through dense jungle vegetation, after many long months of imprisonment by Pathet Lao soldiers. Shortly after being taken captive and after suffering beatings, psychological torture, and starvation at the hands of his captors, he’s brought to the gemütlich office of a provincial governor (François Chau), who promises Dengler freedom if he signs a confession for committing “imperialist aggression.”

    Dengler flatly refuses. “I love America,” the pilot explains, “America gave me wings. Will I sign it? Absolutely not.”

    After being marched again through the blistering jungle heat, Dengler winds up in a prison run by sadistic youths with itchy trigger fingers. As soon as he’s locked up, he begins planning his escape from the poorly constructed bamboo hut. But, fellow captive Eugene (Jeremy Davies) nervously warns him: “This hut ain’t no prison. The jungle is the prison. Don’t you get it?” He advises waiting until monsoon season to make the grueling journey into Thailand, when it’s easier to drink fresh water and avoid dying of thirst.

    Dengler’s fellow prisoners were imprisoned a couple years before he arrived, and during the months he plans their breakout, he often has to overcome low morale and backbiting, particularly from the squirrelly Gene, who would just as soon sabotage their plans than risk his life. Another fellow American prisoner, Duane Martin (Steve Zahn), has been weakened—both spiritually and physically—and as the men lie awake nights shackled, Dengler steadfastly tries to build up their hope and confidence. I admired Bale’s never-say-die performance: While his fellow cellmates spend a lot of time carping about the dangers of escaping, through his resourcefulness and optimism, Dengler helps rebuild the esprit de corps that had been beaten out of them. Despite torture and deprivation, what doesn’t kill Dengler makes him stronger.

    The men share one wish: To get back home. Living on a handful ration of rice each day, they obsess about food, and fantasize aloud to each other about the contents of their refrigerators when they get back to civilization. To stress the isolation and hell of their internment, the men have tacked on the wall in lieu of pinup girls labels from canned beans, long since consumed, from a Red Cross parcel.

    Rescue Dawn captures what it means to be an American. Through Dengler’s valorous feats of evasion and survival, Herzog brilliantly captures on film the astonishing true story of an individual who chose to become an American in the most meaningful way, and refused to back away from that choice, even under the most grueling of circumstances. Herzog also drives home the point of individual’s initiative triumphing over group inertia, which is a common thread running through literature and the arts since Ancient Greece. Rescue Dawn is a timeless tale of man’s triumph over men, and one of the few movies that portrays America’s actions in Vietnam in a positive, indeed laudable, light.


    There’s just one problem with Rescue Dawn: In drawing Dengler’s character with broad, heroic, strokes director Herzog bent the truth. As with so many other movies “based on a true story,” Herzog condensed events and built up his protagonist’s accomplishments. Directors do this to create a more coherent narrative, and these instances of “résumé embellishment” do not bother me, because they don’t contradict the heroic essence of those remarkable individuals. For example, The Pursuit of Happyness buffed away some of the scuff marks of investor Chris Gardner’s rise. The World’s Fastest Indian had speed demon Burt Munro’s breaking the 200-mph barrier at Bonneville years before he actually did.

    Likewise, Christian Bale’s authoritative performance honors Herzog’s longtime friend Dengler, who was awarded the Navy Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross for his unfaltering efforts. It is impossible for anyone with a conscience and a soul not to walk away from viewing Rescue Dawn without rightly being roused by Dengler’s story of courage and optimism.

    And yet, I walked away from the theater with a sense that something was “off,” but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I received the answer in my inbox just as I sat down to write this review shortly thereafter in an e-mail forwarded to me by Erika and Hank Holzer, who are both actively involved with veterans’ causes. It’s link took me to a column posted on Debbie Schlussel’s blog, which made the case that Herzog built up Dieter Dengler’s character in Rescue Dawn by downplaying the character of fellow POW Gene DeBruin, portraying him as duplicitous and sociopathic.

    Oddly, Herzog cast actor Jeremy Davies in the role of DeBruin. Schlussel noted that Davies previously played crazed mass murderer Charles Manson in the made-for-TV movie “Helter Skelter.” This observation jibed with my own notes: Upon first seeing Davies as DeBruin, I jotted, “looks like Charlie Manson.”

    According to many who knew him, though, the real life Gene DeBruin was the opposite of the moral weakling and often treacherous “Eugene from Eugene, Oregon” onscreen version. “The portrayal was 180 degrees from who my brother was,” his brother Jerry DeBruin, a professor emeritus from the University of Toledo, told me in a telephone interview:

    He wasn’t the kook portrayed onscreen. He was really even-keeled, and was the peacemaker when confrontation arose. He taught English to the Asian prisoners there, and shared his blanket with his fellow prisoners.

    Indeed, even Dengler’s own account of DeBruin in his 1979 autobiographical book Escape From Laos, describes Gene DeBruin as inventive and gung-ho in plotting the escape. Far from being the cagey nut only concerned with his own survival, DeBruin, in fact stayed behind instead of escaping, to take care of an injured POW from Hong Kong, Y.O. Tou.

    Why, then, would Herzog have chosen to portray Gene DeBruin so negatively?


    In a 2006 interview, following the release of his documentary Grizzly Men, Herzog revealed his “ecstatic truth” philosophy of filmmaking:

    “We have to start seeing and working and explaining and articulating reality movies in a different way. Cinéma vérité was the answer of the sixties. Today, there’s something else out there….Cinéma vérité is the accountant’s truth, as I keep saying—I’ve insulted many with that,” Herzog explained. “Facts do not create truth, they create norms.”

    I wholeheartedly agree with Herzog’s thinking on this. If anything, his movies are not just entertaining, but ennobling. His heroes are heroic: bold, brave, and larger-than-life. More so than any living director, he grasps that the cinema is an inherently Romantic medium. One doesn’t so much view a Herzog movie as experience it. He interlaces his soundtracks with sublimely moving music from classical composers such as Wagner, Ginastera, Verdi, and Richard Strauss. It is this view of man and Earth that Herzog means by “ecstatic,” and—emotionally—this is what so resonates with me, and I would be lying if I said otherwise.


    Yet, emotional identification with an artist’s aesthetic credo—even a director of the first order like Werner Herzog—cannot act as a substitute for intellectual honesty and judgment, and therein lies the rub. New Individualist Editor Robert Bidinotto registered his distate for the “docudrama” genre in his blog last September:

    I have always disliked that weird hybrid of fact and fiction known as the “docudrama.” An inherently dishonest contrivance, it jumbles actual people’s words and deeds with fictional characters, invented dialogue, and imaginary occurrences—but never tells the audience which is which. […] The reputations of real people, living and dead, become toys for the docudramatist.

    When interviewed by the New York Times shortly before the release of Rescue Dawn, reporter Mekado Murphy asked Herzog about “accusations” from DeBruin’s family that Herzog took “liberties […] with facts in Rescue Dawn.” Herzog’s reply echoed the 2006 interview:

    If we are paying attention about facts, we end up as accountants. […] But we are into illumination for the sake of a deeper truth, for an ecstasy of truth, for something we can experience once in a while in great literature and great cinema. I’m imagining and staging and using my fantasies. […] Otherwise, if you’re purely after facts, please buy yourself the phone directory of Manhattan. It has four million times correct facts. But it doesn’t illuminate.

    Unfortunately, Murphy’s interview with Herzog ends at this point. The answer almost comes off as a non-sequitur: It doesn’t address the seeming character attacks Rescue Dawn makes on Gene DeBruin’s character, or at best equates DeBruin’s depiction with factual trivia concerning the movie’s props.

    I contacted Herzog with a number of pointed questions regarding the depiction of DeBruin vis-à-vis these comments. He responded both promptly and forthrightly. About that particular quote, he answered:

    Dengler always understood that I was after the spirit of the story, its essence. […] In this context I spoke of the “accountant’s truth”, and in the specific interview you are mentioning I was pestered with questions coming at me many times why the film did show only six prisoners in the camp (seven is actually correct), why I did not show that Dengler was actually captured twice (again correct), why the film did not show that the prisoners were transferred from one camp into another (again correct), and so on, and I replied about Eugene DeBruin in this interview in a way I regret.

    But, did Herzog actually defame Gene DeBruin’s character, through fabricated untruths, as alleged by Schlussel and Jerry DeBruin? In his e-mail to me, Herzog provides some factual context:

    [I]n conversations with me, Dengler was quite often unhappy about his published book Escape From Laos, as it was cut down drastically by the publisher, and many human details got lost. Besides, Dengler always pointed out to me that the book was published fairly shortly after his rescue, and the search for Eugene DeBruin was still intense. He said to me at various occasions “this is the official version, but there are lots of things that should be told one day.”

    Among those things were detailed accounts of tensions among the prisoners, and in particular conflicts with Eugene DeBruin. Dieter Dengler’s explanation was convincing: having spent years in medieval footblocks, having gone through starvation and disease, and having been subject to inhuman conditions, had worn down the men, or had led them into illusions about their imminent release. He said to me on many occasions that at some times “we would have strangled each other, had we not been handcuffed to each other.” Dengler had planned a feature film together with me long before he died, and he welcomed my detailed outlines of the feature film. I am certain he would have liked the result, Rescue Dawn.

    Do I doubt Herzog’s explanations? Not for a moment. Here, we must again consider all the available evidence (which is often a luxury directors do not have within the time restraints of a movie). I certainly don’t advocate suppressing evidence, merely because it is not entirely charitable in portraying a person’s full character.

    I am usually loath to use my reviews to make unsolicited editorial suggestions. I have no “frustrated screenwriter” inside of me, whose sole purpose is to nitpick and second-guess first-rate moviemakers. I do not think Herzog maliciously depicted Gene DeBruin.

    Herzog wrote me that, “as a filmmaker I am not attempting to be a historian. There is a clear distinction between history and story for me. And second: it is in the nature of storytelling that you have to take one perspective, and mine is the perspective of Dieter Dengler.”

    That said, I have to agree with Schussel’s assessment that so long as Herzog (self-admittedly) used a dramatic device which lopsidedly portrayed Gene DeBruin’s darker side, he ought to have created a composite, fictitious, character. That would have both honored Dengler, without doing damage to DeBruin’s reputation.


    Rescue Dawn is a deeply engaging, though often deeply flawed, motion picture. It ought to be seen, because it’s clearly Werner Herzog’s labor of love in doing homage to the indomitable spirit of his friend, Dieter Dengler. That must be respected, and by no means do I want to suggest boycotting it.

    Dieter Dengler passed away in 2001 from Lou Gehrig’s disease and was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. In Herzog’s prelude to this film, the 1998 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Dengler confessed, “I don’t think of myself as a hero. No, only dead people are heroes.” Here I must disagree with the otherwise self-assured Dengler—humility aside, he was truly heroic.

    But, here’s something I do agree with Dengler on. In a videotaped interview, he quoted in awe his comrade Gene DeBruin, who made the painful decision to stay behind, rather than escape the hell of the POW camp, to take care of his friend Y.C. Tou, who was afflicted with malaria:

    “I don’t care about that [staying behind], he’s my buddy, he’s my friend, and you guys go ahead, try to make it out.” […] He was really hard-core about that, there was just no way that he would waver. He said, “no, he’s my friend, we’ve been together in prison for two or three years, and if I have to die with him together, that’s what’s going to happen.”

    Schlussel remarked about this poignant, pivotal, choice, “I think Gene DeBruin’s story is even more fantastic, not to detract from Dieter Dengler, who was genuinely heroic. But, to not take a chance at freedom in order to take care of a fellow prisoner—who was not even a American—is even more heroic.”

    Herzog told me that he has just recently seen this testimony, and declared, “I find this very noble,” noting he now mentions it in all his recent public statements. “My hope is that Eugene DeBruin’s family will eventually come across more detailed documents about his fate,” he added.

    The last time Jerry DeBruin and his family got news about his brother’s fate was in 1968, in which (in an unsubstantiated, though—as he describes it—from “very strong sources”) Gene was reported to have been re-captured by Pathet Lao forces after an attempted escape, and relocated to North Vietnam.

    Jerry described his brother to me thusly,

    Gene sacrificed freedom to save his friend Tou, who although he has balls the size of oranges, could not walk. This is who my brother was. He was my mentor, and a very caring individual….We continue to search for this very day. The mission, is if he’s alive, is to return. If he’s dead, to be returned to us for proper burial of his remains. This September fifth will be the forty-fifth year of our mission. We won’t give up searching for him.

    I cannot but respectfully disagree with Werner Herzog in how he chose to illuminate Dieter Dengler’s heroism in making Rescue Dawn. I do not believe Dengler’s story can be told without telling Eugene DeBruin’s full story. Not just the warts, but also in rightly paying tribute to DeBruin’s own acts of gallantry.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White Magazine, Entrepreneur, Hoy! New York, the New YorkPost, RCA Victor (Japan), Scene in San Antonio, Spirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    · To get a fuller picture of Eugene DeBruin’s character and legacy, visit his brother Jerry’s website at www.rescuedawnthetruth.com

    Topics: Action Movies, Biopics, Docudramas, Dramas, Independent Films, Movie Reviews, War Movies | Comments Off on Rescue Dawn (2006) – Movie Review