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Film Review: A Tale of Two Heroes

Film Review: A Tale of Two Heroes

9 Mins
March 24, 2011

November 2007 -- 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, if flawed, motion picture. German director Werner Herzog’s inspiring biopic recounts a daring POW-camp escape during the early years of the Vietnam War. Reminiscent of Steve McQueen’s Papillon, Rescue Dawn is 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.

Herzog presents the astonishing true story of an individual who chose to become an American in the most meaningful way.

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 and bring legendary tenor Enrico Caruso there to perform. To realize his protagonist’s grandiose ambitions, Herzog staged some of the cinema’s most spectacular scenes, beyond even Cecil B. DeMille’s wildest dreams. In one extraordinary sequence, 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 having seen this breathtaking sequence: no special effects or miniatures, only 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 another excruciatingly demanding production.

Christian Bale gives a fervent, stirring performance as German-born U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler. As a small boy growing up in Nazi Germany during World War II, Dieter 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.

Dengler was shot down on one of his first missions over Laos in 1966. Taken captive and suffering beatings, psychological torture, and starvation at the hands of his Pathet Lao captors, he’s brought to the gemütlich office of a provincial governor (François Chau). The governor promises Dengler his freedom if he signs a confession for committing “imperialist aggression.”

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

Christian Bale gives a fervent, stirring performance as Navy pilot Dieter Dengler.

Dengler is marched again through the blistering jungle heat, and he winds up in a prison run by sadistic youths with itchy trigger fingers. As soon as he’s locked up, he begins to plan his escape from the poorly constructed bamboo hut. But another captive, Eugene (Jeremy Davies), 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. 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 underscore 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.

During the months Dengler plans their breakout, he often has to overcome their low morale and backbiting. The squirrelly Gene would just as soon sabotage their plans than risk his life. Another American prisoner, Duane Martin (Steve Zahn), has been weakened both spiritually and physically. As the shackled men lie awake nights, Dengler steadfastly tries to restore their hope and confidence. Through his resourcefulness and optimism, he helps rebuild the esprit de corps that had been beaten out of them.

What doesn’t kill Dengler only makes him stronger. After many long months of enduring imprisonment, torture, and deprivation, he finally seizes an opportunity to claw his way back to freedom, hacking through dense jungle vegetation on a long trek home.

Through Dengler’s valorous feats of evasion and survival, Herzog presents the astonishing true story of an individual who chose to become an American in the most meaningful way, and who refused to back away from that choice under the most grueling of circumstances. It’s a portrait of individual initiative overcoming group inertia, a thread that runs through literature and the arts since Ancient Greece.

Rescue Dawn is a timeless tale of man’s triumph over the evil of other men, and it’s one of the few movies that portrays America’s actions in Vietnam in a positive, indeed laudable, light.

There’s just one big problem with Rescue Dawn: In drawing Dengler’s character with broad, heroic strokes, director Herzog bent the truth.

There’s just one big problem: In drawing Dengler’s character, 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 sometimes do this to create a more coherent narrative, and instances of “résumé embellishment” don’t bother me when they don’t contradict the heroic essence of a remarkable subject. For example, The World’s Fastest Indian had speed demon Burt Munro breaking the 200-mph barrier at Bonneville years before he actually did. And The Pursuit of Happyness buffed away some of the scuff marks on the life story of investor Chris Gardner.

Likewise, in Rescue Dawn, Christian Bale’s authoritative, never-say-die performance rightly honors Herzog’s longtime friend. 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 pilot—humility aside, he was truly heroic. He was awarded the Navy Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross, and when he passed away in 2001 from Lou Gehrig’s disease, he was buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery. It is impossible for anyone with a conscience and a soul to view Rescue Dawn without being roused by Dengler’s story of courage and optimism.

Still, I walked away from the theater with a sense that something was “off,” though I couldn’t put my finger on it. I received the explanation just as I sat down to write this review, in an e-mail forwarded to me by Erika and Hank Holzer, who are active in veterans’ causes. They directed 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 tearing down the character of fellow POW Gene DeBruin.

DeBruin was depicted as duplicitous and sociopathic. To stress that impression, Herzog cast actor Jeremy Davies to play the role. Schlussel noted that Davies previously played crazed mass murderer Charles Manson in the 2004 made-for-TV movie “Helter Skelter.” This jibed with my own notes: Upon first seeing Davies as DeBruin, I jotted, “Looks like Charlie Manson.”

“I love America. America gave me wings."

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 in his 1979 autobiography Escape From Laos describes Gene DeBruin as inventive and gung-ho in plotting the escape. Far from being the cagey nut concerned only with his own survival, DeBruin in fact stayed behind instead of escaping, in order 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, 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. Facts do not create truth, they create norms.

I wholeheartedly agree with Herzog’s approach to storytelling. One doesn’t so much view a Herzog movie as experience it. More than any living director, he seems to grasp that the cinema is an inherently Romantic medium. His movies are not just entertaining, but ennobling; his heroes are truly heroic:bold, brave, and larger-than-life. He interlaces his soundtracks with sublimely moving music from classical composers such as Wagner, Ginastera, Verdi, and Richard Strauss. It is this uplifting view of man and earth that Herzog means by “ecstatic,” and—emotionally—this is what so resonates with me.

Still, emotional identification with an artist’s aesthetic credo cannot substitute for the value of intellectual honesty and judgment, and therein lies the rub. That is a particular challenge when producing a biopic, and it’s the reason this magazine’s editor, Robert Bidinotto, registered his distaste for the “docudrama” genre in a past review:

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, Herzog was asked about accusations from DeBruin’s family that the director had taken liberties with the facts. Herzog’s reply elaborated upon his previously quoted 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, this answer comes off almost as a non-sequitur: It doesn’t address his unflattering portrait of Gene DeBruin’s character, and at best it seems to equate the accuracy of DeBruin’s depiction with factual trivia concerning the movie’s props.

I contacted Herzog about this, and he responded promptly and forthrightly by e-mail. About that particular quotation, he commented:

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.

Herzog went on to explain 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.”

Herzog offered this additional 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.

The real-life DeBruin was the opposite of the moral weakling depicted onscreen.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Herzog’s explanations, nor do I think he meant to depict Gene DeBruin maliciously. I certainly don’t advocate suppressing evidence merely because it is not entirely charitable to a depiction of someone’s full character. That said, I have to agree with Schussel’s assessment: When Herzog self-admittedly used a dramatic device that lopsidedly portrayed DeBruin’s darker side, he ought to have created instead a composite, fictitious character. That would have honored Dengler without damaging DeBruin’s reputation.

Rescue Dawn is a deeply engaging, though sometimes deeply flawed, motion picture. It ought to be seen because it’s a great director’s homage to a friend’s indomitable spirit.

But he didn’t need to do that at the expense of someone who, in reality, may have been equally heroic. In a videotaped interview, Dieter Dengler quoted in awe his comrade Gene DeBruin, who made the painful decision to stay behind rather than escape the hell of the POW camp, in order 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 an American—is even more heroic.”

Herzog told me that he has just recently seen this testimony. “I find this very noble,” he declared, noting that he now mentions it in all his 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, when unsubstantiated though “very strong sources” reported that Gene had been re-captured by Pathet Lao forces after an attempted escape and relocated to North Vietnam. “Gene sacrificed freedom to save his friend Tou,” Jerry told me. “This is who my brother was.”

I can only respectfully disagree with Werner Herzog in how he chose to illuminate Dieter Dengler’s heroism in Rescue Dawn. I do not believe Dengler’s story can be told without telling Eugene DeBruin’s full story, too. And not by focusing on his warts, whatever they were, but by paying proper tribute to DeBruin’s own acts of gallantry.

(To get a fuller picture of Eugene DeBruin’s character and legacy, visit his brother Jerry’s website .)

Robert L. Jones
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Robert L. Jones
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