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RESCUE DAWN – Rescuing the truth

Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies
Director: Werner Herzog
Rated: M

RESCUE Dawn is German director Werner Herzog’s second presentation of the same story.

In 1997 he made a documentary entitled Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which told the extraordinary story of a German-born American Navy pilot, Dieter Dengler, who crash-landed in Laos during the Vietnam War.

He now returns to make a drama, but the film has generated plenty of drama in its own right.


Captured by the Pathet Lao soldiers, Dengler (Christian Bale) ends up a POW with six other men, among them two other US citizens: Duane (Steve Zahn) and Eugene (Jeremy Davies).

Slowly but surely Dengler inspires his colleagues to make a bid for freedom and then hatches a plan to escape.

They do, but on release Dengler doesn’t even know where he is, let alone know how he is going to get back behind enemy lines.

Except for the saccharine ending, I was quite moved by this story. But it led me to do some research on the subject and, subsequently, I have major reservations about what is on the screen.


As a film it is a gripping tale of courage and survival. Christian Bale is excellent as the goofy Dieter, particularly when it is clear that the film must have been shot in the reserve order of the shots on the screen.

The cinematography is particularly impressive.

The problem with Rescue Dawn is the claim that it is a true story, or even based on a true story.

Herzog’s canonisation of Dengler and his portrayal of the other prisoners, are now hotly contested by families of the other men, and the one surviving POW (


No one is taking anything from Dieter. He was a singularly brave man. But in Hezorg’s screenplay he was only the only brave man, the others were followers and one US POW, Eugene, is portrayed as having gone insane, even to the point of looking like Charles Manson.


The problem with this version of events is that it cannot be reconciled with Dieter’s own accounts of the experience.


It is not just small things that annoy us here, such as Dengler being called a Flight Lieutenant, which is a rank within the Royal Air Force not the US Navy, and how he wears a wedding ring throughout the film but tells us he is only engaged to be married.

The serious issues are that there were six not seven prisoners, that Eugene was not insane, that Dieter did not invent the key to open the handcuffs, that he was not the sole architect of the escape plan, and that his colleagues did not let him down when it came time for its execution.

These are pivotal points in the film’s story, and telling the truth would not have lessened the drama.


Rescue Dawn was the name of Dengler’s top secret mission in Laos. I cannot work out why Werner Herzog decided to sacrifice important elements in the facts of the story for this hagiographical biopic.

He could not have thought he would get away with it.

It is the truth that ends up needing to be rescued by the film’s end.


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