Rescue Dawn is a 2006 American war drama film directed by Werner Herzog, based on an adapted screenplay written from his 1997 documentary film Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The film stars Christian Bale, and is based on the true story of German-American pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down and captured by villagers sympathetic to the Pathet Lao during an American military campaign in the Vietnam War. Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Pat Healy, and Toby Huss also have principal roles. The film project, which had initially come together during 2004, began shooting in Thailand in August 2005. Executive producers were Freddy Braidy, Jimmy De Brabant, Michael Dounaev, and Gerald Green, among others.
The film was made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Gibraltar Films and Thema Production. It was distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer theatrically in the United States, and by PathÃ© Distribution, Hopscotch Films and Central Film GmbH in foreign markets. In home media format, the film was distributed by MGM Home Entertainment. It was originally scheduled to be released by MGM in December 2006, but was held back for limited release in the United States until 2007, with the full release on July 27 following a limited release in New York City, Toronto, and Los Angeles on July 4. The film score was written by German composer Klaus Badelt, after previously working with Herzog in his 2001 film Invincible. The soundtrack was released on June 26, 2007, while the DVD and Blu-ray Disc versions of the film were released on November 20.
The film grossed $5,490,423 in U.S. ticket receipts, and earned $1,686,720 outside the United States to give a total gross of revenue of $7,177,143. The film was considered a financial failure due to its $10 million budget. The film recouped its losses from $24,747,717 of DVD rental and sales. Preceding its theatrical run, the film was generally met with positive critical reviews before its initial screening in cinemas. Following its cinematic release, the film was nominated for multiple awards, including a Golden Satellite Award and an Independent Spirit Award. It also won an award from the San Diego Film Critics Society for actor Christian Bale in the category of Body of Work.
Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. Navy pilot in squadron VA-145, is shot down in his A-1 Skyraider over Laos in February 1966, while on a combat mission. He survives the crash only to be pursued, and ultimately captured, by the Pathet Lao. Dengler is given the chance for leniency by the Province Governor if he signs a document condemning America, but he refuses. He is tortured and taken to a prison camp. There he meets fellow American military soldiers and pilots, such as Gene DeBruin and Duane W. Martin, some of whom have been captive for years. Dengler begins planning an escape, much to the disbelief of his fellow combatants, who have been downtrodden through physical and psychological torture by the camp guards.
Eventually, all the prisoners agree to escape, but only Dengler and Martin follow through with the plan as the others disappear and are not seen again in the film. Dengler and Martin try to reach the Mekong River to cross over into Thailand, but Martin is killed by a mob of angry villagers. Eventually, Dengler is rescued by an American helicopter but isolated in a hospital for debriefing due to the classified nature of his mission. He is visited by some of his squadron who covertly take him back to his ship, where he is welcomed as a hero by the crew.
Rescue Dawn is based on the true story of Dieter Dengler, the charismatic pilot who was shot down in Laos while on a covert attack mission flying for the United States Navy during the Vietnam War. A few months after being captured in 1966, Dengler and other POWs who were being held captive targeted July 4 for their mass escape. The prisoners had overheard the guards in mid-June planning to kill all of them and return to their villages because a drought had caused a severe shortage of food and water. The POWs decided they could not wait any longer to make their escape. Dengler and fellow POW Duane W. Martin made their eventual run from their prisoner camp into dense jungle. Martin was killed by an enraged Laotian villager but Dengler was able to continue on. Two rescue helicopters were scrambled to rescue Dengler, dropping a cable down to the human figure they spotted below. They winched him on board. Fearful that he could be a Viet Cong suicide bomber the crew pinned the man to the helicopter deck and searched him. His backpack turned out to contain only a half-eaten snake. Dengler, exhausted by his ordeal, whispered: "I am an American pilot. Please take me home."
Director Herzog's fascination with the cruelties of man and nature interested him in the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly about Dengler's experiences in captivity. He chose to revisit the story in a cinematic theatrical version with Christian Bale portraying Dengler. Compared to Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn understates the suffering of the prisoners, including omitting some of the worst torture experienced by Dengler. Herzog did not want to glorify the prisoners' woes, as the film is rated PG-13.
The film was shot in 44 days in Thailand. In preparation for the roles, the actors playing the prisoners spent several months losing weight. Since weight gain is accomplished more quickly than weight loss, the film was shot in reverse, with Bale fully regaining his weight during the course of the shoot. The film includes the first major occurrence of digital visual effects in Herzog's career. Because very few authentic A-1 Skyraiders remained flightworthy at the time of the production, the shots of Dengler's flight while airborne were created digitally. The crash itself, however, is live action.
Music and soundtrack
The original motion picture soundtrack for Rescue Dawn, was released by the Milan Records label on June 26, 2007. It features classical music composed with the considerable use of the cello and piano musical instruments. The score for the film was orchestrated by Klaus Badelt. Original songs written by musical artists Ernst Reijseger, Patty Hill, Craig Eastman, and Jack Shaindlin among others, were used in between dialogue shots throughout the film. Peter Austin edited the film's music.
The film depicts six prisoners in the camp, while in real life there were seven. Herzog says that he found the scripting to be difficult with seven characters, and that six was a more manageable number.
Jerry DeBruin, brother of Gene DeBruin, created a website critical of Herzog and the film, claiming that several characters and events have been falsely portrayed. On the same website, Pisidhi Indradat, the other survivor of the group, has also stated that the film contains inaccuracies. The website claims that during his imprisonment, DeBruin taught his cellmates English, shared his food, and even returned after escaping to help an injured cellmate. In the film, Dengler formulates the entire escape plan along with uncuffing the handcuffs with the nail. According to Jerry DeBruin, the prisoners waited for two weeks before telling him of the plan, which had been devised before his arrival.
Herzog acknowledged that DeBruin acted heroically during his imprisonment, refusing to leave while some sick prisoners remained. Herzog states he was unaware of this fact until after the film had been completed; however, Pisidhi Indradat and Jerry DeBruin state they made multiple attempts to meet with Herzog to ensure the film's accuracy but to no avail. Herzog states that this narrative aspect probably would have been included had he learned it earlier. In real life, Dengler spoke English with a heavy German accent which was reduced in Bale's portrayal "to almost zero".
Among mainstream critics in the United States, the film received almost exclusively positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 90% of 156 sampled critics gave the film a positive review, with an average score of 7.5 out of 10. At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average out of 100 to critics' reviews, the film received a score of 77 based on 36 reviews. Various critics included the film on their lists for the top 10 best films of the year; such as V. A. Musetto of the New York Post, who called it one of the best films of 2007.
Kirk Honeycutt, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, said actor Bale's performance was "most complex and compelling". He praised the director Herzog for his use of "lush jungle locations in Thailand, eloquent camera work and an unobtrusive but powerful music score" which brought to life the "story of a man in the wilderness battling the elements on his own terms". Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times called it "perhaps the most believable that Herzog has made". while exclaiming, "There is nothing in it we cannot, or do not, believe. I was almost prepared to compare it to the classic storytelling of John Huston when I realized it had crucial Herzogian differences". In the San Francisco Chronicle, Walter Addiego wrote that the film was "an old-fashioned prisoner-of-war movie that becomes much more because of writer-director Werner Herzog's admiration for the remarkable true story of its protagonist, Dieter Dengler". He thought the director "found an actor capable of conveying the Herzog-ian heroâ"wounded, a holy fool, a crackpot, a dreamer of outsized dreamsâ"in everyone." Scott Bowles of USA Today, said the film was "cold and unforgiving and chilling to behold". He declared: "War stories don't get much more harrowing or detached than Rescue Dawn, and that's both blessing and curse for the Werner Herzog film." The film however, was not without its detractors. Rick Groen of The Globe and Mail, felt that, "The strangely hybrid result, half Herzog and half Hollywood, plays like its own battleground. Sometimes, the tension is fascinatingly productive; other times, all we get is the worst of both worlds". Left equally unimpressed was Paula Nechak of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who called the film "a noble effort that can't quite make itself unique in a saturated genre". She added, director Herzog "already has covered much of the tropical terrain of his long-delayed action film in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly". Alternatively, J. Hoberman of The Village Voice, said the film "rivals Apocalypto as a jungle marathon, has all this and more". He also noted, "Bale even looks authentically starved (as in The Machinist). But seeing Dengler's adventure staged hardly seems more real than hearing his accountâ"although, as conventionally framed and lit as it is, Rescue Dawn is the closest thing to a 'real' movie that Herzog has ever made."
Writing for the New York Times, Matt Zoller Seitz said the "storyâs basis in fact doesnât inoculate it against charges of predictability. Klaus Badeltâs score can be intrusively emphatic. And the triumphant endingâ"in which Dengler is welcomed back to his carrier with applause and speechesâ"is disappointingly conventional". Overall though, he did commend the film exclaiming "Rescue Dawn is a marvel: a satisfying genre picture that challenges the viewerâs expectations". James Berardinelli writing for ReelViews, called the film "a solid effort from Herzog that fans of the genre should actively seek out". and noted that "Herzog understood when he made Little Dieter Needs to Fly that the ex-pilot's story would make an excellent feature. It's surprising it has taken him so long to make that movie." Berardinelli also commented how "Christian Bale continues to amaze with his ability and range. He may be the most versatile under-40 performer today. No role seems to be beyond him, and he has worked with some of the best directors of his era". Describing some pitfalls, Elizabeth Weitzman of the NY Daily News said there was "an odd emotional disconnect leading up to the climactic escape, which can be traced directly to the performances". Weitzman however was quick to admit that "Herzog builds suspense from the start, and the movie is shot spectacularly." But ultimately, she disappointedly said, "There is a great movie in Werner Herzog's Vietnam saga, Rescue Dawn. Unfortunately, it's about 30 minutes too long. Although the rest of this based-on-truth adventure is woven with powerful moments, only toward the end will it hold you completely in its grip."
Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, stated that Rescue Dawn was "an original addition to the war film canon. It's an instant classic of the form, a portrait of courage and sacrifice at their most stirring, but subversively resisting cant and cliche". She believed that "such a masterful depiction of American heroism and can-do spirit has been created by a German art film director known for considerably darker visions of obsession is an irony Herzog no doubt finds delicious". She also emphasized how "There's a sense of austerity underlying Rescue Dawn, all the more admirable for being so rare in Hollywood storytelling." Similarly, David Ansen wrote in Newsweek that "Rescue Dawn is a Werner Herzog movie (and a true story), and though it's as taut and exciting as many edge-of-your-seat Hollywood escape movies, there's a mania about Dieter that sets him apart, a wild-eyed bravado that suggests the line between bravery and complete lunacy is a thin one." However, in the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips was not moved by the storytelling. He described his negativity saying "Rescue Dawn is Herzog's first English-language screenplay, and this is part of its problem: The hushed conversations between prisoners sound only fitfully idiomatic. Also â" crucially â" Herzog can't find a way to make his own big finish feel authentic, even if things did happen roughly this way." Critic Leonard Maltin though, wrote that Rescue Dawn was a "Gripping reworking of Herzog's 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly". He overly praised the film calling it an "edge-of-your-seat POW story".
The film won and was nominated for several awards in 2007. Among awards it was nominated for, were from the Independent Spirit Awards and the Golden Satellite Awards in the categories of Best Supporting Male, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Actor in a Drama. The film garnered a win for actor Christian Bale from the San Diego Film Critics Society in the category of Body of Work.
The film opened via limited release on July 4, 2007 in the United States. During its opening weekend, the film grossed $110,326 in business showing at six locations. Its official wide release was screened in theaters on July 24, 2007. Opening in a distant 11th place, the film earned $1,650,282 showing at 500 cinemas. The Simpsons Movie soundly beat its competition during that weekend opening in first place with $74,036,787. The film's revenue dropped by 66% in its second week of release, earning $560,903. For that particular weekend, the film fell to 18th place not challenging a top ten position. The film went on to top out domestically at $5,490,423 in total ticket sales through a 17-week theatrical run. Internationally, the film took in an additional $1,686,720 in box office business for a combined worldwide total of $7,177,143. For 2007 as a whole, the film would cumulatively rank at a box office performance position of 178.
Following its cinematic release in theaters, the Region 1 Code widescreen edition of the film was released on DVD in the United States on November 20, 2007. Special features for the DVD include; Commentary by director Werner Herzog and interviewer Norman Hill; The Making of a True Story featurette: Unfinished Business - Telling Dieter's Story, Strength of Character, War Stories, What Would Dieter Do?; 3 deleted scenes with optional commentary by director Werner Herzog and interviewer Norman Hill; and a Still photo gallery.
The widescreen hi-definition Blu-ray Disc version of the film was also released on November 20, 2007. Special features include, Commentary by director Werner Herzog and interviewer Norman Hill - Deleted scenes with optional commentary by Werner Herzog and Norman Hill; The making of a true story multipart documentary; Honoring the brave interactive memorial; Preparing for survival featurette - before the dawn mission secrets trivia track; Photo gallery; and the Theatrical trailer in high definition format. According to the website The Numbers, estimates on DVD sales revenue in the United States totaled $24,747,717.
- Survival film, about the film genre, with a list of related films
- 2007 in film
- Dieter Dengler
- Duane W. Martin
- Eugene DeBruin
- Pisidhi Indradat
- Air America (airline)
- Air America (film)
- Henderson, Bruce (2010). Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War. Harper. ISBNÂ 978-0-06-157136-7.Â
- Dengler, Dieter (1997). Escape From Laos. Presidio Press. ISBNÂ 978-0-89141-293-9.Â
- Bailey, Lawrence (2003). Solitary Survivor: The First American POW in Southeast Asia. Potomac Books. ISBNÂ 978-1-57488-602-3.Â
- Rowe, James (1984). Five Years to Freedom: The True Story of a Vietnam POW. Presidio Press. ISBNÂ 978-0-345-31460-4.Â
- Anton, Frank (2000). Why Didn't You Get Me Out?: A POW's Nightmare in Vietnam. St. Martin's Paperbacks. ISBNÂ 978-0-312-97488-6.Â
- Wilms, Wilfried (2006). Bombs Away! Representing the Air War over Europe and Japan. Rodopi. ISBNÂ 978-90-420-1759-7.Â
- Prager, Brad (2007). The Cinema of Werner Herzog: Aesthetic Ecstasy and Truth. Wallflower Press. ISBNÂ 978-1-905674-18-3.Â
- Official website
- Rescue Dawn at the Internet Movie Database
- Rescue Dawn at Box Office Mojo
- Rescue Dawn at Rotten Tomatoes
- Rescue Dawn at Metacritic
- Interview with Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, ioncinema.com
- Interview with Werner Herzog @ Fresh Air, w/ Terry Gross - 07-25-07
- Rescue Dawn: The Truth
- Story Of Escape, Pisidhi Indradat