Released July 4th, Rescue Dawn had no chance for a decent box office take when heavy hitter Live Free or Die Hard came out only weeks before. Even though it took in less than six million in the States, it took in even less abroad, raking in a 6.5 million total for the entire films theatrical run. Granted it was in limited releases in some cases, showing up in its biggest run in only 505 theaters. Even though it’s production, box office intake and audience was small, there was no denying that Rescue Dawn had big ambitions in telling the tale of one American pilot named Dieter Dengler.
As a young boy in Germany, Dieter Dengler witnessed the senseless bombing of his country during World War II. Though the sounds of bombs exploding surrounded him, Dengler wasn’t afraid and instead was enthralled with the airplanes that swooped past him as he peered out of his homes attic. For a brief moment as the airplane buzzed by, Dengler locked eyes with the pilot and it was after thi attack that he knew he wanted to be a fighter pilot. Moving from Germany to the US to learn how to become a pilot, Dengler eventually got shipped out on a secret mission to Vietnam in 1965, years before a war officially began there. During his first mission he was shot down and captured by the Viet Cong and thrown into one of their prison camps. Determined not to die, Dengler fought his way out of the camp with the help of the other captors and Dengler was able to return home to his friends on the aircraft carrier he was stationed on.
Rescue Dawn is a really remarkable story. While the storytelling was a bit jarring at first, what with the awkward fade outs to signal progression in the film and all, but less than halfway into the film you become adjusted and just become completely enthralled with the whole story. Perhaps the strongest aspect of the film is that through all of what Dengler is put through, he never once seems to falter in his beliefs. His insistence that America will still come and rescue him from his imprisonment in Laos and his ability to instill this belief in his fellow POWs was really just an amazing story.
Of course the film, or the real life experience of Dengler for that matter, was anything but pleasant. Dengler was forced to live in conditions he wasn’t accustomed to and was consistently treated like dirt while in the camp. However, with the new friends he made in the camp he was able to form an alliance that would eventually lead their freedom. Sadly enough, Dengler was the only one that survived the escape and was able to return home, as his fellow POWs were all killed during after their split upon escaping the camp.
But I’m getting a head of myself a bit there—the other men he met in the camp were another element of the film that made it so interesting to watch. The most outspoken of the POWs were fellow American pilots Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Eugene “Gene” McBroom (Jeremy Davies), who were sources of great help and conflict for Dengler. Gene, believing every second that a rescue team was coming any day now to rescue them from the camp didn’t want to risk their lives escaping from the camp, but when it became evident that everyone but him was with Dengler on the escape attempt, he was forced to go along with the plan, even if his eventual semi-betrayal of the crew marred his character. It was revealed that after the production of this film that, while this is the only account of Gene that was known from his time in the camp, his moral center was not nearly as abrasive as it was portrayed in the film. Director Werner Herzog expressed some dismay in that he found this out only after the film was finished, otherwise he would have thrown in more elements for Gene’s character.
Duane Martin is the other POW that Dengler bonded most with. Once they escaped from the camp successfully, he and Dengler set out together to find their way to Taiwan so they could be rescued. Unfortunately during their time in the jungle, Duane only grew weaker and eventually began to lose control of himself. Although this was not what ended his life (an accidental run in with some Viet Cong is what did it, in a shocking and quick scene), one has to wonder if it wouldn’t have eventually been his end. His death had a strong impact on Dengler, who even imagined his voice and person being next to him at several points during the film. This revealed a lot, to me at least, about Dengler’s character and how he was able to remain so chipper, even during his imprisonment. He seemed to be slightly disconnected from reality, never believing the worst had happened and instead gripping onto what made him comfortable. Whether that’s an appropriate analysis, I don’t know, I’m hardly a psychologist.
While it’s true that the film has a happy ending, it’s also one that nearly brings one to tears. The return to his peers on the air craft carrier and the cheering they do just for Dengler is just remarkable to see and you can really feel it in your chest how happy that moment must have been. Very rarely am I affected emotionally by a film, but Rescue Dawn was really exceptionally well done in many respects and when it was paired with Klaus Bedelt’s superb score, it just made the scenes that much more powerful.
Rescue Dawn is one of the better films I’ve seen all of this year. Considering I’ve watched more movies this year than any other, I feel I can safely say it is definitely one of the strongest films I’ve seen in a long time. Highly Recommended.
The DVD package for this release is anything but amazing; arriving in standard amaray single disc DVD case, Rescue Dawn has no slipcover or inserts and comes with disc art that mirrors art from the DVD packaging. The disc art actually reminds me of something out of Lost—not entirely sure if it’s the font choice or the scenery, but I just now realized the similarities. Menus are simple and easy to navigate.
Video and audio for the release are clean and clear for the most part, with the jungle colors having an appropriately muted color until the green leaves come on screen, then the color pops out a bit more. Audio is a bit weak in the rear channels for jungle scenery (where are the rear channel bug sounds or birds?), but for a film that is mostly front focused, it’s a fine transfer.
Moving onto the extras we have a full length commentary with director Werner Herzog and interviewer Norman Hill. Hill keeps Herzog on topic and lively throughout the commentary, making for a very interesting and detailed account of what it was like to make the film. Also included are some more elements of Dengler’s life, some repeated from the special features. After the commentary we have near six minutes of deleted scenes, also with commentary by Herzog and Hill, where Hill points that Herzog rarely includes deleted scenes on his DVD releases, for worthwhile reasons: deleted material is often deleted for a reason. Here, however, the material was deleted only for time and they contain a few nice character moments.
The final extra is “The Making of a True Story” (44:13), which provides a nice look into the making of the film and the true events that is based on. Herzog takes center stage in most of the discussions, although we hear from actors Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Abhijati ‘Meuk’ Jusakul and a few other cast members. This is a nice little documentary that focuses more on the history and true story element than the film’s production.
Overall a solid DVD release for a great film. I don’t think you could ask for much more in terms of special features—a commentary and making-of are pretty much standard fare and short of some of Klaus Badelt’s score (which is really quite enjoyable) being sampled on the disc, I don’t know what else you could include. Highly Recommended.