Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn is the kind of feel-good film that makes audiences want to stand up and cheer. The true story of Dieter Dengler, a U.S. Navy pilot shot down over Laos in 1966 and tortured in a Pathet Lao prison camp before escaping to freedom (a journey Herzog previously chronicled in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly), the film is a stirring work about one man's will to survive.
It's also seriously racist. The movie portrays nearly all of Dengler's Laotian captors and their North Vietnamese allies as subhuman, barely-civilized sadists who live to inflict torture and physical abuse. The paranoia and gaunt frames of the Americans (portrayed by Christian Bale, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies) attest to their brutal treatment, which is no doubt based on reality. Nevertheless, sitting through Rescue Dawn is like watching a war movie made by the Ku Klux Klan.
Not that I'm surprised by this approach, because the history of movies about the Vietnam War is mostly a history of forgetting: forgetting that the Vietnamese were fighting a war of national liberation; forgetting they were real people; forgetting they had a rich, thousand-year old civilization and had been struggling to overthrow their colonial masters -- first the French, then the Americans -- for decades. For the most part, Vietnam War movies are all about us -- the Stars and Stripes -- and the ways the war messed with our heads. Thanks to our immersion into the heart of Southeast Asian darkness, we learned the Nature of True Evil, which compelled and even required us to kill everything that moved.
Take for example the justly famous Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter, based on absolutely nothing that occurred in real life yet inserted into the film to show how our small-town heroes are turned into quivering neurotic messes thanks to those degenerate Orientals and their inhuman savagery. Or let's discuss Apocalypse Now a supposedly revisionist version of the war (Vietnam is all but lost, and Americans are crazed and paranoid throughout), which still treats the Vietnamese as a collective body of victims without any sense of individuality. In one famous scene, our boys are so disconnected from the locals they can't distinguish between a boat full of terrorists and one of innocent merchants, so they preemptively massacre the latter. The U.S. Air Force napalms a village in order to "save" it from those dastardly Viet Cong. And that symbolic climax where Kurtz's disciples sacrifice a caribou while their leader is sacrificed nearby, affirming even more primitive impulses than our own? We're not supposed to think they're having a barbecue, are we? If there's a humanized Vietnamese character in either of these films, and not just a gaggle of Yellow Peril cannon fodder, I didn't see it.
Rescue Dawn revels in this type of dehumanization. And it doesn't just demonize the locals; it conveniently leaves out some essential historical context. For starters, Laos was a neutral country being used by various powers as a proxy in a secret war, a sideshow to the bigger conflict in Vietnam proper. U.S. forces flew an estimated 600,000 secret bombing raids into the country between 1964 and 1973. The idea that the Laotians are just a teeny bit pissed at our boy Dieter and his counterparts is kind of understandable: They've been napalming their fields, slowly starving them to death. I'm not defending their treatment of the prisoners, but the film tends to shuck off this information as if it didn't exist. The slow-motion bombing montage that opens the film stands apart from the narrative that follows; Herzog never connects the desperate situation of the locals -- more than 350,000 of whom perished during the bombing campaign -- with the depraved acts of their captives.
I'm struck by two things here. Last year Letters From Iwo Jima set out to humanize the Japanese soldiers who fought during World War II, doing so with compassion and realism. Yet 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, our enemies, whose crimes pale in comparison to the Rape of Nanking and other atrocities committed by the Japanese, are still portrayed as savages of the first order. Is there some kind of half-century moratorium before you can acknowledge your opponents as human beings? Even Sen. John McCain, a POW who famously endured six years of imprisonment and torture, has returned to Vietnam and reconciled with his former enemies. Of course, "good German" movies were coming out barely a decade after World War II (see Marlon Brando as a sensitive Nazi in 1958's The Young Lions), but let's not even go there -- that's an entire graduate course on racial politics.
Instead, let's wonder why as of this writing Rescue Dawn has a 93 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is a well-made, compelling film, but I have yet to read a review that mentions anything about its racial and historical context. Are critics just giving its world-class director a pass? Maybe they've been so caught up in the story, they've forgotten to explore its context? Perhaps they simply accept these crazed Asian stereotypes as givens and don't even notice them anymore (I'd love to hear what some Asian-film aficionados think of this picture). Or maybe, and I'm really giving them the benefit of the doubt here, they just don't want to get involved in the same old arguments about the Vietnam War, which have been batted back and forth for decades.
Who knows? But this much is certain: by ignoring Rescue Dawn's historical context and blatant stereotyping, American's film reviewers are giving a cheery thumbs up to a film that's about as racially sensitive as a Fu Manchu flick.
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