June 28, 2007

The Unknown Soldier

Is Herzog's Rescue Dawn the latest in string of racist Vietnam War films?

By Lewis Beale

In it to win it: Werner Herzog and Christian Bale on the set of Rescue Dawn (Photo: MGM)

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.

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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.

Comments (17)

I'd be more convinced if Herzog's work weren't frequently, almost foolishly context-devoid. Like much of his work, Rescue Dawn is honed in on The Dreamer (with all the Romantic bullshit that implies attached) who does what he is impelled to do - here, not a crazed protag so much as someone trying to survive. The movie begins with a briefing completely devoid of ominous overtones, but remember - only after a long, elegant slo-mo recap of that famous Vietnam bombing footage. Arguing that Herzog needs to remind us of the whole debacle in the first place strikes me as beside the point - this is a movie about people who didn't really understand what they were doing there in the first place (a point repeatedly emphasized by Bale's initial naivete in believing that there isn't already a war in Vietnam, let alone that there never will be).

Per his usual working methods, Herzog got non-pros and locals to enact the parts. So I don't think there'll be much complaints on that end. Could be wrong, natch.

Herzog is his own cracked self as an artist, and one of the things that means is that when he makes a movie about people at the extremities of existence and civilization, he doesn't make sure everything's PC like a good corporate artist would; he doesn't give a shit about equal time for the native viewpoint, he's interested in the extreme experience of his crazed characters, to which the natives are a kind of prop. Is he racist, then? That seems an incredibly simplistic and reductionist way of ending, rather than asking, any questions about his art, since racism means automatic dismissal and ostracism in our society.

Part of 19th century Romanticism was rebellion against Enlightenment and rationality, admiration for the savage, a quest for the "authentic" pre-civilized spirit of various peoples. Is that racist? It certainly can be. Nazism came out of a desire to recreate the supposed pure, pre-Christian German soul in a society cleansed of you-know-who. But there are many gradations. To take one example-- would you regard mountain climbing as racist? The idea sounds preposterous. But mountain climbing was essentially a Romantic invention-- authentic man against the abyss. And there are 1920s German mountain films that fetishize the self-destructively heroic side of mountain climbing in a way that starts to make you a little queasy, when you think of a society eating that stuff up and then going out and voting. And a lot of them star Leni Riefenstahl, who went on to be Hitler's filmmaker, of course-- and later to spend her life photographing noble savages in Africa. So it's not that far from the idea of pitting yourself against the mountain in a personal Gotterdammerung to the idea of engulfing the world in a racial war that ends with fire for everybody.

So, is Herzog racist? He comes out of a questionable tradition, certainly. But unlike Riefenstahl, who glamorized appalling ideas, Herzog brings you into the thick of them, forces you to experience them and ask yourself questions about them-- who, after all, comes out of Aguirre wanting to be Aguirre? Who thinks Fitzcarraldo's triumph, such as it is, was remotely worth the madness of attempting it? And who, precisely, goes to a Herzog film expecting an accurate lesson from history as opposed to a powerful impressionistic experience of life at its most desperate and extreme?

The comments are much more interesting than the original article.

I haven't seen "Rescue Dawn," so can't comment on that. As to your words on Coppola’s "Apocalypse Now," I have some comments and corrections. The film, based on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," was not explicitly concerned with the native perspective (See: “Conrad: “Heart of Darkness”). This is not, in and of itself, racist, unless you’re suggesting that every fictional narrative must show an opposing point of view. That being said, the racism of the Americans was suggested quite profoundly throughout Coppola’s film. The Air Force did not, as you state, napalm a village to save it from the Viet Cong. They did it on the orders of a lunatic, racist Lt. Colonel (“Fucking savages”; “Don’t these people ever up?”; “Bomb ‘em back to the Stone Age, boys!” among his comments) who, quite insanely, wanted to give his soldiers a safe beach on which to surf in the middle of a war. Further, the massacre of the innocent Vietnamese family in the "san-pan boat scene" is not based on an inability to distinguish locals from terrorists. Quite the contrary. It is obvious to the American soldiers (from their dialogue and actions) that the boat is full of innocents, but the captain of the American boat is simply following his orders to board and search such vessels. The massacre occurs because a 17-year-old soldier, living on the edge of fear 24/7, gets an itchy trigger finger and starts firing at the slightest sign of tension, at which point all hell breaks loose. The tragedy of this scene (at the end of which an American soldier is weeping in grief) is clear to anyone who fully understands the film. Finally, as to the slaughter of the carabao: Its inclusion in the film is based on a similar animal sacrifice by the Pilipino natives during Coppola’s filming in the jungles there (many of those natives were extras in “Apocalypse”), which Coppola witnessed at a time when he was searching for a way to conclude the film, and then thought to conclude the film as he did. The juxtaposition of the animal slaughter by the “Cambodians” in the film was inter-cut with the American captain’s assassination of a renegade American colonel (“their leader,” as you misleadingly write of the local), utilizing the same weapon on the American officer that was used on the animal: the machete. (And the captain’s comment on the murder, which he was ordered to commit by the powers-that-be in the Nixon Admin., and the CIA): “Everybody wanted it. He probably wanted it most of all.” (Oh yeah: In Coppola's portrait of the insanity if Vietnam, Col. Kurtz had the only sane game plan. And yet it was, by definition, insane.) I’ll note further that many, perhaps all, civilizations and peoples, be they First World or Third World, East or West, have traditions of animal sacrifice. The notion of animal sacrifice does not in and of itself, imply savagery. In conclusion? There is at least one “humanized Vietnamese character” in “Apocalypse Now,” and that would be the young girl on the san-pan boat who unintentionally illicits the massive American fire-power that slaughters her and her whole family, when she runs to protect an innocent creature hidden in a basket. “See what she was hidin’?” asks the grief-striken enlisted man. “You see what she was runnin’ for? A puppy. Fuckin’ puppy!”

I don’t think you get “Apocalypse Now.”

This is not the first time Herzog has made a rightwing propaganda film:

The New York Times, May 15, 1984
Herzog Introduces a Political Issue At Cannes
By John Vinocur

Werner Herzog, the West German director, brought a new film about the clash of civilizations in Australia to Cannes today. After the showing, the Cannes Film Festival was still awaiting its first hit, or its first scandal, but Mr. Herzog provided an interesting bit of politics-goes-to-the-movies with an unexpected denunciation of the Nicaraguan Government's treatment of the Miskito Indians.

Bearded and a bit rumpled because he had just returned to Europe from a five-week clandestine trip to Nicaragua, Mr. Herzog told of filming the Miskito's guerrilla war against the Sandinista Government, and asserted that the Sandinistas would be eventually overthrown.

Hardly a man of the Right, Mr. Herzog talked with far more passion about the atrocities he said were committed against the Miskitos than his new film, which is West Germany's official competition entry here. The movie tells of a group of Australian aborigines attempting to defend a sacred site against a mining company's bulldozers. The film's title is drawn from the name of the holy place: ''Where the Green Ants Dream.''

Entered From Honduras ''The situation of the Miskitos is appalling, Mr. Herzog said, discussing Nicaragua. ''It doesn't take you more than a minute or two to understand, once you're there. For me, it doesn't matter whether it is the Sandinistas or the Somoza people, who persecuted them too, but it's vile.''

The film maker, who is planning to prepare a ''ballad'' about the Miskitos for ZDF, one of the two main West German television networks, said in an interview that he secretely entered the Miskito region of eastern Niaragua by way of Honduras. He said he visited refugee camps and traveled with the Miskitos, some of them 10- and 12-year-olds, who he said were fighting guerrilla battles against the Sandinista troops. The Miskitos are an Indian tribe that lives in parts of northeastern Nicaragua.

''For quite some time I was intrigued by the Sandinista struggle,'' he said. ''From Europe it looked particularly interesting, but I kept wondering why even some of the Sandinistas' closest friends have deserted them. Now I've seen a small corner of the situation, and I understand.''

'Atrocities Self-Evident'

This came out with some of the fierceness that Mr. Herzog has been able to bring to his best films, which include ''Aguirre the Wrath of God,'' ''The Mystery of Kasper Hauser'' and ''Stroszek.'' ''With good intentions, the Sandinistas tried to bring 'scientific socialism' to the Miskitos,'' he said. ''The story instead is one of deportation, and concentration camps. A 10-year-old told me how a 6-year-old and 2-year-old were shot before his eyes.''

''The atrocities are self-evident and you don't have to be on one side or the other - and politically, I am not - to see what's going on. ''

Mr. Herzog did not go into any areas of Nicaragua under Sandinista control, but he said he had the impression that ''eventually, the Sandinistas will be overthrown.''

Enthusiasm for Film Lacking

The film Mr. Herzog expects to bring out next fall about the Miskitos will not be a political commentary, he said, ''but more of a song, a ballad, a documentary, but very stylized.''

His movie for Cannes, ''Where the Green Ants Dream,'' created no particular enthusiasm here. Mr. Herzog said he was not taking sides in portraying aborigines trying to protect a religious site against a mining company, but all the gracelessness, futility and inhumanity in the film seemed to belong to his white men on bulldozers and in board rooms.

In the end, Mr. Herzog's most sympathetic white, a geologist, turns his back on the mining company after it wins a court case over the aborigines. ''I think I probably would have done the same thing,'' Mr. Herzog said.

Sorry, but I find this critique of the film to be strident and wrong-headed. Keep in mind, this film is Dieter Dengler's story-- and there's not a second of it that isn't devoted to his perspective. For you to ask Herzog to break away from that in order to provide a larger context about Laotians and the nature of their involvement in the war would basically be asking him to make another movie. The thing is, we *do* get an idea of what conditions must have been like for the villagers and guards during this period; we just don't get that information directly. As you say, Americans have been "napalming their fields, slowly starving them to death." Well, one of most serious problems in this film is that the *guards* are starving, and if the guards are starving, their captives are not going to get fed well. In light of that, the decision made by the guards to execute the prisoners was not really sadistic, but a cruel necessity.

Moreover, the film is reasonably nuanced in its treatment of the guards themselves-- some of whom were needlessly brutal and at least one of which was essential to their survival and escape, given his role in sneaking rice to them and aiding them in their ambush. Granted, the film doesn't go further than that in humanizing the guards or locals, but I feel that's a necessary consequence of perspective, not racism on Herzog's part. Now if you're talking THE DEER HUNTER, I'm right there with you. But here, I think your charges are unfounded.

Just wanted to mention my support for Lewis for having the guts to take on some cinematic sacred cows in order to make his very valid point. Others may argue that Lewis doesn't appreciate films like Apocalypse Now or Rescue Dawn (which I haven't seen) in their proper context. But just because these films are *about* the perspective of their American protagonists doesn't negate criticisms over the inherent limitations of that perspective. Because the fact that these films keep getting made can only reinforce the one-sided, myopic and fairly xenophobic perspective they espouse (consciously or otherwise) towards not just the Vietnamese, but to all Asians as well as other non-European peoples around the world.

Herzog's post-Colonial Romanticism (as evidenced by AGUIRRE and FITZCARRALDO among others) and the films of others it has inspired - APOCALYPSE NOW occupying the top of the heap - is possibly a more insidiously racist brand of filmmaking than a more blatant film like BIRTH OF A NATION. The reason is that it professes to critique its own misguided impulse towards the Romantic conquest of the Other, by showing the sheer destructive lunacy of such drives. But this kind of mea culpa should be regarded with the utmost skepticism, because a) it's usually appended, with hypocritically dubious effect, to two hours of giddy Romantic impulse gone wild onscreen (I'm sure that the My Lai-wannabe sequence that initiates the "shit, war's a bitch after all" phase of APOCALYPSE NOW does little to denigrate most viewers' lingering enjoyment of the pyrotechnic wet dream destruction of a Vietnamese village so that Robert Duvall can choreograph surfing to Wagner); and b) we are made to be swept away by the noble folly of the Romantic hero so that the tragic crumbling of his existential hubris still towers over the more mundane, life-and-death suffering of the locals (whom, for all we care, amount to so many soulless heathen). This is a myth that has really played itself out in terms of real world applicability, but whose appeal to audiences seeking an onscreen ubermensch will ensure that it gets perpetuated, even after the Chinese inevitably buy out Hollywood later this century (they'll just have Jet Li's grandson playing Rambo).

There's actually a very good film that came out earlier this year that does exactly the opposite of what I'm decrying - Ham Tran's J0URNEY FROM THE FALL, the first American film about the Vietnam War made by a Vietnamese American and told exclusively from a Vietnamese perspective. Films like THE KILLING FIELDS and HEAVEN AND EARTH may have come before it, but this film takes it to another level, using multiple characters to show the impact of war on an entire family, not just one misguided macho soul. It's like THE DEER HUNTER told from the "other side", and in my mind, it's a superior film.

alsolikelife wrote: But just because these films are *about* the perspective of their American protagonists doesn't negate criticisms over the inherent limitations of that perspective.

You make a strong argument about Vietnam films in general, since they're almost all about what a quagmire the war was for Americans, but concern themselves little with the plight of the natives-- save for the ones who are collateral damage. But I think the line of reasoning noted above is simply unfair to Herzog's film. Not acknowledging the Laotian perspective on Dieter Dengler's plight isn't racist; one might find it "limited" and that's fair, but I feel like "racist" is a term that shouldn't be tossed around cavalierly. You're at a disadvantage because you haven't seen it yet, but there's nothing in RESCUE DAWN that's recalls the "Colonial Romanticism" of something like FITZCARRALDO, in which real-life natives actually lost their lives in service in the making of Herzog's film, to say nothing of the natives harmed for Fitzcarraldo's hubris. Dieter is definitely a Herzog hero-- a dreamer, an iconoclast, something with a powerful lust for life-- but he's much more empathetic and generous of spirit.

Following Dieter through his story-- one that's been documented by Herzog before in LITTLE DIETER LEARNS TO FLY and recreated scrupulously here-- is to my mind the only possible way to make this movie. It simply wouldn't make sense to, say, include scenes from the guards' perspective in an effort to "humanize" them, because Dieter is our sole witness to these events and he can't know what he didn't see. Keep in mind, he and his comrades were housed night and day within the same four walls, which is a situation that doesn't exactly invite the sprawl of Francis "This film is not about Vietnam, it *is* Vietnam" Coppola's film or Michael Cimino's film.

As I said before, what scenes we do get involving the guards are not egregious by wartime standards. Lewis admits that the Laotians had very good reason to be angry about what Americans were doing, and that anger occasionally does spill over (plausibly) on the POWs. But IIRC, only one guard is singled out as a brute and there's a wealth of material involving another guard who smuggled precious rations of rice to the prisoners and laid down arms when they tried to escape. I never got any sense from LITTLE DIETER NEEDS TO FLY or this film that Dieter or Herzog bear any hatred for Dieter's captors. Both movies have things other than war on their minds. Call it limited, if you must, but I feel both films are properly conceived.

Grizzly Man: does the film exhibit troubling racism towards carnivorous mamals?

I'm actually bringing this up because I wonder how Timmy Treadwell would fit into the discussion of perspective, romanticism, and context.

I find it interesting that people don't see Dieter Dengler himself as a casualty of 20th-century imperialist agression. What bothered me the most about Little Dieter Needs to Fly was his double victimization as a World War II survivor and then later as a pilot dropping bombs for the country that bombed his childhood town to ashes. In Rescue Dawn, Dengler's prison camp buddy Duane Martin comments that little Dieter's need to fly -- to want to become like the man that was trying to kill him -- is a sick fantasy. This point of view is never expressed in the earlier documentary and I was glad to hear it spoken in this most recent film. However, what's fascinating about Dengler is how the word "victim" just doesn't seem to apply. I believe that this is what draws Herzog to his character. Despite being at the center of two of the grossest distortions of the 20th century, his childhood desire to attain superhuman qualities (no matter that they come from the war machine) triumphed over all obstacles. Herzog has admitted that he lacks a sense of irony, that he simply does not understand this type of human communication. This is what bonds him most to Dengler, even more than their shared experience as children survivors of post-war Germany. I don't believe that Dengler ever saw the irony of a wartime starvation survivor's dream leading to starvation in another war. It can be hard to tell whether this tough question just doesn't interest Herzog, if he doesn't see it at all, or if he prefers for it to remain in the shadow of Dengler's incredible spirit. Even though his films are almost always of a place and time, Herzog is an anti-historical director. Rather than seeking to explain right and wrong in a sequence of human events, he focuses on individuals that stand in the stream of time with events flowing around a core of essential humanity. This stance is outside of political correctness and therefore guaranteed to offend politically.

The Vietnamese won the war.

So American movies about the war can be seen as the losing nations way of dealing with what happened/why the whole event happened in the first place, etc. A very good use of art & entertainment - introspection & reflection & study of a traumatic event. No matter how racist a war movie might be, the real world facts remain unaltered - the French & then the US tried to take over Vietnam, the Vietnamese fought back, the French & the US went home.

It will be interesting to see an American movie that depicts both sides of the war - a well made movie. Saw Letters from Iwo Jima & Flags recently, I thought they were very well done.

Have not seen Rescue Dawn yet, might check it out.

Enjoyed Grizzly Man.

And, racism and political correctness are two different things. Political correctness is merely a fancy term for politeness in the modern world (in the post-colonial, post-segregation, equal rights world). Rascism is hating an individual due to a "race"/ethnic group/nationality that the person belongs to. Rascism is not PC and should not be so. So attempts to explain away instances where someone accuses another of being racist as merely a politically correct accusation or an accusation dealing with political correctness misses a very important & valuable point. Trying to figure out if a filmmaker or a film is racist is a good use of time, I think.
The question being asked is: is the storyteller telling the story in order to further/advance/disseminatehis belief that a group of people are less human than others & deserve a certain kind of (often negative) treatment? And that's a good question to ask BECAUSE racist stories & folk lore & attitudes have helped to kill millions of people in the 20th century.
One example: Nazi cinema was very racist, and was used as a tool in the attempt to achieve their objective - which included the killing of millions of members of "lesser races".

- Sujewa

Herzog's film is not racist- and just because he spoke out, and did an ill-fate s"cinematic experimente", against the Sandinista's mistreatment of the Miskitos (correct spelling), he should not be labeled a right-wing nut. In fact, he was correct in pointing to the fact the Sandinistas -despite the better intentions during their Junta days ('79-'83)- went on to committ horrible acts of oppression. It might seem romantic to Bono, but alas, reality was another matter.

Anyhoo...back to "Rescue Dawn", which is -in my opinion- less concerned with the historical accuracy of the Vietnam War(s) and more with one man's perception of a world gone mad. It exists only in the moment, when Humans can be monsters, and our relationships to each other are beyond comprehension. We can expect historical accuracy from historical works and, in them, we will find the bare reality that both sides were Human, good and evil at the same time. But this movie is about Dieter Dengler's perception of the breakdown from order to chaos, from an existence of human-made discipline to one ruled by the Darwinian reality that is Nature.

If you want racist, then check out Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto", which by all means is a horrendous piece of nativist filmaking. Only made worse by the fact he can now, apparently, be seen mingling with the white, elistist crusts of Central American nations as he slowly gentrifies more and more locals off of the Pacific coast of a certain Nicaraguan neigbor.

Please disregard and errase my previous entry.

I do not claim to be familiar with Vietnam War films or Herzog’s oeuvre but do have the sense that he is ‘old world’ and he deals with culture clash (to put it lightly) and the most dynamic of human beings. Rescue Dawn is a refreshingly straight-up prisoner of war narrative with practically no plot twists; and while Christian Bale plays the lead, it is not a character study or actor’s film. It is a respectable film, being neither “Hollywood” or painfully inaccessible, and Klaus Badelt’s beautiful score was appropriate—it didn’t pull at heartstrings against our better judgment. What impressed me was the fact that, when the credits rolled, I saw a long scroll of Thai crewmembers. Asian filmmakers have always worked behind the scenes, and one must credit Herzog for bringing work to Thailand and using (presumably) local crew.

While I was disappointed that the three Asian American prisoners had little to no dialogue, it was to be expected. Rescue Dawn does not differ from other Hollywood films that keep its minority talent in the stratum of supporting cast. The fact that they were there (this may display my historical ignorance) piqued my curiosity about Asian American POWs. And as for Lewis’ assertion that Herzog portrayed the Vietnamese as ‘subhuman captors who live to inflict torture,’ I don’t believe this was his main point; Herzog is more sophisticated than to resort to using racism as a tool. The connections Dieter has with the locals are nonverbal, and the lack of subtitles keeps it to one side, the side of the protagonist, the American. After all, that’s what he is, and he’s not ashamed to be it (as we know from his brothel visit too).

I saw Rescue Dawn on Friday evening and was more irritated by the no-stops "Hollywood" ending than by any kind of inverted racism argument, wherein Herzog is likened to the Ku Klux Klan not because of what he chooses to show us but instead by that which he fails to.

When Beale references "the history of movies about the Vietnam War," we immediately see the flaw in his logic. There are very few non-documentary films (if any?) about the Vietnam War; there are a wealth that take place in it. As Mr. Mooney mentions earlier, Apocalypse Now is based on a 1902 (pre-war) novella. And The Deer Hunter's "justly famous Russian roulette scene" was never intended for use in a Vietnam movie. As Mike Medavoy explains in his 2002 book, "The sudden burst of Vietnam movies at that time was no different than when Robert Redford decided to do a rodeo movie, and presto, there were two others ready to go. The Deer Hunter was one of those made-to-order Vietnam films. The film's American soldier stationed in Vietnam who ends up playing Russian roulette for a living became a metaphor for the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but that, in fact, was not screenwriter Quinn Redeker's intention. That part of the story was conceived by Redeker while he was playing with his kids in his kitchen. He set it in Vietnam because it was the world crisis of the moment and he was looking for dramatic tension, not to make a statement about the war." And that's really the point, that very few of the films are making a statement about the war. They're telling a dramatic arc . . wherein everyone expects the prison guards to be cruel & the prisoners to be ingenious and somehow escape.

So because Herzog chooses a German-American protagonist and refuses to use his film as some kind of even-handed review of the Vietnam war and the conflict in Laos, that automatically makes his film and possibly himself "racist"?

This kind of critical piece is doomed from the word "go." There is nothing objective and even-handed in a narrative film. The sooner you get over that fact the less energy you'll waste on a filmmaker's personal politics.

"Rescue Dawn" has merit as a narrative film. If you are looking for a review of the atrocities perpetrated against the Southeast Asians by colonialists of the West, please read a book or see a documentary, or perhaps a film from that region about the conflict.

Film critic is the usual white guilty westerner. White people cannot make film about things they experience if non white people behave badly. Whites have monopoly on behaving badly -everyone else is living in peace and harmony until whites turn them into savages.

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