On Werner Herzog’s "Rescue Dawn"

As always, spoilers below. For Jason Zola.

Couldn’t say it much better myself, but I’ll try:

The opening scenes of the movie seem to be archival footage taken from a bombing pilot’s cockpit. We watch huts explode slowly, almost rhythmically, as the plane flies by. At first, one thinks “wow that’s beautiful,” and the music reinforces that sentiment.

Then one has to ask: What kind of sick people are we that we can watch explosions knowing others are burning alive down there, and say that such a thing is beautiful? We should be quaking, knowing the same could be done to us, wondering how we have the capacity to do anything like that to another. The archival footage ends with being on the deck of a carrier over the ocean, presumably safe.

That tension between comfort, fear and survival evident in the mere viewing of the opening continues throughout the whole movie.

Our hero is a German, now American, who as a child saw an American pilot fly and shoot at him, and somehow “wanted his job.” He says he will be forever grateful to the country which “gave him wings” (he says this, btw, to the actor who played Vagabond in the Wing Commander PC game series, and I wish I saw more of that actor, because he was badass in the games). A refusal to renounce his country lands him in prison camp.

In prison camp, he meets Dwayne and Eugene. Dwayne has something in common with our hero: both men, at various points in the movie, literally shit their pants. I use the cruder phrase because it’s the one the movie uses, but as corny and vulgar as this may sound, the phrase has significance. Pajiba’s review talks about our hero always being hopeful. That’s true, but hope doesn’t mean fear magically dies.

It is tempting to say that Christian Bale’s character is hopeful to the point of not fearing. Contrast him with Eugene, who is scared for his life and “hopeful” about coming peace talks that’ll free him. Eugene threatens to squeal when Bale’s character, Dieter, plans an escape. In the end, Eugene gets on board with the escape but doesn’t follow orders – he steals some of the stuff the prison guards had while Dieter and Dwayne do the work of rounding up the guards, and the last we see of him is his moping “what do I do now,” as if prison was all he could conceive, a mental comfort that can only be added to by physical comforts.

If Eugene represents a mind trapped by the order that society imposes, then his fear is linked to the fear society uses to keep us in line. It is a fear that has a hope purely contingent on what another does. The hope involves no “flight,” no believing in oneself, and ultimately no fraternity.

For Dwayne’s fear – a fear centered on survival – ultimately turns into a gratefulness for those who make life better. Dwayne moves from hope for survival to hope for freedom as he attaches to our hero. What is key for one who wants to survive is not that one survives merely, but that the will survives. A will is only something if it embraces freedom in the deepest sense (those of you who know me know there is a very biting critique of libertarianism here).

Ultimately, the movie brings out a Rousseauian worldview that is gorgeous to behold and maybe even true. Man in regressing just a bit to his animal self – in finding ways to survive and bonding with others to survive – might open up more possibilities for friendship, love and even duties worth executing than man who is bound entirely by convention. “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains” – well, that’s all contingent on “everywhere.” The true promise of being an American is that we are born free, and can stay free, as long as we see our fellow Americans and fellow humans as they truly are.

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