Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Watching: Dieter!

No, not this guy:

Dieter Dengler, subject of not one but two films by Werner Herzog. The first is Little Dieter Needs To Fly, a documentary made about ten years ago. The second is an action flick made a year or so ago, Rescue Dawn, starring Christian Bale.

Basically, this dude was shot down over Laos during the early part of the Vietnam War, and endured unbelievable hardship in a prison camp for a few months before escaping into the jungle. Then things got really bad. Somehow, he made it out and was rescued. I think one of the movies said he was the only American POW to escape from a camp during the war.

I liked the doc better. Dieter was a candid and enthusiastic host to his own story. His descriptions of the torture and misery he suffered were matter-of-fact, and there was a weird, peculiarly German, psychological component in having him re-enact some of it. Also, Herzog loves to explore Nature's casual cruelty toward human survival, and this story was a great example of that theme.

Rescue Dawn was pretty good, probably the second-best movie featuring Christian Bale held captive by sadistic and inscrutable Asians. I'd rank it behind Empire of the Sun, but ahead of Batman Returns.

Here, he plays Dieter as resourceful and optimistic. He dropped a lot of weight (Dieter weighed 85 pounds when he came out of the jungle), but didn't seem too concerned with getting inside the guy's head or doing a straight-out imitation of him. Too much of the movie took place in the prison camp, and not enough in the jungle, for my taste. It became too much of a standard issue POW escape film.

Of course, there are some great POW films, and this one stands up pretty well. It's interesting how these movies have consistently gotten more graphic over the years, to the point of being almost torture porn.

Start with Stalag 17, which was pretty tame in showing the treatment of the prisoners. I mean, they made the one guy stand at attention for hours and hours, but that was about it, and they only showed a couple seconds of him collapsing in fatigue. The prisoners got visits from the Red Cross and held a Christmas party where, if you squinted hard enough, some little squirrelly guy with a mop on his head could look like Betty Grable. Meanwhile, William Holden was running a thriving black market Walmart under his bunk and waltzing into the Russian women's camp. I mean, come on, these were the Nazis!

In The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Japs put Alec Guinness in an oven for days on end, which was pretty bad. The thing is, it all pretty much happened off screen. And hey, William Holden escaped from that one, too, and ended up on an island with some nurse before they sent him back to blow up the bridge.

In The Great Escape, the Nazis locked Steve McQueen in solitary so often that everyone called him The Cooler King, but at least they let him have a ball and a glove. And, hey, it's not like they were being arbitrary -- he kept getting caught trying to escape. Meanwhile, Charles Bronson was tunneling halfway to Sweden and James Garner was lamely trying to fill William Holden's shoes as a one-man general store. And I could be wrong, but I don't remember any of the guards laying a hand on any of the prisoners. Mostly, they just stood around dumbly while dozens of Brits and Americans (and a few Aussies) dumped dirt out of their trouser legs and sang Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Slaughterhouse Five kicked it up a notch, except of course it was the Americans doing most of the damage against their own guys.

I don't really remember much about Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, except that the Japs buried David Bowie up to his neck in the hot sand. It didn't stop him from making Blue Jean, though.

Then came the Rambo movies, and all hell broke loose, I guess. So now we have to actually see Christian Bale getting hung upside down and spun in circles, and dunked in a well up to his chin, and dragged behind an ox. That's entertainment.


we_be_toys said...

Wow...these are some serious GUY flicks! Um, what are the girls at your house watching?

aurora b said...

Haven't seen the documentary, but saw Rescue Dawn in the movies. Hubby enjoyed it, but I have to agree with the "torture porn" assessment. It was just unrelenting.

Not sure it started with Rambo though. If I'm remembering right "Papillon" was pretty grim. Just not as grim as Rescue Sawn. At least in Papillon his escapes provided breaks within the movie.

Michael Plank said...

Papillon and Midnight Express were pretty grim, but I was limiting it to POW camps, rather than criminals. The one I forgot was The Deer Hunter, which really amped up the torture quotient, what with the Russian roulette and the half-drowned prisoners.

The girls are watching, I don't know, some Jane Austen shit. The big one is, anyone. The little ones are watching princess and Barbie stuff and High School Musical.