O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying to me,
‘There is no help for you in God.’
The respected German filmmaker Werner Herzog again sets his main character in the midst of a cruel wilderness, as he did in Aguirre the Wrath of God , Fitzcarraldo, and Grizzly Man. In all three of his earlier films the harshness of nature either brings out the savage, even bestial, streak in men, or else defeats his efforts at living in harmony with it. In his latest film Christian Bale portrays real life who also ventures into a jungle, though the circumstances are very different.
Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is a Navy pilot who was shot down during the covert bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. Held prisoner and tortured for six months, he becomes the focus of resistance and hope for his fellow prisoners. At first Dieter scoffs at the flimsiness of their bamboo prison hut. The men are locked into a wooden contraption at night, but Dieter had trained as a locksmith, so he easily releases them during the night, and then relocks them up before the guards check them in the morning. Suggesting that they could easily break out of their hut, another American tells him, “Don’t you get it? It’s the jungle that is the prison.” He and the other prisoners perfer to wait out their captivity until the war ends and they are exchanged. Dieter wants nothing of this, his spirit rebelling at the inhumanity of their treatment by their captors. Finally, when they learn that the guards plan to kill hem, he plans their break out, the men seizing some guns and killing their guards. They trek through the jungle in the hope for either rescue or reaching the Thai border.
This is actually Werner Herzog’s second telling of the story. Earlier he made the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, but apparently wanted the greater artistic freedom afforded by a dramatic film. And yet it is a very understated film in that Dieter won the Purple Heart, the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Navy Cross, but none of these are mentioned in the film. The climax, when Dieter was given a Welcome Home reception by the crew of his air craft carrier seems as over-the-top as the climax of Mr. Holland’s Opus, and yet the press notes assure us this really happened. Unfortunately not doing well at the box office, you might have to wait until its inevitable reapparance on DVD. A powerful tale of courage, friendship, and perseverance, the film surprisingly has many moments of humor as the prisoners comment on their life and treatment. Some of the torture scenes will be difficult, but the film as a whole is inspiring.
1) How does Herzog’s film compare with other POW films that you have seen? The prisoners’ treatment by their guards is brutal, but what is the view of the guards regarding the prisoners? What were the Americans doing over Laos? What kinds of bombs were they dropping on the villages? How are these fiery bombs especially destructive for the villagers (as well as the VC, their intended targets)?
2) Dieter describes his obssession with flying as the beginning in his native Germany at the end of WW 2 : “When I was uhh… five or somethin’, I was looking out the window, with my brother… and we see this fighter plane was coming right at us. I was not scared. I was mesmerized! Because for me, this pilot was this all-mighty being from the clouds. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be him. I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to be a pilot.” Have you had a similar moment when you became convinced that something was to be your life’s work?
3) Compare Dieter’s attitude during captivity to that of the other prisoners. Which do you think is better for survival—to accept your condition with little protest, or to refuse to accept it and work toward a plan?
4) What do you make of Dieter’s answer to the cheering crew back on his aircraft carrier when he says: “Empty that which is full. Fill that which is empty. If it itches, scratch it.” 5) Do you see any hint of the Psalmist’s faith in Dieter or his comrades? What could you say to them, were you with them, about God and his care?