Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1998) * * *

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (link to DVD on Amazon)

This is a documentary about Dieter Dengler, who was born in Germany shortly after WWII started who grew up to be a bomber pilot in Vietnam. As a young boy, he watched the Allied airplanes bombing his village and flying in low to the ground to strafe the houses. Watching the planes inspired in him a strong and life-long desire to become a pilot. At 18 he managed to emigrate to the U.S. and immediately joined the Air Force, where he peeled potatoes for 2 years but never got close to an airplane. He realized that he needed to go to college to become a military pilot, and so he went to California, lived on the beach in his VW van with his surf board, went to college, and joined the Navy R.O.T.C. He finally got his wings shortly after the Vietnam war started, and he was sent to war to fly a bomber plane. After a few months, he was shot down over Laos. He spent 6 harrowing months as a prisoner. First he was marched across Laos to a prison camp in Vietnam and was tortured repeatedly. Then in the prison camp, he met 2 other American and 4 Thai pilots. The camp was pure hell and after a few months the men staged a break-out. Of the 7 men that escaped, he was the only one that miraculously was rescued—after many days struggling barefoot through the jungle towards Thailand.

When the film was made, Dieter Dengler was in his early 60s. He narrates the film and is an engaging and charismatic story-teller of his incredible life. He tells the story of his imprisonment without emotion or self-pity. He recounts how they would torture him with a tone of voice that suggests admiration for the inventiveness of his tormentors. He voice carries no ill-will towards them. Part of the film is reenactment. With a group of young, heavily-armed, Laotians, he reenacts how the drove him through the jungle. He lets himself be hand-cuffed or tied to the ground to show how they restrained him. At the camp, he shows how they would shackle their legs to the ground, and describes the torture. All in the same voice of ‘wow, isn’t this an incredible story’. His descriptions of his mental state after his rescue tell better the true horror of the experience. For many years, he would be unable to sleep and could only sleep in the cockpit of his airplane. When he built his house in California, he made a bunker for food and stored 6 months of staples there. I sleep better knowing I will never be hungry again, he said.

My overall impression of the film was that this was an interesting and entertaining documentary of a remarkable but in some ways contradictory life. It was amazing to me that someone could come through this kind of experience mentally unscathed. That is if you don’t count his various obsessions, like open and closing doors multiple times and that he was reminded of the experience every day even 40 years after the experience. It was also strange that he grew up seeing the destruction and horror brought by Allied bombs, and yet he grew up to be a bomber himself. He says early on that when he was bombing, he saw the landscape as a map and did not connect the explosions on the ground to real suffering. The images from the sky he could not quite imagine from the ground. It was only after he was a prisoner and was on the ground that he appreciated the horror that the bombs brought. This seemed an odd thing to say given his childhood.

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