If you like seeing grown men reduced to eating insects, boy, do we have a deal for you. Here we put two teams of prisoners — each made up of two men whose friendship with each other is as close as marriage — in an environment even harsher than what Paris Hilton suffered through during her time in the slammer out here in LA. One man on each team has an unquenchable thirst for freedom and leads an escape against all the odds. Back in 1973, that was Steve McQueen in the freedom-lover role in “Papillon” and today it’s Christian Bale in “Rescue Dawn.” Their mates are Dustin Hoffman and Steve Zahn, respectively. Both films are portrayed as true stories, clearly embellished in the case of “Papillon” and less so in “Rescue Dawn.” The bitter imprisonment they each dramatize is so awful that dying while trying to get away is considered preferable to living with the way things are. Both films, by the way, really do trigger the question you may have in your own mind: would you also take this risk and lead the escape, or would you be the partner who is more afraid and has to be dragged along?
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“Rescue Dawn” is the story of Navy airman Dieter Dengler (Christian “Batman” Bale) who in 1965, during the early part of the Vietnam war, had the misfortune to be shot down over Laos on his very first mission. A German immigrant who survived Allied bombing during World War II, Dengler now ends up surviving torture, starvation, solitary confinement, you name it, only to hatch a daring breakout plan which he has to sell to his fellow prisoners, Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene from Eugene (Jeremy Davies). The film is directed by the crazy and eccentric Warner Herzog, known for giving us some crazy, eccentric heroes (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo) in the past and Bale’s Dengler is no exception. In fact, it’s the way he endures the privation that’s crushed the spirits of his cellmates that makes him seem so unusual because, if you think about it, being an optimist in Hell may make you crazy. In this film, freedom really is just another word for nothing left to lose because the guards at the camp are considering executing everybody so they can get home. This makes everybody in this awful place a prisoner. Don’t think this film has a political agenda, though, because its narrow focus stays firmly on the incredible obstacles of just staying alive.
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The Defending Champion
“Papillon”Â was actually produced during the time-period of “Rescue Dawn” but itsÂ own action takes place over thirty years earlier in 1931. Based on aÂ book by Henri Charriere about his adventures in French Guiana penalÂ colonies (later disclaimed by the author himself as not entirely true),Â it’s Papillon’s POV, played to great effect by Steve McQueen. PapillonÂ (which means “Butterfly”) is a safecracker who’s been framed for theÂ murder of a small-time pimp and sentenced to life. On the boat toÂ prison (“Devil’s Island”), he befriends France’s most famousÂ counterfeiter Louis Dega, played by Dustin Hoffman, hiding behindÂ Coke-bottle glasses. Papillon strikes a bargain with Dega: he’ll keepÂ him alive in prison by being his bodyguard but only if Dega, who hasÂ smuggled money into prison with him, finances an escape attempt. ThereÂ you have the dynamic: a manly-man of action and the weasly wimpyÂ intellectual. There is a horrific 25-minute sequence where McQueen isÂ put in solitary at half-rations for two years and he literally wastesÂ away. Yet, when he returns, he is still thinking about freedom. HeÂ later makes a successful escape attempt only to be ratted out by aÂ bitchy nun and sent back to his horrific fate. The film ends with bothÂ Hoffman and McQueen, free from work camps, but living on Devil’sÂ Island. Jumping into the ocean is suicide they say, but what would you
Let’s start with theÂ teeth. Hoffman and McQueen must have had a gas with their horrificÂ dental care prosthetics which are really hard to look at for over twoÂ hours. Bale and Zahn at least still look like if they brush and get aÂ check-up, they’ll get out of their predicament okay. This is no bigÂ deal to you? Apparently, you don’t have a sister-in-law who’s aÂ dentist. Let’s just move on…
In both of these films, the conflict lays outÂ similarly. It’s not just the prison itself that’s impossible to escapeÂ from, it’s the idea that the area around it is the real prison. InÂ “Rescue Dawn” that means the harsh jungle of Thailand. In “Papillon”Â that means the high cliffs and crushing tides of Devil’s Island.
On the subject of escape attempts, there’s really noÂ doubt that “Rescue Dawn” feels more real and compelling. “Papillon,” inÂ contrast, has McQueen getting befriended by a tribe of Indians in aÂ place that looks like a resort, complete with topless native girls.
Yet what will make or break “Papillon” and “RescueÂ Dawn” is the relationship between the two men in prison. Hoffman andÂ McQueen were both big stars when they did this film — Hoffman limpsÂ like Ratso in “Midnight Cowboy” and McQueen narrows his eyes a lot inÂ serious contemplation — and there’s a familiar feel to it. InÂ contrast, Christian Bale remains a movie star nobody really knows yetÂ and Steve Zahn could still be anybody. We are more prepared to acceptÂ their relationship at face value.
Both films have huge production value and both areÂ exhausting to watch. In the quest to make you truly experience whatÂ it’s like to face such insurmountable odds while sick and starving,Â “Rescue Dawn” succeeds better, and not just because it’s about anÂ American, but because it has more attention to the details that feelÂ authentic.
Read on for our decision…
“Papillon” is too long and, in a way, it’s too sad. The crushing of spirit drags it down so hard that I felt like I was stuck on “Devil’s Island” with them. I’ve seen this film twice and each time my skin crawls at the injustice (and that’s probably good) but as the film continues my patience is tested and you just want the film to end. “Rescue Dawn,” in contrast, is more predictable but it does hit its marks better and the pacing is brisk. And, much as I like Hoffman and McQueen, this team-up of Bale and Zahn really works for as long as it lasts. What they’re doing may not be so surprising but their relationship has quirks and nuance and it is a bit unexpected. If you’re a film student, see “Papillon,” but if you’re out for a good night’s entertainment, the choice is “Rescue Dawn.”