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” was actually produced during the time-period of “Rescue Dawn” but its own action takes place over thirty years earlier in 1931. Based on a book by Henri Charriere about his adventures in French Guiana penal colonies (later disclaimed by the author himself as not entirely true), it’s Papillon’s POV, played to great effect by Steve McQueen. Papillon (which means “Butterfly”) is a safecracker who’s been framed for the murder of a small-time pimp and sentenced to life. On the boat to prison (“Devil’s Island”), he befriends France’s most famous counterfeiter Louis Dega, played by Dustin Hoffman, hiding behind Coke-bottle glasses. Papillon strikes a bargain with Dega: he’ll keep him alive in prison by being his bodyguard but only if Dega, who has smuggled money into prison with him, finances an escape attempt. There you have the dynamic: a manly-man of action and the weasly wimpy intellectual. There is a horrific 25-minute sequence where McQueen is put in solitary at half-rations for two years and he literally wastes away. Yet, when he returns, he is still thinking about freedom. He later makes a successful escape attempt only to be ratted out by a bitchy nun and sent back to his horrific fate. The film ends with both Hoffman and McQueen, free from work camps, but living on Devil’s Island. Jumping into the ocean is suicide they say, but what would you
Let’s start with the teeth. Hoffman and McQueen must have had a gas with their horrific dental care prosthetics which are really hard to look at for over two hours. Bale and Zahn at least still look like if they brush and get a check-up, they’ll get out of their predicament okay. This is no big deal to you? Apparently, you don’t have a sister-in-law who’s a dentist. Let’s just move on…
In both of these films, the conflict lays out similarly. It’s not just the prison itself that’s impossible to escape from, it’s the idea that the area around it is the real prison. In “Rescue Dawn” that means the harsh jungle of Thailand. In “Papillon” that means the high cliffs and crushing tides of Devil’s Island.
On the subject of escape attempts, there’s really no doubt that “Rescue Dawn” feels more real and compelling. “Papillon,” in contrast, has McQueen getting befriended by a tribe of Indians in a place that looks like a resort, complete with topless native girls.
Yet what will make or break “Papillon” and “Rescue Dawn” is the relationship between the two men in prison. Hoffman and McQueen were both big stars when they did this film — Hoffman limps like Ratso in “Midnight Cowboy” and McQueen narrows his eyes a lot in serious contemplation — and there’s a familiar feel to it. In contrast, Christian Bale remains a movie star nobody really knows yet and Steve Zahn could still be anybody. We are more prepared to accept their relationship at face value.
Both films have huge production value and both are exhausting to watch. In the quest to make you truly experience what it’s like to face such insurmountable odds while sick and starving, “Rescue Dawn” succeeds better, and not just because it’s about an American, but because it has more attention to the details that feel 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.”