‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’: Vietnam War Navy pilot tells his engrossing story


In this absorbing documentary, Dieter Dengler, former Navy pilot, re-creates his experience as a POW during the Vietnam War.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text. All rights reserved

“Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” a documentary film, directed by Werner Herzog, 1997 (Anchor Bay Entertainment DVD, and various online sites)

“All that I like about America was somehow embodied in Dieter: self-reliance and courage and loyalty and optimism, a strange kind of directness and joy in life.” 

— German director Werner Herzog on Dieter Dengler, the subject of his film “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” as quoted in “The Ecstatic Truth: Werner Herzog’s Quest” by Daniel Zalewski, in The New Yorker magazine, April 24, 2006

In my post on October, 2, 2016, I wrote about the nonfiction book “Hero Found” by Bruce Henderson, based on U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler’s daring escape in 1966 from a POW camp during the Vietnam War.

I read that before watching “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” wherein Dengler returns to Southeast Asia more than 25 years later and re-creates part of his harrowing wartime experience. Herzog makes some very odd choices in the award-winning film, though this should not be surprising because the director has never denied that he “stylizes” his documentaries.

In one of the early scenes, Dengler is driving his vintage yellow convertible (the top is up for a reason) on a winding mountain road toward his two-story home north of San Francisco. He speaks movingly of his friend, former Air Force Capt. Duane Martin, who died in the jungle after the escape.

The German-born Dengler pulls into the driveway, gets out of the car and walks around to the passenger side. He opens and closes the door several times.

At his house, standing at the front door, he repeats the action. Inside, doors are a continuing motif in some colorful artwork. Is this some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder manifestation or is Dengler dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder?

As it turns out, neither. The production notes reveal that Dengler had talked to Herzog about how opening a door gave him a sense of freedom because while he was a POW, there was no opportunity to do even that simplest of tasks. The repeated opening of doors was Herzog’s symbolic idea. He’s also pretty heavy-handed with the themes of death and heroism.

So, unless Dengler is talking, take the “stylizations” with a grain of salt.

Dengler is a dominating presence, words tumbling from his mouth like an Asian monsoon. He describes in fairly graphic detail how he was tortured and the conditions he, Martin and others endured. He is totally unself-conscious in his extensive monologues, and he speaks with a first-time urgency, though he’s told the story many times previous to meeting Herzog.

But I wondered: How did Herzog persuade Dengler, then in his 50s, to revisit in person terrain that nearly took his life? And why, when Dengler was re-creating his experience in the jungle, did Herzog feel it was necessary for Dengler to have his arms and hands tied behind his back, as they would have been in 1966? (He’s dressed in a khaki shirt and trousers, so at least Herzog didn’t insist on Dengler being barefoot and in the rags from his POW days.)

Was it not enough for Dengler to be reliving his imprisonment while being marched roughly by locals playing the part of Viet Cong? Was the point of Herzog’s quest for “authenticity” to push Dengler over the edge? Dengler even says: “This feels a little bit too close to home.”

The production notes on the DVD I watched didn’t address any of this, so I began digging on the Internet. I found an Indiewire interview conducted by Doug Stone with Dengler from 1998. Dengler says that Herzog — whom he did not know — called him out of the blue one day and said he wanted to do a film about him.

Within weeks, Herzog showed up with a film crew at Dengler’s home in Mount Tamalpais. No script, according to Dengler. Not much direction. As Dengler tells Stone of Herzog’s modus operandi: “I want you to just say what comes to your mind.”

(I was not able to ascertain how Herzog knew of Dengler’s story. Was it from Dengler’s own book “Escape from Laos” from 1979, newspaper coverage after Dengler’s rescue in 1966 or word of mouth? It wasn’t from “Hero Found,” which came out in 2010.)

Dengler’s recollections — of his childhood in Germany during World War II, the hard years after the war, how he came to America, became a citizen and finally realized his dream of becoming a pilot, of his A-1 Skyraider being shot down over Laos, the capture and escape — all this has compelling inherent drama. But apparently not enough for Herzog.

In a Slate article from 2007, written by Jessica Winter, she quotes author Paul Cronin’s “Herzog on Herzog,” with the director saying: “He had to become an actor playing himself. Everything in the film is authentic Dieter, but to intensify him it is all re-orchestrated, scripted, and rehearsed.”

(Herzog also made a feature film based on Dengler’s life, “Rescue Dawn,” starring Christian Bale, playing Dengler. I have not seen this film, but check this link for a “making-of” story about it: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/24/the-ecstatic-truth.)

In addition to filming in Southeast Asia, Herzog uses archival footage of Dengler’s news conference two months into his recuperation, and aerial footage of bombs exploding over the war-torn countryside. It’s unclear which villages these were supposed to be, but likely located in Laos or Vietnam, even possibly Cambodia.

Herzog follows Dengler back to his hometown of Wildberg, Germany, and inside his California home, where he pulls up the carpet and cement in the kitchen cupboard to show a fraction of the thousands of pounds of food he has stored there — Dengler’s mind-calming response to almost dying of starvation. Forget the opening doors; the food hoarding is far more concrete evidence of his lingering burdens of war.

There is a nice reunion late in the film of Dengler hosting former Air Force Lt. Col. Eugene Deatrick, the pilot instrumental in Dengler’s rescue, for a Thanksgiving meal (with a 30-pound turkey). Deatrick recounts seeing the SOS Dengler had laid out with fabric on top of a rock, and Dengler talks about how he was hallucinating and how close to death he was.

Some points I don’t recall from “Hero Found”: Dengler says his captors almost always had a fire source with them. This is dramatized in the film by the captors carrying a small metal bowl-like receptacle, suspended on a long chain, which encased smoking charcoal. He says they also carried fan-shaped brooms with which they could attempt to knock birds and other creatures out of the trees and thus produce a meal.

After Dengler’s return to his Navy ship, the USS Ranger, he says he was beset by nightmares so vivid and often violent that his thrashing alarmed his shipmates. The solution was to climb into a plane’s cockpit with several pillows and to sleep there, Dengler having always felt safe while flying.

At about 77 minutes, the film zips right along. It’s engrossing, even more so if the viewer isn’t familiar with Dengler’s story. A postscript after the credits includes footage from Dengler’s burial, with full military honors, at Arlington National Cemetery in 2001.

I’d strongly recommend reading “Hero Found” first. If not that, then at least read my discussion of it for an overview of Dengler’s life story.

As a filmmaker, Herzog is, of course, free to express his vision. Though “Little Dieter” is billed as a documentary, some of the parts where Dengler isn’t talking might more comfortably fit into the category of “truthiness.”


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