The movie opens with scenes of a bombing run over Laos and Vietnam with multiple bombs and napalm strikes. We then cut to the USS Ranger, an aircraft carrier positioned off the coast of Vietnam where an Admiral informs a flight crew that they will begin secret bombings into Laos in a few days time and they can’t write home about it or tell anyone. We are then introduced to Dieter Dengler, a new pilot who’s 21 years old and is getting ready to go on his first mission. He visits the quartermaster who kits him out with a few custom items (special sleeping tent, secret flap in his boot for his passport) before his first mission. He also watches a Survival Film which is made fun of by Spook, another pilot and childhood friend of Dieter, who provides a running commentary.
The next day Dieter does a group huddle with his friends on the flight deck, gets into his plane, and takes off for a run over Laos with 3 other pilots. After dropping his bomb payload, his plane is struck, begins smoking, and starts losing altitude. He refuses to eject from his plane and takes it in, crashing into the middle of a swampy field. Dropping his helmet, he flees with the enemy close behind him. He ditches his pistol and radio (radios have been used to lure US forces into traps) and hides in the jungle to attempt to avoid detection. After a day or so of wandering and trying to find a way out, he is captured by an enemy search party who is looking for him.
The party takes him to a Province Official who tries to get him to sign a document stating that he hates the USA and that he renounces the vile evil ways of the west. Dieter refuses, so the Official takes his passport from him and sends him away. Dieter is then tortured by being dragged behind a Yak while being fully bound, being strung upside down for a long time with a hornet nest strapped to him, and eventually by being stuffed into a tiny well where he’s forced to try and tread water or drown.
He’s eventually fished out and then thrown onto a truck and taken away to a prison camp where he meets his fellow prisoners Duane (Air Force Pilot) and Gene (Air America Pilot) and some other prisoners (Phisit and Procet) who have been there for quite some time already and are clearly mentally unbalanced, but they are surviving. We also meet the guards, who have been given names like “Little Hitler” (sadist), “Crazy Horse” (wears red headband and does kung fu moves constantly), and “Jumbo” (very jolly little person who is the most liked by the prisoners because he is the kindest of their captors).
There is a montage of daily life in the prison camp, but the quick summary is that they are trapped not only by the walls of the prison and a few armed guards, but also by the very jungle around them as there is no potable water nor is there a way for them to cover their tracks. This means that an escape attempt is impossible until the Rainy Season, which is some 5-6 months away. Dieter is able to do a few things, like fashion a lock pick device out of a nail to allow them to escape their handcuffs and fashion small cutting knives from bullet shells which allow them to cut through the rattan floor and walls of their prison hut. It is at this time that we find out that Gene is effectively institutionalized and wants to remain in the prison until they are released and is threatening to thwart Dieter’s escape attempt. There is some conflict over this, but in the end everyone decides that they must escape as food is almost non-existent and the guards are planning to take them into the jungle and shoot them, making it look like an escape attempt.
The next evening during dinner (when the guards leave their guns in other huts and go to the kitchen to eat after securing the prisoners), they make their escape attempt with Dieter and Duane going one way around the camp and the other prisoners going the other way around to encircle the kitchen hut. Dieter and Duane arrive first, shooting up the place (killing Little Hitler and letting Jumbo go free unharmed) with no sign of the other prisoners. The two take what they can (some food, rifles, ammo but no shoes or machete) and run away. They later find Gene and one of the other prisoners, where they trade an ammo clip for a machete, and there are a few recriminations about them fleeing and not helping at the kitchen. They both go separate ways, with Gene saying he has no idea where to go.
Dieter and Duane make their way through the jungle as best they can, eventually ditching the rifles (can’t use them for any reason due to the noise) and trying to get food and other things as they make their way South to Thailand via the “Big Muddy” river. They find a single boot sole (which they share between each other) and generally help each other along as best they can. They eventually get to an abandoned village, where they try and rest. Two army helicopters fly over, but Dieter is unable to get their attention. He then starts a fire and sets fire to the village later that evening, but when the helicopters fly over again, they try and shoot at him because they think he’s the enemy for some reason. They both continue onward, as the fire and smoke will certainly attract the enemy.
They continue their trek south and eventually come upon a little child carrying a pole with a bucket on each end. They both drop to their knees and begin praying, speaking in broken Laotian. Some villagers show up, screaming at them and brandishing sharp farm implements, but the two continue to stay on their knees. Duane is sliced badly in the leg and then is decapitated by one of the villagers (not actually shown) and Dieter takes off running, knowing that to stay is certain death. He runs down a path and then hides in the jungle, allowing his pursuers to flee past him.
The next few days are a blur as he hides, forages for what food he can, and occasionally hallucinates conversations with the now-dead Duane. Eventually he stumbles upon a river with a large, open area where a small enemy group (25+ people) is making a camp. They leave and Dieter scavenges for food and other leavings. He finds a snake, which he kills and eats raw as well. Eventually, a prop spotter plane flies overhead and he signals to it using a large palm frond. The plane circles back a few times and eventually two helicopters show up to extract Dieter from the jungle, having to shoot at the enemy troops who return to see why the helicopters are there.
Dieter is flown back to a hospital where he is treated and interrogated by two CIA operatives. Dieter’s pilot friends arrive by helicopter, bringing with them a huge cake on a wheeled cart, and a very happy reunion is had while the CIA agents excuse themselves. Spook informs Dieter that the CIA is going to take him to Guam and that Dieter really doesn’t want to happen, so they smuggle Dieter out of the hospital under the cart and fly him back to the USS Ranger where the staff of the entire ship is awaiting Dieter when he arrives to cheer/celebrate his return.
We are informed at the end that Dieter left active duty soon afterward to become a test pilot and that he survived four more plane crashes.
You can send in your spoiler to other movies by going here.
Send your questions or comments about this or any other spoiler to: THEMOVIESPOILER.com