Based on the true story of German American Dieter Dengler; who was shot down and captured by villagers sympathetic to the Pathet Lao movement, Rescue Dawn is Werner Herzog’s second examination into Dengler’s life. Having previously documented Dengler in his 1997 film Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn is the dramatized version of Herzog’s documentary screenplay. While the notion of Herzog returning to a story he had already received strong acclaim for appears a little odd, it’s clear that the filmmaker’s kinship with the pilot was clearly a story that the celebrated director found difficult to completely shake off.
Christian Bale plays Dieter; a young and smart pilot preparing for his first flight into Vietnam some short time before the war had really started to take hold. When he is gunned down and taken hostage, he then befriends his fellow dazed and confused POW’s and due to his indomitable spirit decides that life being held hostage is not for him. Many American Nam films are grandiose with their moral implications. In Platoon, Tom Berenger and Willem Defoe fight over Charlie Sheen’s soul. Full Metal Jacket held questions over the dehumanisation of American soldiers. Meanwhile, Apocalypse Now delves into the madness of men. Herzog is more interested in the insignificance of man himself.
“The Jungle is the prison” announces Duane (a superlative Steve Zahn) and Herzog never wants to forget that. Some of the film’s most memorable shots in the film’s first act focus on wider angles with Bale almost become lost within the frame. The films later sequences deal with the harshness of a terrain unknown to the American pilot. The feel is similar to that of Herzog’s debut feature film; Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), although Rescue Dawn, while at times fascinating, never captures that same sense of unease which pervades Herzog’s first feature.
That said, Herzog still manages to depict some terrifying moments, mostly stemming from the scarily innovative torture methods of the Vietnamese. Also, shooting in the same jungles, that Dengler had found himself in, not only adds to the sense of danger. Roger Ebert describes this aspect beautifully in his review, stating that “we can almost smell the rot and humidity” of the surroundings. This writer is inclined to agree. It can also be seen in the punishing weight loss that the actors went through. Herzog is a director who enjoys observing the fragility of human beings be it mental or physical.
The gaunt, haunted faces of Bale, Zahn and Jeremy Davies are far removed from the fresh-faced figures we often see them as. Bale, whose known for extreme weight loss/gain in certain roles, looks particularly dishevelled here. It never feels like a “brave” choice for Oscar plaudits which we’ve seen from previous actors works, but a decision to highlight the extremities of the situation at hand. Bale’s performance, isn’t among his best here, but it’s a solid highlight reel of what he’s known for. Moving from smart and scoffing to wilful and determined in a way that is expected from the actor.
The same goes for Herzog’s direction. The interest in nature is apparent as is the ability to depict the harsh indifference of the world with simple directional choices. The murder of a particular character is so swift and dismissed so quickly that it’s difficult to absorb what just happened, until some scenes later on. This isn’t a film with the same zaniness that can be seen from the likes of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, and feels less of an essential work from the man who dragged a boat up a mountain.
However this is a Herzog movie so Rescue Dawn, despite appearing as a “lesser” Herzog movie, is still as intelligent and watchable as most in in his oeuvre.
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