Director : Werner Herzog
Screenplay : Werner Herzog
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Christian Bale (Dieter Dengler), Steve Zahn (Duane Martin), Jeremy Davies (Gene), Abhijati “Meuk” Jusakul (Phisit), Lek Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat (Procet), Teerawat “Ka-Ge” Mulvilai (Little Hitler), Mr. Yuttana Muenwaja (Crazy Horse), Marshall Bell (Admiral Berrington), François Chau (Province Governor), Mr. Saichia Wongwiroj (Pathet Lao Guard)
In Rescue Dawn, writer/director Werner Herzog returns to Dieter Dengler, the subject of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The German-born Dengler, who was a U.S. Navy pilot in the mid-1960s, was shot down over Laos in 1966 on a reconnaissance mission and was captured and imprisoned by Pathet Lao troops. Dengler eventually escaped using a combination of resilience, determination, and sheer luck, and in Herzog's documentary he returned to those jungles to re-enact his harrowing captivity, torture, and escape.
Herzog has always been drawn to extremes--human and natural--so it is little surprise that he was compelled to return to Dengler's story again, embodying as it does so many of the themes that have obsessed the great director throughout his career. The cruelty of both man and the natural world (which he describes as “obscene”) have been the seething core of Herzog's oeuvre, which is composed of films, both documentary and fictional, that defy the gray zone between fact and fiction. For Herzog, realism is not just a style, but an imperative, and it obliges him over and over again to push the limits of commercial filmmaking. This is, after all, the director who shots scenes in La Soufrière (1977) on an erupting volcano, ended up in a Cameroon prison while shooting Fata Morgana (1970), and had his crew drag a 200-ton iron steamship up the side of a hill in Fitzcarraldo (1982)--all in pursuit of the so-called “voodoo of location.”
Compared to those projects, Rescue Dawn seems somewhat tame, although few other filmmakers could have captured so effectively and efficiently the essence of what it would be like to stumble through the stifling heat and strangling vegetation of a Laotian jungle. In his role as Dieter Dengler, Christian Bale may be the ostensible star with his name at the front of the credits, but the environment itself is Herzog's true object of obsession. Every giant leaf, every muddy river, every steep embankment is testament to the enormity and power of the natural world, which is emphasized in a single line of dialogue in which one prisoner notes that the flimsy bamboo fence that encircles them is not their real prison: “It's the jungle that is the prison.”
Herzog opens the film with astoundingly lyrical stock footage from the underside of an airplane as it drops bombs onto the South Asian countryside. The ensuing slow-motion explosions, which bloom out of the bottom of the frame, are both magnificent and somewhat dwarfed by the expanse of green around them. It is into that enormous, unrelenting environment that Dengler is dropped when his plane is hit by anti-aircraft fire (on his very first mission, no less). He avoids capture for a while, but eventually falls into the hands of Pathet Lao troops, who tie him up like an animal, drag him behind a water buffalo, and hang him upside down with an anthill tied to his face. He is eventually deposited in a ramshackle prisoner of war camp, where he starves along with several other prisoners. These prisoners include several Thai pilots, as well as the Americans Duane Martin (Steve Zahn), who becomes Dengler's comrade in escape, and Gene (Jeremy Davies), whose long imprisonment has savaged both his body and his mind (is it purposeful that he looks frighteningly like Charles Manson?).
Dengler and the others decide to escape when they overhear the guards wanting to kill them so they can return to their villages (the guards are not fed much better than the prisoners, which suggests that Herzog does not see them as one-dimensional action-adventure villains). The middle section of the film is composed of long sequences in which the prisoners endure their daily lives in the camp, plotting and trying to stay alive. Once they escape, it focuses on the hardships endured by Dengler and Martin as they made their way through the countryside, trying to evade capture and overcome the elements as they head toward the border of Thailand and possible rescue. It is here that we can feel Herzog truly sinking into his element, and moments in Rescue Dawn begin to play like reflections of his great masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), in which a party of Spanish conquistadors in a futile search for gold are driven to death and madness by the Amazonian rainforest.
The crucial distinction, though, is that Rescue Dawn is ultimately a story of triumph. It is, in fact, a genuinely uplifting film, which one does not always readily associate with Herzog, the great “madman” the New German Cinema. Dengler's story, amended and exaggerated here and there to emphasize his seemingly superhuman triumph, is one of perseverance and hope, and you can sense that Herzog has a real affinity for the man. He and Dengler had many things in common, most notably their growing up in Nazi Germany and doing everything in their power to throw off the shackles of that history in their adult years (Herzog through the cinema and Dengler by moving to the U.S. and becoming a Navy pilot).
Christian Bale embodies Dengler with raw physicality that few actors would dare embrace; you can literally watch him wasting away as the film progresses, losing all the soft, boyish enthusiasm that characterized him in the first reel until he is a hollowed out skeleton. Yet, as the film emphasizes several times in its closing moments, Dengler was never defeated. He maintained hope throughout his ordeal, and even when he becomes infuriated by the cruelties of fate and miscommunication (in trying to flag down a U.S. chopper at one point, he is shot at and nearly killed because the gunner mistakes him for a Viet Cong soldier), he never lets his soul becomes as emaciated as his body. Rescue Dawn is nothing if not a thrilling adventure story on its mainstream surface, but at its core it is a war of emotions in which Herzog's obsession with death becomes a tortured paean to the indefatigable human desire to survive.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2007 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer