Werner Herzog puts his actors through hell, with heavenly results
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Werner Herzog
Cast: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies
As a filmmaker, Werner Herzog is noted for his attraction to epic stories of men and their single-minded (some might say obsessive) quests to conquer and/or overcome their surroundings. This isn’t all that surprising, given that Herzog himself is often categorized as a man on a single-minded (some might say obsessive) quest to conquer and/or overcome his surroundings. With classic adventure dramas films like Aguirre: the Wrath of God, Cobra Verde, Where the Green Ants Dream and Fitzcarraldo, Herzog gained as much of a reputation for the lengths to which he was willing to push himself, his cast and his crew as for the stunning, primal images he captured.
Recently, Herzog has become fascinated (single-mindedly or obsessively?) with documentaries. With films like Grizzly Man, The White Diamond, The Wheel of Time, My Best Fiend and Little Dieter Needs to Fly Herzog has continued to explore his favorite topic: iconoclastic men raging against the world around them. Some do so quietly, like the Dalai Lama in The Wheel of Time—others do so loudly, violently and drunkenly, like Klaus Kinski in My Best Fiend.
Now, the 65-year-old Herzog returns to the realm of drama—but not without including his latest fascination. Rescue Dawn is actually a fictionalized remake of the auteur’s inspirational 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. In it, actor Christian Bale (Batman Begins) plays Dieter Dengler, a real-life German-born pilot who enlisted in the U.S. Navy with the singular dream of flying airplanes.
As the films starts, the Vietnam War is in its earliest not-quite-official stages. Dieter and his squad are sent on a top-secret bombing mission. Things quickly go sideways and Dieter is shot down over Laos.
The American pilot tries his best to go undetected inside the hostile nation, but is soon nabbed by forces loyal to the Viet Cong and tossed into a ramshackle, bamboo-walled POW camp. There, he meets two Air America pilots and a handful of South Vietnamese loyalists. Dieter is quite sure his stay in the camp will be short, but his hopes are dimmed somewhat upon learning that some of these prisoners have been incarcerated for more than two years.
Dieter’s fellow Americans are Duane (Steve Zahn, Sahara) and Gene (Jeremy Davies, Saving Private Ryan), both of whom are dangerously emaciated and more than a little stir crazy. Shell-shocked Duane has been thoroughly cowed by his captors, and Gene is blindly convinced that the U.S. will negotiate his freedom any moment now. But our boy Dieter isn’t one to cool his heels. (Especially since his boots have been confiscated.) He’s looking to escape, and soon concocts an elaborate escape plan that involves taking over the camp from the understaffed, undersupplied guards.
Prison camp movies aren’t usually the most lighthearted of affairs, and Rescue Dawn certainly doesn’t shy away from the harsher facts of South Asian POW camps. (Trust me, it was no picnic.) There are, gratefully, moments of humor spread throughout the film, though, as the men force themselves to laugh through their circumstance. As usual, Herzog is interested in any mechanism that allows men to survive, even under the most brutal of conditions.
Eventually, Dieter and his fellow POWs bust out of the camp, and here’s where the real saga begins. The most dangerous feature of the Laotian prison camp turns out to be the impenetrable jungle that surrounds it. Dieter teams up with Duane, and the two men brave this green hell together.
Herzog hasn’t lost his eye for the pitiless nature of, well, nature. The sweltering, screaming, all-consuming jungle that loomed over Klaus Kinski in Aguirre is alive and well here. That anyone could have lived more than a day or two in that beautiful-but-deadly environment is astonishing.
In many ways, Rescue Dawn is one of Herzog’s most conventional, most commercial films. As expected, it’s an inspirational story of survival. Though it lacks the mythic weight of his earlier work, it does feature the usual stellar cinematography and some marvelous performances. Zahn delivers his most committed performance in a dramatic role. Davies really looks like he’s a day or two away from starvation. And Bale goes all in, eating real maggots and plucking live leeches off his chest—all in the name of Herzog. ... Hey, nobody’s gonna say no to the man who dragged a 340-ton steamship up a mountain in Brazil and pointed a gun at Klaus Kinski just to make a movie.
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