|Christian Bale||Dieter Dengler|
|Directed by||Werner Herzog|
Rescue Dawn lays claim to being Werner Herzog’s most accessible movie. That may be in part because this is the second time he’s gone to the screen with this story.
The first time, it was as a documentary called Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997). The subject was Dieter Dengler, who as a child during WWII decided to become a flyer while watching American warplanes bomb his village in the Black Forest region of Germany. Later he emigrated penniless to the United States, and became a U.S. Navy pilot. Dengler was shot down over Laos on his first bombing mission in the Vietnam War. He managed an amazing escape from a POW camp through the Laotian jungle.
Herzog read about Dengler’s incredible exploit, and made his documentary. After its first screening, Dengler leaned over and whispered “Werner, you know what? This is unfinished business.”
With Rescue Dawn, Herzog finishes that business by turning it into a feature film with Christian Bale in the role of the dashing Dengler. The press notes describe it as the German director’s first “truly American film.” For reasons that must have seemed clear to Herzog but are not so to me, he underlines the American-ness of the film by having the British Bale play Dengler with an American accent. The real Dengler retained a strong German accent right up until his death in 2001. A German accent in the picture might have rendered plausible to such lines as “I love America. America gave me wings.”
The picture opens with an eerily beautiful fireworks display of a bombing run over North Vietnam, soundless except for Klaus Badelt’s evocative music. Then we meet Dengler and his flight group being briefed on a mission aboard an air craft carrier, and shown a training film (a real one from 1965) on what to do if you’re shot down in the jungle. The young officers hoot at advice like “jump up and down and wave your arms if a US helicopter is flying overhead,” and amuse themselves with wisecracks, just as Herzog did when he included that same training film in the Little Dieter documentary.
Shot down and captured, Dengler is offered his freedom by a Vietnamese officer if he will denounce America. He refuses (“America gave me wings”) and is sent to a prison camp, a dreary little huddle of thatched huts in the middle of the jungle. There he meets fellow captives, including a couple of Americans, Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies). They’re emaciated and more than a little stir crazy.
Dengler assesses the situation, and decides to escape. How hard could it be to slip past the guards and out into the jungle? Duane shakes his head.
“Don’t you get it?” he says. “The jungle is the prison.”
Herzog builds this movie around another strong, eccentric performance from Bale, who is gaining a reputation for outsized talent and for downsized physicality. Here again, as he did in The Machinist, Bale sheds about a third of his normal body weight for the skeletal form he sports in the camp and escape scenes.
Not that there was nothing to eat on the set. “One of the first things Werner and I talked about,” the actor enthuses in the press notes, “was that there would be swimming in snake-infested waters and the eating of maggots. But that sounded like a great opportunity to me.”
Dengler was by nature a prankster and a clown, and Bale plays him with a cheerful, lopsided grin and a resilient optimism. That optimism is severely tested: he’s tortured, beaten, half drowned, and hung by his feet with an ants’ nest tied to his face. But he keeps his sprits up, and with the force of his ebullient personality he gradually raises the spirits of his fellow prisoners. They’re not as anxious as he is to escape. These are the early days of the Vietnam War, and in an echo of the attitudes going into our current military adventure, everyone expects it to be over soon. “Keep your head down and your mouth shut,” Gene tells him, staring out of sunken eyes from a gaunt, bearded face. “That’s your best chance of surviving.”
Getting out of the camp is not as easy as it might appear, and getting out of the jungle alive is difficult almost beyond imagining. Knowing that it is a true story tips us to the outcome, but Herzog keeps it alive and intense with the small touches he scatters across the screen. a dwarf guard, a begging dog, a talent for picking locks.
His ebullient climax to this odyssey through the murderous jungle flips a mood switch which will take you by surprise. It may strike you as a little over the top. I think Herzog would answer, and Dengler would have seconded the motion, that after surviving an ordeal like that, nothing is over the top.
© Text 2007 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be