Dieter Dengler was born in Germany, but he moved to America with his family after World War II with the dream of being a pilot. He joined the Navy in the early '60s because they would give him wings, not believing that the fighting going on in Vietnam would ever escalate into a full-blown war. Dieter had no real interest in fighting other people's battles, he had seen enough war as a child, but if it meant he would be able to go into the air, good enough for him. Not so good, though, was being shot down in a black operation over Laos. Captured by the enemy, he suffered in a prison camp for several months before escaping and going on an arduous trek through the Laotian jungle.
German filmmaker Werner Herzog has already made one movie about his transplanted countryman, the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Ten years later, Herzog has returned to the same story to give it new life as the dramatic, meticulous, and sometimes harrowing Rescue Dawn. Working from his own script, the director has resisted the urge to pump up his picture with Hollywood clichés or spice up the action with steroids and testosterone. Instead, he keeps a straight face from start to almost finish, and Rescue Dawn ends up being a good movie, though not great.
Christian Bale plays Dengler, and it's no hyperbole to say Rescue Dawn would be less of a picture without him. He's in every scene, the camera only leaving him to drink in the exceptional grandeur of the landscape, which serves as an extra, stifling character. (When Dieter ponders why no one has made an escape from the POW camp, he's told it's because the jungle is the real prison.) Dieter is cocky and self-assured, and we need an actor whom we can believe won't break under the strain. Malnourishment and confinement take their toll, but the pilot's spirit holds strong. His plans may sound crazy, but Bale can sell anything with his raspy voice and laser-point eyes. The actor should be praised for keeping it together, as he clearly suffered his own malnourishment on set, pulling the same kind of dramatic weight-loss that made him so scary looking in The Machinist. Watching his body dwindle away and his beard grow, I'd guess Herzog shot in sequence.
Infamous for the harsh conditions he places on his cast and crew, Herzog was no less out of bounds here. Shot in Thailand, Rescue Dawn travels some pretty dangerous terrain. Scenes where Dieter and one of the other prisoners, Duane (Steve Zahn), float down a river on a bamboo raft don't look like stunts. Those actors look like they could really drown. There are no special effects on this film, even Dieter's plane crash looks like it was done with an actual replica. There's also no faking the emaciated, skeletal frame of the other actors. Jeremy Davies often wears his shirt open to show how far he's taken the method acting. That kind of self-abuse can't be healthy.
And yet, it does make for a truly authentic feeling movie. Herzog places his audience in the grime and the sweat of the humid jungle, he starves us, he makes us feel the crushing weight of imprisonment. The escape is fraught with real tension, and the flight from the enemy is clearly dangerous. Even so, it's sometimes hard not to feel a little too distanced from the movie. It's not that it lags or that we get bored, it's just that something is missing.
I can't quite put my finger on it, though. There are no great errors, no issues of continuity or credibility. Casting Jeremy Davies was kind of a misstep, since we've seen him do the same lunatic act before in Solaris and Helter Skelter, and he's still in outer space or on a California beach while everyone else is firmly rooted in Thailand. (Even the often manic Zahn is pitch perfect as Duane.) The denouement is also a little strange. True or no, it feels like a concession on the part of Herzog to end on an up note--though I can't imagine anything more "up" than cutting it two minutes earlier with Dieter being airlifted out of the wilderness. No need to make it an episode of M*A*S*H.
Perhaps it's a fault of my own that I like the film but can't quite make myself love it. Maybe I'm too used to a more standard story structure when I see men in uniform on the run for their lives. Life is often anticlimactic, though, and what we see from Dieter Dengler in Rescue Dawn is the realest, most steadfast display of human endurance I can think of. Werner Herzog just may be a step ahead in realizing that the story is served best without garnish. It's not like his script lacks any of the great themes--love, brotherhood, death, they're all here. Could it be I just wanted stuff to blow up?
God help me if that's true...
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.