In 1997, Werner Herzog shot a remarkable documentary film entitled Little Dieter Needs To Fly which allowed Dieter Dengler to explain, in his own words, his experiences in Vietnam. The film did a fantastic job of painting a portrait, explaining how events from Dengler's childhood instilled in him a yearning to become a pilot, which led to his enrollment in the U.S. Air Force after his immigration from Germany to the United States. Ten years later, Herzog returns to Dengler's story, this time to shoot a feature film concentrating on the six month period in which Dengler was imprisoned in a P.O.W. camp in the jungles of Laos.
When the movie begins, Dengler (played amazingly well by Christian Bale of The Machinist and Batman Begins) is sitting comfortably in an American aircraft carrier with his fellow pilots. They're briefed on a top secret mission, shown some training films, and then let loose to carry out their mission. Dengler is shot down fairly quickly and amazingly enough he survives the crash landing and heads out into the jungle to hide. It isn't long before he's captured by some armed Laotians who take him to a P.O.W. camp overseen by the Vietnamese.
Here Dengler is imprisoned with a few Air America pilots and two other American military men, Duane (Steve Zahn of Sahara) and Eugene (Jeremy Davies of Helter Skelter and Dogville). The three of them form a strange friendship and soon Dieter is trying to devise a way for them to escape. Duane hesitantly agrees but Gene is adamant that U.S. helicopters are going to arrive any minute now to whisk them off to safety. After some debate, the prisoners soon come to the realization that time is running out. Dieter and the rest of the men launch their escape plan and soon find themselves faced with an even more frightening enemy than the Vietnamese soldiers... the jungle itself.
What starts off as a fairly typical war movie soon turns into a grim, gritty and completely believable tale of one man's refusal to submit to his captors. Dengler is submitted to some grisly torture (at one point he has a hornet's nest strapped to his body while he hangs upside down) and completely inhospitable living conditions. He and his fellow prisoners are fed only enough food to just barely keep them alive and they are routinely abused by their captors. Once they make their escape, a few plot twists find Dengler in even worse conditions than those he was subjected to inside the camp when he and Duane are forced to go it alone through the thick of the jungle, all the while having to remain alert in hopes of spotting an American plane or chopper overhead and in hopes of avoiding enemy patrols in the area. Those thinking that the film might play out like Missing In Action or Rambo: First Blood Part II will find themselves sorely mistaken as Herzog carefully avoids glamorizing or sensationalizing any of what Dengler and his cohorts go through. Although the opening fifteen minutes contain a fair bit of semi-stylized action the rest of the film is quite restrained in that regard - this film is far from your typical shoot'em up.
Performances are excellent all the way around. Bale, quite the chameleon, obviously shed some weight for his part as he did in The Machinist and his transformation from macho newbie pilot to near-broken prisoner of war is fantastic. Davies, who seems to have a knack for playing wigged out weirdos, is solid as 'Eugene from Eugene, Oregon' and Zahn certainly holds his own as the sympathetic Duane. The supporting cast is uniformly strong and no one seems out of place in the various bit parts that pepper the film.
In wonderfully typical Herzog fashion the film pays a lot of attention to the landscape and the environment and as important to the human conflict which makes up the story, is the conflict which occurs between man and his surroundings. As in masterpieces such as Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, the entire film is shot on location (or at least close to it as the picture was shot in nearby Thailand) and for good reason. This very definitely adds an air of authenticity to the picture and the jungle proves to be as important to the movie as the performers. The environment is savage and unkind, performers are literally lost amongst the thickness of the natural vegetation and it doesn't look like anything here has been softened up for the actors - their struggles against the jungle look very real indeed, and it is perhaps the fact that they really were out there dealing with this mess that makes their performances so believable.
Although the ending seems a bit rushed and more than a little over patriotic, the fact of the matter is that from all accounts, Dieter Dengler really did go through the nightmare that Herzog shows us in this picture and that, perhaps more importantly to the core of the movie, he survived. As such, some of what could be misconstrued as flag-waving bravura is simply what one could assume is an honest depiction of how this particular chapter of Dengler's life was brought to a close.
Rescue Dawn is presented in 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen on this DVD. The disc sent for review was a test disc and as such, it's obviously compressed and it's unlikely that this transfer is representative of the final product. Until final product is received, we're just gonna leave this part blank...
Audio options are provided in English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound with optional Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo dubs included in Spanish and French. Optional subtitles are provided in English and Spanish. Surrounds are used nicely during the firefights and action scenes though even the quieter moments in the film have some nice ambient sound effects occurring subtly throughout. Dialogue is clean and clear and there are no problems with hiss or distortion. The score sounds quite good and the levels are all properly balanced. Bass could have been stronger in some spots but aside from that Rescue Dawn sounds great.
The biggest and best of the supplements on this disc is a commentary track with director Werner Herzog and moderator Norman Hill of Subversive Cinema. Hill has moderated Herzog commentaries before for Anchor Bay and Subversive and he knows the man's work very well. As such, he's a good choice to moderate here, as he keeps asking the right questions ensuring that Werner, who is rarely at a loss for words, stays on topic and keeps the information coming. The pair discusses the real life Dieter Dengler, Herzog notes the physical similarities between he and Bale, and Herzog does a surprisingly good job of discussing the history behind the picture and putting Dengler's story into context. They talk about the digital effects used for the airplane sequences because the planes they needed just weren't available (Herzog says this is the first time in his life he's used digital effects) as well as Bale's dramatic weight loss. They cover the fact that in real life there were seven prisoners in the camp, Herzog noting that he opted to use six in the film to make it less complicated, and they talk about working with the native crew brought on board and some of the pros and cons of shooting in Thailand. Throughout the talk Herzog is jovial and he sounds quite inspired as he elaborates on what went into getting this project off the ground. His enthusiasm comes through even when talking about how his set burnt down and how some of his cast members went to jail during the shoot, comparing his experiences on this film to those that he went through on Fitzcarraldo. Herzog fans will definitely enjoy this talk, as it's not only quite interesting but it's fairly amusing as well. There's barely any dead air whatsoever and it's packed with information.
Up next is a featurette entitled The Making Of A True Storywhich has been broken up into four separate chapters, the first of which is Unfinished Business: Telling Dieter's Story (4:19). Here Herzog explains the real life events that inspired the film and gives us some interesting background information on the real life Dieter Dengler. Bale shows up here and talks about his take on the character and we're treated to some clips from the film and some behind the scenes photographs. The second segment, Strength Of Character (9:16), allows Bale to talk about his meeting with Herzog and how the director's personality sold him on the part by asking him blunt questions. Herzog returns the compliments and explains how they agreed to make a movie and not a documentary, allowing Bale to bring his own interpretation of Dengler to the screen. There are some neat pictures of the real Dengler here, and Herzog gives us more background on the man behind the movie, explaining how Bale shares many of the man's qualities making him the ideal choice for the part. Steve Zahn also expresses his admiration for Herzog, and a few other cast and crewmembers give their thoughts on the casting of the film. War Stories (23:51) is an interesting segment that shows us some behind the scenes footage which explain how a few of the war scenes were done without the aid of CGI. Herzog states that he wants to put the audience in a situation where they can trust their eyes again, and from there he explains why he wanted to shoot on location in a real jungle and avoid digital effects. Bale refutes the claim that Herzog is a sadistic director, and Zahn backs him up on this, and it's interesting to hear how these actors dealt with the rigorous and difficult shoot that this film required. From there Herzog talks about the difficulties in bringing the film in on schedule, budgetary restraints and more. The last segment is What Would Dieter Do? (6:44), and it allows Herzog to talk about what the real Dieter would have done in the situations we see the character based on him deal with. There's some more behind the scenes footage here and thoughts from Bale as well as from the actor who played the prison warden in the film. These segments are available on their own or by way of a 'play all' feature and they are all presented in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen.
Also included on the disc are three deleted scenes: Don't Tell Her You Love Her (0:36, a brief conversation in the barracks),Coercion (2:37, Bale being harassed by his captors), and The Stolen Ring (2:30, Bale interacting with his captors and being led around while bound). All three are available with or without optional commentary from Herzog (again joined by Hill) who explains their significance as well as why they were taken out of the finished version of the film. You can watch these on their own or by way of a 'play all' feature. These are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen.
Rounding out the extra features is a still gallery of one hundred and fifty two images (color and black and white promotional and behind the scenes pictures), trailers for Fly Boys, Home Of The Brave and Mr. Books (all in anamorphic widescreen), animated menus and chapter stops. The trailer for the feature itself is conspicuously absent from this DVD.
Those expecting an ultra violent shoot'em up could be in for a shock as Herzog has crafted an intelligent and genuinely moving war time drama with Rescue Dawn. Bale and the supporting cast are uniformly excellent throughout and the cinematography is outstanding. Fox's disc contains some great extra features that are interesting and entertaining and this release easily comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.