Although Dengler passed on well before ever having had a chance to see Rescue Dawn, this dramatization better fleshes out his months of struggle as a prisoner of war. Christian Bale immerses himself in the role of Dieter Dengler, with the Welshman eschewing Dengler's thick German accent in favor of one that's more readily American. Dengler is shoved in a ramshackle prison alongside a small band of half-starved Thai, Chinese, and American prisoners, some of whom have suffered there for a couple of years. The resourceful Dengler immediately hatches a scheme to escape, naively unaware that it's not the hut, a handful of volatile armed thugs, or medieval wooden restraints that are meant to keep them in place. No, the jungle itself is the true prison. Even if Dengler makes good his escape and avoids succumbing to the lack of water or scores of lethal creatures, any tracks he and the other prisoners leave now would be easily followed. Any hope of escape lies with the rainfall that's still months away. Tensions quickly mount; Gene (Jeremy Davies) holds steadfast that any attempt at escape will sabotage the release he's certain is just around the next bend, Duane (Steve Zahn) has been so worn down by his years of captivity that he seems likely to just get in the way of any effort to leave, and most of the the others have little expectation that they'll survive no matter what happens. Undaunted, Dengler continues with his plan, meticulously scavenging for individual grains of rice to store for the journey and keeping a close eye out for his starving, savage captors' weaknesses, looking past the agony of the present to the day of his eventual escape.
Rescue Dawn may have more marketable names on the bill and more visual polish than much of the director's other work, but this is unmistakably a Werner Herzog film. The man who remains determined and unwaveringly strong no matter how much he's forced to endure is a common thread throughout much of Herzog's sprawling body of work, and this combination of impossible strain and near-madness set against the backdrop of a punishing jungle certainly brings to mind the likes of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God. Herzog undoubtedly had a clear idea what he hoped to accomplish with Rescue Dawn, and he tosses out everything that's inessential. He sidesteps marketable romantic subplots and syrupy strings, and the traditional high speed chases and feverish climactic shootouts are nowhere to be found. This isn't The Great Escape; Rescue Dawn is a film about resilience, perseverance, and optimism, and Dengler's eventual escape is owed less to gun-oiled might than sheer force of will.
Herzog has assembled a tremendous cast, headed by the unerringly reliable Christian Bale. He disappears into the role, embracing that sort of 'ecstatic truth' that Herzog has sought for so many decades. His physical transformation is just one facet of an exceptional performance, with Bale having shed a reported 55 lbs. to portray Dengler at his most emaciated. Despite the anguish both he and his character have endured, Bale ensures that Dengler never suffers from the faintest glimmer of doubt. When he's first dragged by his heavily-armed captors to a nearby village, he can't quick shake a smile from his face. He doesn't whisper his plans for escape in hushed tones to the other prisoners; Dengler announces it matter of factly and almost as an aside, as if breaking out of a Laotian prison were no different than swinging by Safeway on the way back from the office. The months that follow are indescribably grueling, and Dengler suffers as much as anyone, but he doesn't allow the physical toll he's suffering through to leave any impact on his outlook for the future. Escape is an inevitability, not some distant hope, and it's just a matter of being prepared for when that day eventually arrives. That combination of unflinching confidence and naivete is remarkably compelling, especially since as the movie draws on, Dengler is stripped down to a barely functional shadow of a man fueled by nothing but his optimism.
Steve Zahn is another standout, breaking away from the sarcastic sidekick role he's settled into in recent years in favor of something far more dramatic and emotionally devastating. Jeremy Davies is so skeletal that I could hardly stand to look at him in certain shots, playing the unhinged skeptic who'd prefer to stay off the guards' radar rather than risk drawing any attention to himself. What's truly remarkable about the acting is that Rescue Dawn was shot heavily out of sequence, with the cast arriving to the set so emaciated that it's genuinely unsettling, trimming their ragged beards and along the way gaining back a fraction of the weight they'd lost. That these scenes can be so harrowing -- that these men can convey so much torture, anguish, and physical and mental exhaustion purely with their eyes -- in the earliest days of the shoot is a testament to just how immeasurably talented these actors are.
The verisimilitude Herzog so often strives for plays no small part in how effective and engaging the film is. There's something about seeing a fuselage smolder and physically plummet to the ground from the sky above that feels more genuine than a digital rendering of a vintage plane walking through the same paces. When the camp's guards are themselves so starved that they don't feel like wasting what little food they have on their prisoners, Dengler is offered a bowl with maggots writhing around indistinct chunks of meat. Bale wolfs down these live maggots without missing a beat, and at various times, he's draped with leeches and hung upside down with an ants' nest strapped to his face. Stuntmen were used sparsely, and a number of the actors in the background are actual villagers who weren't subjected to any costuming at all. Some of the buildings were constructed by the crew, but Rescue Dawn was shot on location in Thailand, not reproduced on a cozy, air conditioned soundstage off North Bronson. To see such familiar actors withered down to a fraction of their usual fighting weight makes the characters' already harrowing struggle that much more astonishing.
One of Rescue Dawn's very few flaws is how rushed its ending is. Herzog is in such a hurry to get Dengler into combat -- his plane is gunned down in its first ten minutes -- that the sense of camaraderie and patriotism its final moments demand seems unearned. There's a certain scale to the finale that may be difficult for those less familiar with the context of Dengler's escape to fully appreciate. Dengler was the first American prisoner to successfully escape from this sort of prolonged captivity in a P.O.W. camp during the conflict in Vietnam, and even as long as that conflict raged on, only a scattered few would go on to accomplish what he did. The buoyant reception with which Dengler is met after being rescued is deserved, but viewed wholly on its own, Rescue Dawn doesn't earn it. Following the ballet of destruction culled from actual 16mm footage of a bombing run, the first few minutes aboard the U.S.S. Ranger fall somewhat flat as well, as if Herzog is so eager to skip to the A1-H Skyraider being shot down that he views everything building up to that point as an annoying obligation. Herzog revels in every moment from that point on, ensuring that everything -- from the striking but deliberate photography to a script that leans away from the usual action/drama conventions -- is in place solely to suit the story.
Rescue Dawn isn't about war; it's about self-assurance, hope, and endurance, helmed by a writer and director nearly as talented, determined, and unwaveringly confident as Dengler himself. Meticulously crafted, wonderfully acted, and emotionally resonant, Rescue Dawn is an outstanding film and one that's a rewarding discovery on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.
Video: Don't be put off by the slightly jittery text and unavoidably poor quality of the archival 16mm footage that opens the film; from the instant Peter Zeitlinger's 35mm cinematography first splashes onto the screen, Rescue Dawn looks tremendous. Despite Werner Herzog's preference for shooting on overcast days, its colors are often stunning, particularly the intensely blue sky and the lush, almost otherworldly greens of the tropical foliage. A few scattered establishing shots aside, the image is razor sharp, brimming with fine object detail and boasting a great deal of depth and dimensionality. Black levels are consistently strong throughout as well, with shadow detail remaining robust even under the most limited light. Some may grouse at the faint traces of grain as the combat mission first gets underway or the slightly skewed contrast under the searing sun, but I don't consider either of those to be flaws in the usual sense. Rescue Dawn looks gorgeous in high definition, representing another strong effort from MGM and Fox.
Rescue Dawn is presented at 1080p in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, and the video has been encoded using the mainstay AVC codec.
Audio: Even if the ability to decode DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks remains somewhat elusive, the 1.5 Mbps core of Rescue Dawn's lossless soundtrack is incredible. With the central actors held in captivity and kept under close watch, it follows that much of the film's dialogue is whispered, and the mix is deftly balanced to ensure that these hushed lines remain clear and discernable throughout. The sound design as at its most aggressive in Rescue Dawn's earliest moments, from the whiz of anti-aircraft fire to the percussive shots from a rifle to several mammoth explosions. The sounds of the jungle roar from every speaker, adding to the immersiveness of the design, and pans as helicopters soar overhead are seamless and transparent.
Traditional Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are offered in Spanish and French, accompanied by optional English and Spanish subtitle streams.
Extras: This Blu-ray release of Rescue Dawn includes several extras that aren't present on the standard DVD release. Chief among them is "Honoring the Brave", an interactive Vietnam War Memorial that allows the users to view names, photos, and brief biographies from some of the men who fell in battle.
There's also a particularly strong trivia track that runs throughout the movie. Since the film draws so much from reality and is based around a topic as expansive as the Vietnam War, this gives the writers behind the track quite a lot of material. While some of these notes are covered elsewhere the disc, it delves in depth into Dieter Dengler's background, many of the specifics of the conflict in Vietnam, as well as detailed accounts of torture and other escape attempts reminiscent of Dengler's. Additional details of Dengler's escape are noted here, such as how the prisoners experimented with various types of leech repellant, alongside quite a few comments about the cast and writer/director Werner Herzog. Some of the more interesting notes about Herzog include how his deprived background influenced his filmmaking and how he didn't re-read his screenplay for Rescue Dawn after writing it. I'd suggest leaving this trivia track running while you're listening to the disc's audio commentary.
Also exclusive to the Blu-ray release is "Preparing for Survival". This featurette spends eight minutes with three men -- a colonel from the Air Force and a captain and a lieutenant colonel from the Army -- who speak about the ineffectiveness of training during the Vietnam era and the impossibility of truly preparing someone for combat.
The Blu-ray disc also gets twice as many deleted scenes as its standard definition counterpart. This footage includes a bit more setup on the aircraft carrier, the first of Dengler's two captures that would be combined into one in the final cut, some additional torture with shoots of bamboo shoved under Dengler's fingernails, and a detailed look at how he lifted the mirror that would later prove so essential to his escape plan. The most memorable of these six scenes sees Dengler stowed briefly in a hut where he's threatened to have his hand lopped off if he doesn't give up his wedding band. All of these scenes are accompanied by optional audio commentary with Werner Herzog and moderator Norman Hill, with Herzog noting that this is a rare case of him offering viewers a chance to look at discarded scenes ("a carpenter doesn't sit on his shavings") and offering comments more substantial than the usual "this was cut for time and/or pacing".
The remaining extras are carried over from the DVD. In the audio commentary for the movie proper, moderator Norman Hill takes care to ask Werner Herzog questions for the audience's benefit rather than his own, maintaining a steady flow of discussion throughout Rescue Dawn's two hour runtime. The topics include Herzog writing the screenplay in English (with a polish by his Incident at Loch Ness partner-in-crime Zak Penn), some of the variations from reality necessary for the purposes of a coherent two hour film, answering concerns about whether or not this is an overly commercial project from such a fiercely independent director, lining up financing predominately from the Clippers' Elton Brand (!), and the grueling search for the "ecstasy of truth" that Herzog and his actors endured.
Also of interest is "The Making of a True Story", a collection of featurettes that can be viewed individually or played together as a 53 minute documentary. As its length would suggest, it's a fairly comprehensive look at what went into making the film, starting off with some of the specific details about how remarkable Dengler's story truly is. Herzog then turns to his cast, noting how he was casting Steve Zahn against type, how Jeremy Davies was so emaciated at one point that the crew pleaded with him not to lose any more weight, and the oddball questions the director bombarded Christian Bale with in their first meeting. Likely of the most interest to viewers is "War Stories". This is the segment that focuses most intensely on production, with some of the highlights including cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger being handed a machete to light the imprisoning hut, elephants casually strolling by during the shoot in the jungle, Herzog and a skeleton crew sneaking away to film scenes and eventually having to take over after half the crew quit, bobbing for paralysis-inducing snails, and Herzog keeping his cameras rolling after Bale and one of his co-stars passed out from pure exhaustion. A detailed look at Klaus Badelt's score is also offered, touching on his close collaboration with the film's sound designer, how not writing music is as much a skill as composing, and the use of an improvisational cellist in one key sequence. Closing out "The Making of a True Story" is Herzog describing why he so frequently asks himself "what would Dieter do?"
As I was sifting through the disc's extras, I found the menus unusually difficult to use. The text alternates between black and a dark maroon, and I frequently couldn't tell what it was I was selecting. I found myself accidentally closing the pop-up navigation several times as a result as well.
Also, all of Rescue Dawn's extras are presented in standard definition aside from a handful of high-def trailers.
Conclusion: Rescue Dawn is a somewhat unconventional but deeply rewarding film about hope and courage, bolstered on Blu-ray by a first-rate presentation and a strong set of extras. Highly Recommended.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.