'Rescue Dawn': A Light in War's Densest Jungle

Werner Herzog's fictionalized retelling honors the story of POW Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale).
Werner Herzog's fictionalized retelling honors the story of POW Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale). (By Lena Herzog -- Mgm)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

The canon of great war films is so full -- from "All Quiet on the Western Front" to "Apocalypse Now" -- that yet another cinematic tale of embattled derring-do raises the inevitable question: Is there room for one more? Are there any tales left to tell, and can anyone tell the old ones better?

Let the cinematic gatekeepers hold the door just a little bit longer for Werner Herzog to squeeze in with "Rescue Dawn," the taut, riveting fictionalization of his own extraordinary 1997 documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." Shot through with a sense of austerity that is all the more admirable for being so rare in Hollywood storytelling, "Rescue Dawn" stars Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler, a real-life Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1966 and then masterminded a brilliant escape from a guerrilla prison camp.

"Little Dieter" has a devoted cult of fans, this critic among them, who have been skeptical if not downright enraged that Dengler -- who grew up in World War II Germany, fell in love with American fighter planes as he watched them reduce his country to ruins, emigrated to the United States, became a Navy pilot and war hero, and went on to live the American dream of comfort and prosperity before his death in 2001 -- might be reduced to a caricature in a fictionalized retelling.

But with the rigor and shrewd eye for detail that has characterized his best fiction and nonfiction films (which include "Aguirre: The Wrath of God," "Fitzcarraldo" and the more recent "Grizzly Man"), Herzog has turned something of a hat trick with "Rescue Dawn," making a classic wartime thriller on a par with "Stalag 17" and "The Great Escape," while keeping intact the tics and idiosyncrasies of Dengler's sometimes confounding character.

"Rescue Dawn" gets underway when Dengler, aboard a Navy ship in the Gulf of Tonkin, is ordered to fly over Laos into North Vietnam. It's the early days yet: Vietnam isn't a war as much as a series of skirmishes, secret sorties and some CIA "advisers." The cultural references are to Jayne Mansfield, not Jane Fonda. When the Navy pilots are watching training films, they cut up and crack wise, but Dengler takes it all in with meticulous powers of observation. Later, he customizes his boots and mosquito netting with the precision of a man whose gears never stop turning.

On his very first mission, Dengler is shot down over the verdant jungles of Laos ("Rescue Dawn" was filmed in Thailand). After he's captured, he's taken to a prison camp where he meets two more American soldiers, Gene (Jeremy Davies), an inmate for two years, and Duane (Steve Zahn, who quiets down his usual antic humor but whose sweetness provides relief from the grim goings-on around him). Emaciated, tortured, driven a little bit crazy, they're the sad, wizened harbingers of the "guests" at the Hanoi Hiltons to come; part of "Rescue Dawn's" terrible power is all the carnage it anticipates.

"Keep your head down and your mouth shut; it's your best chance of surviving," one of the men says to Dengler. It's a line that transcends time, place and other wars, as "Rescue Dawn" eschews political context and Cold War calculations and instead focuses on the purity of Dengler's ambition: to get out, to live and to fly again.

With terrific economy and timing, "Rescue Dawn" follows Dengler as he hatches an escape plan, then systematically acquires his tools: a nail, a piece of broken glass, a few grains of rice cadged from his daily ration. Herzog spares no detail in conveying the hardships of life in the camp, whether it's Davies's alarmingly skeletal frame or Bale happily eating from a bowl of maggots (which reportedly were real).

Unlike war films that emphasize the camaraderie of brothers in arms, "Rescue Dawn" isn't about forging a unique bond in the crucible of war. Rather, it's a paean to individualism at its most flinty and unforgiving. As a character, Dengler is shot through with fascinating contradictions: He's brilliant but also ruthless, and the story of what led him to become a pilot -- he came virtually face to face with an American pilot in the Black Forest -- is surely fraught with complicated transferences and identifications.

But "Rescue Dawn" doesn't dwell on the soft science of psychologizing. Instead, Herzog is interested in pure action, and as an interpreter of that ethic he has enlisted one of the most physically gifted actors of his generation. Bale, who thinned down alarmingly for his role in the 2004 thriller "The Machinist," here turns inward to play a character with a genius for survival and for whom the examined life is a contradiction in terms. With a clipped, barely discernible accent, a laser-like gaze and an oddly ill-timed smile, he flawlessly captures the most endearing quirks of Dengler's affect. The classic immigrant in love with the American vernacular, he bestows an awkward "Howdy!" on everyone he meets, even his most sadistic captors. "I'm going to scram this very evening," he says cheerfully to his fellow prisoners.

With an unflinching eye, Herzog re-creates the most heinous methods of torture Dengler was forced to endure, from an insect's nest placed on his face to being nearly drowned. But he never lets realism give way to fetishism or mere sensationalism in a movie that, like most of Herzog's previous films, is about the elemental, obsessive struggle between man and nature. Almost as a rebuke to the lush landscape engulfing the tiny camp, he tells the story with economy, technical skill and a bracing degree of narrative restraint. (One curious exception is a weird juxtaposition between sound and image when, late in the film, Herzog uses the most florid strains of Klaus Badelt's musical score to accompany a harrowing trek through the jungle.)

Herzog even manages to find unexpected beauty in a story that seems to transpire before Vietnam became a trope for cynicism and defeat. An early shot of planes flying in "Rescue Dawn" recalls the German painter Gerhard Richter in its state of suspended, poetic grace. Like Richter, Herzog seems congenitally mistrustful of orthodoxies, whether from the right or left; he's created a story that exists outside politics and history in a purer, more primal realm. At one point someone asks Dengler whether it was a belief in God and country that got him through his ordeal, and he responds, "I believe I need a steak."

Such is the tenacious, unsentimental spirit that animates "Rescue Dawn," making it an instant classic of its genre. That such a masterful depiction of courage, sacrifice and can-do spirit has been created by a German art film director known for considerably darker visions is an irony Herzog no doubt finds delicious.

Rescue Dawn (126 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and AMC Loews Georgetown) is rated PG-13 for some sequences of intense war violence and torture.

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