In auteur/artist Werner Herzog’s world, there are only two major conflicts – man vs. nature, and man vs. his own nature. Such a philosophy encapsulates almost every kind of interaction one can imagine. It also sets up a pretty convenient thematic outline for his various cinematic concerns. Over the course of his amazing career – a 35 year journey that’s included documentaries and fictional features – the German maverick has spent every ounce of his potent creative energy exploring the relationship between humanity and its habitat, as well as the parallel problems of individuals battling their own inner demons. From monumental achievements like Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo to lesser known efforts like Invincible and The Wild Blue Yonder, he’s uncovered the volatility and the healing spirit of nature, as well as its completely personal counterparts.
His latest film, Rescue Dawn, is a perfect illustration of this aesthetic corollary. At first, it seems odd that Herzog would fictionalize the story of Dieter Dengler, German ex-patriot and American fighter pilot shot down over Laos in 1965. After all, he featured the engaging POW’s story in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Yet something about the subject drew the director back, and for years he tried valiantly to get the movie made. Even with Christian Bale attached, it took said actor’s success as Batman to get backers to fork over the funds. In combination with his own critical triumph (2005’s Grizzly Man), the director placed his cast in the middle of the Thailand wilderness and staged a straightforward story of war, duty and the will to live. Though this kind of film has been done dozens of times before, Herzog’s desire for authenticity, along with his unusual approach to the underlying politics of the era, drive Rescue Dawn far above other battle scar epics.
When we first meet Dengler, he’s joking with his buddies onboard a Vietnam-bound aircraft carrier. As lifesaving lessons in survival are spelled out in dull military training films, the proud pilot is just one of the boys, laughing and mocking the material presented. On his first mission (as part of the US government’s unauthorized and secret bombing campaign) Dengler is shot down. Almost immediately, he’s captured by local guerillas, who take him on an arduous journey through the jungle. After reaching a small village, he is turned over to some unidentified soldiers, who run a prison camp for the Communists deep in the wilderness. Upon arriving at his new ‘home’, Dengler meets a pair of fellow Americans – the tightly wound Duane (an excellent Steve Zahn) and the laidback and blitzed out paranoid Gene (a revelatory Jeremy Davis). Aside from some native sympathizers, and a group of angry guards, there is no one, and nothing, around for miles and miles.
Avoiding confusing context and anti-war preaching, Herzog allows us to follow along with Dengler as he gets to know the ropes. At night, the prisoners are locked into their huts via interlocking handcuffs and large wooden ankle stocks. During the day, the men are fed slop and forced to endure demeaning behavior at the hands of their desperate sentries. Unlike a movie like The Deer Hunter, where torture and cartoonish violence are used to illustrate the horrors of enemy incarceration, Rescue Dawn maintains its matter of fact approach. Characters discuss soiling themselves with apologetic frankness, and when confronted by the unhinged enemy, guns aimed directly at their dirty and diseased faces, our heroes don’t grandstand and puff their chests. Instead, they cower and cringe like any ordinary normal human being would. It’s clear that Herzog is redefining bravery here. As a matter of fact, he’s making a clear statement between histrionics and true heroism – false bravado vs. maintaining one’s safety…and sanity.
Almost from the moment he arrives, Dengler wants to plot an escape, and much of the film’s fascinating first act centers on getting his fellow captives to go along with the plan. It is here where Herzog’s choice of Bale as a lead is crucial. As he has proved in numerous films since his stellar debut in another war time epic, Steven Speilberg’s underappreciated Empire of the Sun, the actor currently known as the Caped Crusader is capable of multiple layers in his performances. In Dawn, he must be winning, deceptive, determined, scared, and one step ahead of everyone else, and Bale delivers. As a matter of fact, he turns Dengler into something almost surreal – an optimist surrounded by nothing but abject pessimism. It’s clear that this aspect of the story really stuck with Herzog, and why he decided to dramatize this adventure. In retrospect, Dengler’s escape can seem a little like burlesque bravery. When we actually witness it, we realize how difficult and complex it really was.
It’s the same with the inherent brutality in the tale. Dengler and his fellow prisoners were put through Hell, and while we never see all the sordid details, the actors wear their abuse like a badge of dire dishonor. Much has been made about Bale and Zahn’s turns, and in truth, both men are amazing. They balance realism with just enough added edge to get us involved in their plight. But the real revelation here is Jeremy Davis as Eugene from Eugene (Oregon, that is). Locked in his own Loonyville and never quite ready to relocate (if ever), his burnt out captive is the existential cousin of Dennis Hopper’s photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. Both men are functioning on fumes, and Davis (so bone thin it’s frightening) brings an additional level of unpleasantness to his part. Afraid of messing with the sordid status quo that he’d rat out his own friends, he’s a loose canon as walking skeleton, an unfathomable factor destined to destroy Dengler’s plan.
After the matter of fact material of life in captivity, Herzog makes the wise decision to spend an equally effective period of time on the eventual escape. It doesn’t ruin anything to know that Dengler does finally get away, and yet oddly enough, the breakout becomes the easy part. Indeed, some of Rescue Dawn’s most engrossing material is the aimless wandering through perilously overgrown jungle. Watching Dengler battle the underbrush with his machete, seeing Zahn’s swollen feet blister and peel, seeing the two men scavenge for any food or water they can find is far more harrowing than watching DeNiro and Walken play Russian Roulette with some clichéd Cambodian bad guys. One of Herzog’s genius strokes is that he presents the enemy as ambivalent – doing their job and yet not necessarily loving or hating it. Unlike other war films where the villain must be some kind of sadistic pervert, Rescue Dawn shows them for what they are – people.
It’s the same for our so-called champions. While Dengler does do things that warrant our awe and respect, Rescue Dawn wants to remind us that it’s not being done out of some noble belief in God or country. While our lead does love his adopted homeland, his motivation is more mercenary – he just wants to live to fly again. He’s not out to win the war in some microcosm of combat ala Rambo. He doesn’t need the verification of immorality on the side of the opponent to verify his actions. No, as with all of his films, Herzog saw in Dengler’s defiance of the odds the two hemispheres of his well considered worldview. On the one hand, Dieter Dengler needed to face the elements in order to guarantee his survival. But the most important confrontation came with who he was inside. The answer provides the foundation for one of 2007’s best motion picture efforts.