Werner Herzog goes out into the jungle again for another odyssey of death, madness and single-minded resilience in the face of adversity. But this time he anchors the intensity and mania in the much more understandable milieu of the real-life drama surrounding the harrowing experiences of US Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down over Laos during the secretive early days of the Vietnam War and held captive by the Viet Cong until his escape through the equally savage environment. Recruiting the ever-dependable Christian Bale to play the lead role of the soldier who refused to quit no matter what his captors or the jungle threw at him, Herzog assures his adaptation of his own Dengler-documentary “Little Dieter Needs To Fly” from 1997 has a truly indomitable sense of character and a devastatingly strong central performance with which to anchor such a disturbing saga.
Of German descent, young Dieter Dengler first got the irrepressible bug to fly planes when he locked eyes with an allied pilot who, irate at cloud cover denying him his “proper” target during the dwindling days of the Second World War, let rip on the houses of the boy's innocent village. Moving to America with his family after the war, the young dreamer eventually got his wish and became an aviator for the US Navy and ultimately got sent to Vietnam to fly secret bombing missions of Laos before the war had officially begun. But in one of life's great little guffaws at human endeavour, Dengler is shot down only minutes into his first sortie. On the ground and on the run, he escapes and evades, putting into practice the bare half-hour of survival training he had received onboard the Aircraft Carrier Ranger just before taking off and it is no surprise that a hunter force of Viet Cong swiftly capture and then march him off to a life of incarceration, torture and starvation deep in the heart of the impenetrable jungles of North Vietnam.
But in a battered prison compound in the lee of the green-canopied mountains, he meets fellow captive Americans Duane and Eugene amongst a ramshackle and painfully thin group of inmates held for the long haul by a ragtag tribe of guerrillas who look like they have just wandered in off the Singapore set of Pirates 3. Immediately making friends with the others, Dengler ignores their claims for the hopelessness of their situation and sets about perfecting escape plans. All the while, he must battle the cruel and unforgiving guards, the constant privations and the almost medieval conditions that govern their day. And whilst the endless routine of being handcuffed together in veritable stocks every night, threatened with violence and execution continually and starved almost to the point of extinction drags his fellow captives into the pit of despair, he remains incredibly upbeat and defiant, geeing his buddies along with games of “what's in your imaginary fridge?” and little victories like stealing a crucial nail with which to unlock those cuffs and continually prepping them with means of escape and, just perhaps, getting even. His plan was audacious and their eventual breakout went down in the history books for being both daring and controversial.
But, as harsh as life on the inside might be, they will find that the jungle outside is even more ferocious in its treatment of them. ... especially when the rainy season that Dengler had been praying for turns the landscape into a hellish morass.
Rescue Dawn - named after Dengler's mission authentication to identify him upon rescue (what would they do if, after such a gruelling time, he couldn't remember it - throw him back?) is another of Herzog's “battling nature” epics that owes much to the likes of his earlier classics Fitzcaraldo and Aguirre: Wrath Of God, even if the tone is much more contemporary and familiar. Once again he is interested in showing men at the extreme limits of their physical and mental powers and discovering how they react to such punishment and to one another in times of severe duress. Do they fold and give in? Do they go mad? Or do they adopt the Dengler approach, which, in itself, is a peculiar form of madness, but one that finds the silver lining in even the grimmest of dilemmas and seems incapable of backing down now matter what the challenges that oppose it?
“You're a strange bird, Dieter ... a man tries to kill you and you want his job.”
Once again Christian Bale physically and emotionally transforms himself to fit into a role. If he was a square peg and the character he had to play was a round hole, he would manage to slide into it with no room to spare. He denies the “Method” approach to acting - and, indeed, this is not the style that he adopts - but his commitment to becoming a character is peerless, unsurpassable and utterly convincing. I've said a few times before that the one type of thing I couldn't see him doing was comedy - well, despite the subject matter of Rescue Dawn, his portrayal of Dieter Dengler is possibly the closest he has come to it ... so far. That is not to say that Bale is playing the tortured POW for laughs - far from it. But he manages to imbue his struggling, yet un-defeatable pilot with enough charm, humanity and unflappable optimism that he comes across as genuinely warm and good-humoured. In fact, this sheer ebullience and lust for life goes even further, because there is a definite Chaplin-esque quality to his portrayal that lends Bale's Dengler (how rude does that sound, eh?) a fantastic, wide-eyed innocence and wonder that is totally new to a genre such as this. His simple life-embracing code of ethics sees to it that he greets a captor waggling the barrel of an AK-47 up his nostril with a smile. When a female VC finds the glass lens that he uses to shave with and brandishes it accusingly at him, he simply explains in childlike terms what it is and then gives her a big warm “Howdy,” that snuffs out her vehemence instantly. Even when dragged through a village that his own bombing mission can't have missed by all that much, he greets everybody with a smile, literally pleased to meet such new and colourful faces. This childlike zest sees him through some very troubling times and is, almost certainly, seen as a prime example of training protocol for captives behind enemy lines. No matter how bad things get - and they do get pretty damn dire - Dengler finds the inner resolve to see the bright side.
It is a performance that may seem outwardly unrealistic, especially when compared to the more conventional attitudes of fatalism (Steve Zahn's over-the-edge Duane) and self-delusion (Jeremy Davies' flipped-out Eugene), but this is apparently how Dengler survived his ordeal and, as such, Bale embraces it with no half measures. This full-on immersion into character also saw that the actor performed most of his own stunts, including the horrible early scenes of almost casual torture that his initial captors inflict upon him. Being towed behind a disgruntled cow whilst villagers kick mud in your face can't be the best ride in town, surely. And just wince at that terrifyingly tight little urn full of water that he gets repeatedly dunked into. Like a bush tucker trial in I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, Bale even gets down to some serious maggot-chomping, even making a meal of a passing snake at one stage. The movie was filmed backwards, so that the “thinnest” stage for the actors were the first scenes to go before the camera. This is because it is easier to put weight back on than it is to lose it in the first place - making filming in continuity too long, arduous and costly. But just look at Bale's hollowed-out face towards the end - it is an absolute deadringer for the “possessed Ash” look from Evil Dead II!
“Don't you ever do that again!”
Dieter gives a gun-toting captor a piece of his mind, heedless of the fact that he is bound and surrounded by grinning bad guys.
Critical acclaim for Bale is probably obligatory. The guy just can't do any wrong, can he? But the shock, performance-wise, comes from a different quarter. Steve Zahn's vacant-eyed, bedraggled Duane is the eye-opening turn here, though it seems a little back-handed to compliment the actor simply because we didn't exactly expect that much of him in the first place. Zahn has always been a thoroughly likeable and engaging presence on-screen, it is just that his roles haven't exactly been all that challenging. Primarily known for his comedy, Zahn, like Robin Williams before him, reveals an incredible depth of character that goes way beyond the already masterful command of comic timing. Looking incredibly like that POW that Rambo drags through the mud in First Blood Part II, Duane is so vulnerable that your heart just breaks. The finding of the ripped-up sole of a boot is a like a gift from the Gods and we are really overjoyed that he can, at least, save one foot from further jungle-torture. His portrayal of mental collapse is no clamouring for critical recognition, though, this is something that is painstakingly poignant and dredged-up from deep inside his soul. It would have been easy to have just gone down the over-emotional, melodramatic route with Duane - and we'd have thought no less of him if he had - but Zahn's potency is in the quiet hopelessness that he exudes. With trembling, mouse-like movements, we feel every torn-footed step he takes. The escalation of disasters that befall them on the outside only bolster Dengler's determination to make it, but they carve deeply into the blasted reserves of Duane's psyche and it would be a very hard man indeed not to shed a tear at one marvellously haunting moment of brotherly tenderness.
Jeremy Davies, on the other hand, is all contradictions. Not an actor that I have rated very much before now - too many knowing idiosyncrasies for my liking - he, nevertheless, makes a terrific stab at bringing the wacked-out, permanently terrified Eugene to mumbling, faltering, self-centred life. He even goes beyond Bale in the flesh-stripping department, really essaying the god-awful living skeleton look that Bale, himself, created in the terrific The Machinist (see SD review). With mannerisms reminiscent of Neil from The Young Ones and a real sense of living in a fragile limbo-land of mental turmoil and perpetual hope-cum-horror, Davies manages to make Eugene likeable-yet-hissable, pathetic yet treacherous, a snake in the grass who is still pitiable because he is only doing what he can in order to survive. Despite one deadly serious uttered threat, it is still remarkable that Dengler resists the temptation to throttle him at some stage in the game. A final confrontation between the two is quite profound, with Eugene - who actually hasn't changed a beat since we first met him - actually forcing Dengler to lose his cool.
“When something is empty, fill it. When something is full, empty it. When you have an itch, scratch it.”
Dieter's words of wisdom.
Ultimately, Rescue Dawn is a gripping experience that explores the outer realms of the human spirit and endurance. Its message is pure and emphatic, with strength of character and a sense of humour, almost anything is surmountable. Bale and Zahn dominate the movie, but Herzog's most crowd-pleasing package to date still packs in plenty of the maverick's own unique hallmark, his ongoing fascination with odd-balls and head-cases still intact. The PG-13 rating (it was a 12A in the UK) caused some scratching of heads when it first came out, with many thinking that it was far too brutal for such a low certificate. But, in all honesty, as vicious as some of the sequences may be, this is no Deer Hunter. There are no savage beatings to be endured, even if the cumulative effect of Dengler and co.'s ill-treatment is certainly bludgeoning. Yet, the tone of fatality and despair is acute and, despite much gurning and eye-twinkling from Bale's surprisingly cavalier performance, the film contains much that is dark and harrowing. The bizarre incarceration is frightening because there seems little purpose to it. These guys are not made to work in the fields, they are not being used as pawns - whether they sign those anti-American war-crime confessions or not, and Dengler most definitely will not - and their captors view them as little more than a daily chore. Such is the ritualised grind to their endless detention, that the outside world and its political machinations have no bearing on the survival or eventual freedom of the captives. What will matter is when the food runs out, because the guards are starving, too. Thus, the film makes no huge statement about the war. Dieter, as he explains, just wanted to fly. Not fight.
So, Rescue Dawn is a highly entertaining movie. I think it could have been more brutal, though. The actors convey their misery and terror exceptionally well, and we are left in no doubt that they have suffered ... but the evidence that we actually see on screen is possibly a little too watered-down. Still, this is top drawer stuff from the always-reliable Christian Bale - who has since piled the weight back on in order to fill the new Bat-suit for The Dark Knight - but it may be Zahn's exquisite performance that lingers most in the mind.
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