Please do not confuse “Rescue Dawn” with a mid-80s Cannon Group production of a Chuck Norris film. This isn’t the movie where Chuck emerges from a river firing a water logged AK-47 in super slow motion. Nor is it the one where soulman C. Thomas Howell models for I. Goldberg and yells out, “Wolverines!” Sorry, that was “Red Dawn”. Still, no one can really be blamed for this confusion, given the generic action film title and the hard sell trailer that advertises explosions. This is actually a Werner Herzog film and no matter how MGM wants to misrepresent it, there’s no way to turn this unique Vietnam war drama into anything else.
That’s because there is no one in the world like Werner Herzog. Yes, it’s true that we are all unique in some way, but Herzog must really be the first and last of his kind, a “Herzogian” perhaps. As a filmmaker, he fits into no real category with films that are both as experimental as “Heart of Glass” in which the entire cast was placed under hypnosis before each shot, and as morbidly fascinating as the Timothy Treadwell documentary “Grizzly Man”.
Of course, he is most famous for his artistic and personal battles with part-time madman/sometime actor Klaus Kinski, which he chronicled in his riveting 1999 documentary aptly titled “My Best Fiend”. In between melodramatic death threats to one another, they collaborated on some of the great classics of modern world cinema, with “Aguirre, The Wrath of God”, “Fitzcarraldo” and the much underrated remake of Murnau’s “Nosferatu”.
Herzog is a filmmaker whose interests go far beyond the cinema, into history, psychology, sociology, and philosophy. This is what separates him from others of his generation, most of them hard line cinephiles who saw the world only through the veil of a collective cinematic unconscious. Herzog does not see the world through a post-modern veil of reference and irony. He sees it as though it was just discovered and then photographs it to share his discoveries with the world. It is the “ecstatic truth” of the world which he wants to reveal, a truth that must go beyond any preconceived script or production plan.
He is a great storyteller who has in some fashion made himself the hero of his own adventure story. A brief rundown of some of his most notable adventures in filmmaking: Walking the entire journey from Germany to Paris in a kind of spiritual pilgrimage to see his ailing friend, film historian Lotte Eisner; lifting a full sized steamship over a South American mountain with ropes; performing kitchen table surgeries on crew members shot by arrows in the throat; helping a camera operator bitten in the foot by a lethal, venomous snake chainsaw the foot off to survive; threatening to shoot Klaus Kinski with a rifle if he dared to abandon his movie and saving the last bullet for himself; losing a bet with filmmaker Errol Morris and eating his own shoe on camera. More recently things have calmed down. He was only shot in the abdomen by a nut with an air rifle during a BBC interview, and sometime later, pulled actor Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck near his LA home.
Now, there is a fine line in his own mythology between the real and the fabricated. Since Herzog is a bit of a fabulist and prankster, it’s as hard to separate fact from fiction in his life as it is from his films. In fact, Herzog has never separated his documentary work from his fictional narratives, seeing each as part of the other in the larger framework of filmmaking. His documentaries contain the occasional staged scene (only with the cooperation of the subjects) and his narrative films feature scenes that are, unfortunately for the cast and crew, real.
At first glance, “Rescue Dawn” might seem like Herzog gone Hollywood, but it’s still very much the man’s work. It’s just that the story is more accessible than some of his earlier films, and has a more recognizable non-Kinski cast. Herzog made a documentary in 1997 about the character played here by Christian Bale, the German-born American Naval pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down over Laos in 1966. That was called “Little Dieter wants to Fly”, and as usual it’s filled with all kinds of weird Herzog touches and breaks with documentary “truth”. Dieter is a fascinating, incredibly optimistic spirit and right in line with Herzog’s self-possessed protagonists. In all of his films, Herzog focuses on obsessed heroes who attempt to defy nature, which itself is presented as a violent force. All Dieter wants is to fly, and even as he is going down in flames, he yells out, “I will not abandon the plane!” as though his will was powerful enough to challenge gravity.
He is of course captured, tortured, and placed in a Pathet Lao prison “camp”, which is just a couple of huts run by some raggedy Viet Cong goons, including a reasonably friendly dwarf. Upon arrival, he meets his colleagues, a bunch of soldiers and Radio Free America guys who’ve been there for two years. The very day he arrives, Dieter tells them, “No way I’m staying here.” He says this as a statement of fact, not a hope of one day gaining freedom. He’s getting out of that hell forsaken place and as soon as possible. Even after he’s informed of just how impossible it is to escape, he remains undeterred. The camp appears to be a joke with only a flimsy bamboo fence cutting them off from the freedom of the jungle. “Don’t you get it,” he’s told by Steve Zahn’s Duane Martin, “the jungle IS the prison.” What follows is a real nightmare of survival and torture, the kind of true-life tale of indomitable human spirit that Hollywood salivates over. Only this one actually resonates without resorting to hollow melodrama.
This doesn’t mean that the film breaks with genre. It’s surprising to see how much of a crafted piece of storytelling Herzog is capable of even while exploring the details that fascinate him more as an artist. Structurally, “Rescue Dawn” plays just like any classic prison break narrative, with the internal conflicts between the prisoners that put the entire plan at risk, the sneaky attempts to collect supplies and tools for digging and lock-picking, and the complex relationships with the enemy themselves. We’ve seen all of this before in films like “The Great Escape”, “Stalag 17” and “The Shawshank Redemption”.
But unlike many European art filmmakers, Herzog doesn’t deny us the pleasure of the genre elements. He shoots the scenes for character, atmosphere and real suspense, and when the escape does finally unfold, he releases the tension with sudden bursts of frightening, unflinching and cold violence. The film shows a command the likes of which only a Polanski has really been able to demonstrate with any consistency. The knack for telling a popular genre story with great cinematic craft, but without losing any of the more personal elements which define the filmmaker in his art films. Herzog has his cake and eats it too. The film has great tension, odd humor, surreal characters and situations, and always this Herzog gaze at nature as it traps, aids and envelops the people and world around them.
The strong storytelling keeps us riveted while we are illuminated by Herzog’s details, such as the hungry prison camp dog, who walks around the men on its hind legs looking for food; the green leaves which automatically contract when Zahn touches them; the very real leeches which Bale and Zahn have to pull off of their bodies; and the clouds, mist and light which sweeps through the mountains and trees. Herzog shows us their frustrating attempts to cut through the jungle, revealing more and more jungle. It truly is a natural prison. These are classic Herzog touches, but what’s new is a greater humanism and interest in the very intimate relationship that develops between people living in dire, desperate conditions.
All pretense, dignity and pride are dropped since no one has anything left to hide or protect. Dieter and Duane are at the heart of this very unusual screen friendship, and their deep trust and dependence on one another moves past all depictions of male bonding into something much more profound that is beyond words. Herzog then shows us a greater, perhaps “ecstatic” truth in the way Dieter switches into survival mode when he and Duane are ambushed by murderous villagers. His actions seem shocking and cold initially, but Herzog is right to demonstrate that there is no place for sentiment in survival.
The humanism gives way to a more Spielbergian sentimentality that is perhaps a bit much at the end. But, in a way, the movie and its characters deserve it since they’ve been put through some really “Deliverance” level horrors for more than two hours. Maybe it’s not even sentimental. After all, who wouldn’t be overjoyed at being home after surviving torture, hunger and murder?
Both Steve Zahn as Duane and Jeremy Davies as “Gene from Eugene” are excellent, although Davies is becoming a bit familiar doing his crazy Manson guy thing. Zahn is the real surprise here. He’s normally a comic actor with a great sense of timing, but this has all been pushed deep down for “Rescue Dawn”. Everything is in his eyes, which seem to tell us all about a man at the end of his rope.
Christian Bale returns in the form of the human skeleton. Has any other actor come closer to starving to death onscreen? Now this is really just an effect and has little to do with acting, but Bale has a giant talent in that department anyway, and although he’s already given a string of great performances, from “American Psycho” to a coming of age Batman, there’s nothing that can match what he’s done here with Dieter Dengler. Bale seems so fully conceived here in a way that defies mere description. The character is totally present from the first moment and creates such an intimacy with the audience that throughout the film we feel a psychic connection with the character, hearing his thoughts in scenes of mere silent contemplation.
Herzog slowly reveals details about Dengler throughout in the subtle way a painter may paint a portrait of a good friend. Herzog considered Dengler to be a close friend until his death in 2001, and this film and Bale’s portrayal is nothing less than a loving tribute to a unique man. The film does not narrate the character through dry exposition, but shows his qualities in action. He is seen as someone whose people skills are vast and how he seduces, cajoles, inspires and berates those around him makes up most of what is special about the film. This, more than any ability to physically fight or kill, is what allows him to survive. He is so charming, in fact, that he actually gets a female Vietnamese guard to smile back at him. It’s a very amusing and human touch. In another time and another place perhaps…
I admired Dengler’s optimism and courage in the naive, almost idealist way that I admired Mr. Smith when he went to Washington. Dengler has a lot in common with Jefferson Smith, in that he is a man who lives by his word and does not easily give up. When offered the chance to regain his freedom by signing a document condemning the imperialist war of the United States, he declares that, “I cannot sign that. How can I sign that. America has taken me in, given me wings. I will not sign this!” Where he differs from Capra’s naive, idealistic dreamer is that he still feels this way even though he himself is far from naive.
Dengler grew up during World War II and knew the horrors of war firsthand. He is tortured and brutalized in ways that would leave most men broken. But he does not give up and does not lose hope. Herzog has said that he always saw the German Dengler as ironically a symbol of all that was great about America: self-reliance, courage, loyalty and optimism, a strange kind of directness and joy in life.
All films about war can be seen as political. But truthfully, “Rescue Dawn” is not meant to be a political film of any kind. Herzog is not, and has never been, interested in politics per se. He’s not as simple minded as that. The film is truly an example of French director Jean Renoir’s belief that “everyone has his reasons”. Even those who commit acts of horrible inhumanity do so because of some very human need. If Herzog celebrates anything, it’s the character within Dieter Dengler that he admires and wants us to experience. His courageous commitment to his adopted country goes beyond mere flag waving patriotism. It’s a personal sense of respect and honor.
Herzog has always been riveted by those living on the extremes of human experience and the nature of humanity that reveals itself to the obsessed and visionary few. “Rescue Dawn” is a depiction of one such man by another, and although the film may fade out, the incandescent spirit of Dieter Dengler remains burned in the memory.
Werner Herzog (director) / Werner Herzog (screenplay)
CAST: Christian Bale … Dieter
Jeremy Davies … Gene
Steve Zahn … Duane