Werner Herzog’s welcome comeback to feature filmmaking is a rare and curious mix: both a success as a nail-biter escape flick, and a fine continuation of Herzog’s career fascination with obsessive men of civilisation lost in alien landscapes at the mercy of natural and human cruelty. Based on the same true story Herzog had already recounted in his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Rescue Dawn accounts the travails of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a German immigrant who joined the US Navy to become a pilot, but gets shot down on his first mission, an illegal bombing mission on Viet Cong targets in
. He’s stuck in a prison camp with five other men, including Steve Zahn’s taciturn Duane and Jeremy Davies’ crumbling Eugene, at the mercy of mean guards who themselves are underfed and desperate. Dieter’s can-do attitude, and dexterity with finicky details, serves him well as he constructs and executes a plan for escape. Laos
Bale, at his most committed and intelligent, avoids playing Dengler with a Germanic lisp, instead offering a slightly too bright, too folksy characterisation to suggest both his discomfort and adoration of his assumed identity, greeting Viet Cong with a chirpy ‘Howdy!’ and chowing down on worms and grub with his cheery determination only sharpened to an expedient point. Herzog avoids overt politics, but his sense of visual detail is acute in laying out the chasm between the locals, to whom the Americans are only frightening, outrageous beasts from the sky to be harassed and tortured for their transgressions, and the invaders themselves, stripped of their technology and support, rendered pathetic and virtually helpless. Likewise, Dieter and his fellow flyers are finally in as much conflict with the representatives of their own shifty government’s spooks as they are with Charlie.
The care with which Herzog tells a heroic tale without bombast or appeals to crude nationalism is admirable, and he’s too eccentric a filmmaker to take easy paths. Rather than play Rescue Dawn as a straight melodrama, he laces it with drolly funny touches of the accidentally surreal, like the midget guard who’s the prisoners’ best friend, self-willed machine guns and a dancing dog, and portraits of vivid humanism, like Dieter’s pathetic but joyous birthday party, and his care not to kill the nicest of the guards. Then comes the exhausting, utterly corporeal detail the difficulties of Dieter and Duane’s flight, finding existential terror in wrestling through masses of weeds before casual calamity comes in the fall of machete blades. Dieter has to reinvent his civilisation with a single nail.
In this regard, Rescue Dawn is an interesting thematic riposte to the neuroses of film like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, where the disintegrating Yankee psyche takes on apocalyptic scale, and indeed many of Herzog’s early films, full of supermen ready to plunge into deepest savagery. Dieter’s precise, watchmaker’s sense of technique – how do I get out of handcuffs? How do I feed myself in the bush? – refuses to countenance the jungle and the guards as anything more than problems to be circumvented, even whilst he and Herzog’s camera absorb its teeming, grandiose beauty and threat. Dieter has no psychodrama to enact in the jungle other than his own script for survival. Which is not to say he and his fellows do not face, and suffer, brutal and tragic consequences to their stab at freedom, but as well as being extremely watchable, Rescue Dawn is a hymn to the idea of a man as his own deliverer.