Werner Herzog is no stranger to the jungle, which many of the filmmaker’s crazed protagonists try, in futility, to conquer. In his classics “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo,” and “Cobra Verde,” Herzog uses landscape to visualize the extremity of self-destructive over-achievers. In 1998, he turned to the Laotian jungle for “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” a documentary of a downed American pilot’s 1966 ordeal, though here the jungle was a hell from which a real-life man made an escape. In that film, Herzog returns Dieter Dengler to the Far East jungle to reflect on his transformation from rookie American pilot to prisoner of the Viet Cong.
“Little Dieter” covers his whole life, including his impoverished youth in WWII Germany, and how he achieved pilot status in the US Navy after arriving to the States almost penniless. In “Rescue Dawn,” from Herzog’s first script written in English, Herzog dramatizes the six months between Dengler’s abortive air mission to his rescue. The director makes new use of a familiar setting for a go at the escape film. While committed to realizing Dengler’s baffling ordeal, Herzog shows his mastery of creating action in a leafy terrain.
The film lends a sense of doom as Dengler (a well-cast Christian Bale), in preparing for his first mission, jokes with his peers before their classified flight. They are stationed on a battleship in Asian waters positioned to send them over Southeast territories in minutes. When Dengler takes off, Herzog depicts his flight with artificial photography. As his plane flies in formation, Dengler looks like the hero of an old-time war film. Herzog uses this nostalgic tone to contrast with the sheer realism of Dengler’s approaching capture and imprisonment. An ambitious, potential hero of the sky has been downed, and now must overcome the jungle instead.
Herzog puts us up-front with the locale when Dengler is brought to a Laotian village. (Herzog filmed “Escape” in northern Thailand, and used the most realistic props available.) As Dengler flouts his high-flying, patriotic spirit to his captors, the Viet Cong attempts to break him with forms of prolonged torture: one involves a water pit, and another an insect nest.
Though his imprisonment depicts the horrors experienced by POWs, the film makes its ideological point clear in two scenes. Herzog includes
documentary footage of an American carpet bombing (compressed from footage used in “Little Dieter”), in which falling missiles hit the ground in slow-motion blasts. Later, when Dengler is first captured, rag-tag militants bring him to a Viet Cong official with a perfect English tongue and even an American sense of humor. He urges Dengler to sign a statement that swears allegiance against the American campaign. What’s disturbing is that the situation described therein, that American forces are oppressing a country for political gain during the “Red Scare,” holds a significant amount of truth today. Though Dengler stays firm and refuses to sign, this scene, coupled with Herzog’s opening footage, adds an anti-war flavor to what could otherwise be read as a patriotic war film.
But politics aside, Herzog uses a realistic tone to depict a high-energy capture and escape. The take is a rewarding change, since the director employs a more expressionistic approach for the jungle travails of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo. (Though Herzog can’t help showing his roots during a surreal sequence of Dengler’s torture.) Upon escape, Dengler runs with Duane Martin (an especially crazed-looking Steve Zahn). With both performers gaunt for their roles (we can’t help but recall the withered Bale in “The Machinist”), Dengler and Martin cut through thick jungle growth into which Herzog submerges his camera when not poetically framing the forest. True to his trademark style, the director doesn’t shy from submerging his performers in rapids or a mudslide to realize the plight of their journey.
In the film’s final act, in which Dengler and Martin hope for a rescue, Herzog infuses excitement after the lull of their captivity. In Bale, Herzog has found a talent who transcends the challenges of a brutal shoot. “Rescue” reveals new capabilities for an actor who’s already proven himself in other intense and ever-focused performances. When leaving the theater, I had to wonder why various filmmakers have firmly supported the casting of Tom Cruise as a potential Hitler assassin in Bryan Singer’s “Valkyrie”: How about casting Christian Bale, who has become the kind of actor that the wooden Cruise wishes he could have been?