DVD Review Of Rescue Dawn

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/7/08


  It’s been quite a few years since Werner Herzog did a major fictive film. The last couple of decades has seen an increasing veer into documentaries and more experimental cinema. However, with 2007 film, Rescue Dawn, Herzog shows that the years have not taken their all too inexorable toll on the visionary mind. While the film is not an inarguably great masterpiece along the lines of some of his classic fictive films from the 1970s, it is a terrific war film, but, more so, a terrific prison escape and action film, even as it wholly subverts many of those subgenre’s worst banalities.

  The film is sometimes an expansion, condensation, and retelling of the same basic tale Herzog told in his classic 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly. That film chronicled the life and capture, over Laos, of a German born U.S. Navy Pilot named Dieter Dengler, who spent six months as a prisoner of war in Laos, before escaping with six other men into the jungle. Only Dengler was known to have survived. Rescue Dawn details and condenses many aspects of the earlier film, and is well acted by a stellar cast, well directed by Herzog, and brilliantly cinematographed by Peter Zeitlinger, who melds the stunning visuals of Thailand with Herzog’s own classic ‘eye level realism’ to evoke some of the same sorts of jungle imagery that made films like Aguirre: The Wrath Of God and Fitzcarraldo so impressive. On top of that is the wonderful film scoring by Klaus Bedelt, which is very minimal yet effective when employed; mixing the high and low forms of music Herzog is known for.

  The plot is rather simple, and greatly condenses the tale the real Dengler tells within the earlier film. Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down over Laos in 1965, while on a bombing run that is being hushed up by the military brass. He survives the crash, is captured by local guerillas, then brought to a local official’s headquarters where he is promised early release if he signs a propaganda statement condemning the U.S. bombing of Indochina. Dengler, who loves America as the nation that helped him learn to fly, refuses, and is put through a gauntlet of tortures, before being turned over to a POW camp supported by the Vietcong. There he meets other military and civilian, American and other, prisoners. He becomes friendly with one, Duane Martin (Steve Zahn), and antagonistic with another, Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), who looks like an anorexic pre-Charles Manson. DeBruin says he will foil the escape plan by letting guards know of it, because he feels their release is imminent (even though he has been held over two years), until one of the Indochinese prisoners tells the group he overheard the Pathet Lao guards planning to execute them all so they could return to their villages for food. They had waited several months, for the rainy season, to plot an escape. Dengler had found ways to let them be free of their shackles at night and spy on the guards, whom they nicknamed Little Hitler and Crazy Horse, among others.

  The escape plan is ingenious, and almost works flawlessly, except that DeBruin and another prisoner, chicken out, leaving Martin and Dengler in the lurch. They head to the jungle, where they meet up with DeBruin and the others. They exchange words, and part, never to see each other again. Martin and Dengler spend weeks in the jungle, navigating rivers, to get to the Mekong River and cross into freedom in Thailand. Eventually, the pair stumble upon a village, where the locals behead Martin. Dengler escapes, and eventually is picked up by an American helicopter on a scouting mission. At the hospital, he is interrogated and held captive by CIA operatives, until his buddies from the Navy surreptitiously sneak him out to a hero’s welcome back on his ship.

  The DVD, put out by MGM, which picked up the independent film, has some good special features. There is, as always, a sterling audio commentary by Herzog, prompted by interviewer Norman Hill. In it we get interesting nuggets on the film’s production- such as its being shot in 44 days in Thailand, coming in under schedule and under budget. We learn interesting facts about the crew and Dengler and his ordeal, as well as the film’s being shot in reverse, with the last scenes shot first, since it was harder and slower for the actors to lose weight, but easier to gain it back. There is a 45 minute long featurette on the making of the film, three theatrical trailers for other films, and three deleted scenes with optional commentary by Herzog- a real rarity for, as Herzog says, like a carpenter, he does not like to dwell on his shavings. The featurette also makes it known that the film was produced by a new production company, Gibraltar Entertainment, founded by pro basketball star Elton Brand; the rare case of a non-solipsistic pro athlete giving back to the greater society in ways not leveraged for their own personal reputation’s enhancement. Another note of interest is that, although Herzog alone is credited with the screenplay, in the DVD commentary he thanks Zak Penn- whom Herzog starred for in the comic mockumentary Incident At Loch Ness, for helping him with the American dialogue

  Rescue Dawn succeeds on many levels, especially the visual, for the ‘eye level realism’ that Herzog perfected years ago dominates the screen. We see the jungle and mountains not from sweeping panoramas, but as the people do, from the point of insignificance. The human drama plays out against a vast scale of natural drama. The hand held camera work is especially grueling and exciting. Perhaps the only two missteps in the film are the rather meager special effects Herzog uses in the sequence of Dengler’s airplanes in flight and crashing (his first ever use of special effects), and the scene where Dengler is captured while getting a drink of water. You just know the enemy will be behind him when he turns around. Yet, for every moment like those two, there are a dozen moments of excellence, such as Dengler relishing scraps of food the guards leave on a table, his being hung upside down, and the camera showing that perspective, and the reuse of two bits of film from the earlier documentary- a hilariously inapt military training film that even the Navy guys laugh at, and the reuse of one of the famous stock footage pieces from the Vietnam War- that of Agent Orange being dropped from above and defoliating everything in its path below. Herzog has cleaned up the footage to the point that some may not recognize it as decades old real footage.

  The film has generated some controversy, mostly for how it portrayed the character of Gene DeBruin. His family has started a website claiming that Herzog has defamed the dead man. Also, the film shows six, not seven, prisoners, and posits Dengler as the only survivor, whereas there was one other survivor. Also, many critics carped that Herzog went for a Hollywood and pro-American ending in the film, by celebrating Dengler’s return to the ship. Yet, this is what really happened, and even the character of Dengler refuses to go along with the jingoism an interviewer tries to impose on him by asking what kept him going while a prisoner- belief in God and/or country? Dengler replies he only believes in wanting a steak. Those who impugn the film as jingoistic or triumphalist are thus showing their own anti-American biases (as well as typically American short attention spans and ignorance of details), not any biases the film betrays, for it is starkly apolitical and humanist. This could have just as easily been a film about a slave revolt in Classical Rome, a portrait of the Underground Railroad, or an escape from a Nazi Death Camp or Soviet Gulag. It only seems pro-American because the protagonists are American; an incidental fact of history.

  The acting, especially on Bale’s part, is outstanding. In each of his roles, Bale creates characters wildly different from each other. Comic actor Steve Zahn also shines as the timid Duane Martin, and Jeremy Davies makes for an excellent counterpoint to Dengler’s exuberance, whether true or not. And the film also benefits by its fast pace. Despite being 125 minutes in length, the film never has ‘dead air’. It moves relentlessly from scene to scene, often being cut just before a typical Hollywood moment would arise in an action film. Thus, Herzog gives the viewer their Hollywood steak while not clogging their arteries with the mindless fat.

  Yet, despite all its excellent points, at its heart, this film, unlike the documentary version of Dengler’s life, is simply a deeper action film (a sort of leaner, meaner The Bridge On The River Kwai); it lacks the overall intellectual depth, probing, and agon that defines great art and suffuses Herzog’s fictive classics from earlier in his career, even as it is a significantly better work of art than such a similarly themed and lauded film as The Deer Hunter. Rescue Dawn, however, and despite its near miss at greatness, is certainly a must see for those people who want to get a richer perspective on the Vietnam War, and deserves its place alongside Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket as unique visions of that war. But, to get an even fuller sense of what the war and Dieter Dengler were all about, watch Little Dieter Needs To Fly right afterwards. It’s called eating the cake whilst having it, too; but, more than that, one will find that the cake is also surprisingly healthy and enlivening. Keep cooking, Werner!


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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