Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture

Rescue Dawn

For Rescue Dawn, whether against his better judgment or not, Herzog returns to the jungle -- but this time those of Thailand rather than South America. And he returns to the jungle for another tale of obsession. For Rescue Dawn , Herzog looks to a story that fascinated him before. The real life adventure of Dieter Dengler, a German-born, U.S. citizen who flew a secret mission over Laos and was shot down and placed in a prison camp back in 1965.

There's a saying that the devil's in the details. Well that's also where you find good filmmaking and Werner Herzog is a filmmaker who's consumed by the details. It's that obsession that often makes his films fascinating and separates his work from everyone else's. His persistence in ferreting out the telling details that will bring a story to life often reflect the obsessions and determination of the characters he focuses on -- whether it's a Spanish soldier searching for El Dorado, a man trying to build an opera house in the jungle, or a captured pilot trying to escape a prison camp.

Dieter (played with goofy intensity by Christian Bale) is a perfect Herzog character. Dieter is in many ways just an ordinary guy, at least at first glance. But bit by bit we realize that Dieter, like Herzog, has got an eye for details that no one else is thinking of. Before going off on his mission, Dieter puts in requests for all sorts of special gear -- a boot with a secret pocket, a special "sleeping bag" with mosquito netting -- that ultimately proves useful. After he's shot down, Dieter struggles in the jungle and when he's captured he struggles to communicate with his captors in a surprisingly personal and off the cuff manner, which generally doesn't work.


We've seen war films and prison camp films before but what separates Rescue Dawn from the others are those damn details. Herzog shows us what day to day life inside the prison camp was like -- how the prisoners slept chained up, the difficulty of getting food, what the bathrooms were like, what bugs they ate and how they hid rice. While stuck in the camp with a handful of others, Dieter also reveals intriguing details of his life. For example the fascinating tale that provided the inspiration for Herzog's documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Dieter recounts to one of the POWs that during World War II, he was on the top of a building and saw a plane coming directly at him and firing. From that moment on Dieter knew he had to... no he needed to fly. Similarly, once he's in the prison camp, he's possessed by the idea that he has to escape and will do anything to achieve this end. Nothing anyone can say will dissuade him from this task. Apparently whatever little Dieter sets his mind to he achieves.

Christian Bale and Steve Zahn in Rescue Dawn (MGM)

Rescue Dawn is a fascinating portrait of survival at any cost. That focus on survival is what ultimately allows Rescue Dawn to avoid current politics and comparisons to Iraq. This is not a political film and in a certain sense not really a war film- -- it is a character study of a man whose particular personal make up allowed him to survive when others could not. Herzog is not interested in America, or how the military works or covert wars -- all those things are the background details of the story, and Herzog is more interested in the particulars of what makes Dieter tick.

And speaking of what makes Dieter tick, Bale does another remarkable turn in a role that requires as much from him physically as emotionally. As he did in The Machinist , Bale goes gaunt to reflect the poor conditions of the POW camp. It's not as drastic a weight loss as he did in The Machinist but he proves his dedication to the role by putting his body through considerable change. He also gets the intensity of Dieter but it's an intesity that has a certain goofy quality as if you're not sure if you should be taking him seriously or not. Steve Zahn leaves behind his sillier roles to deliver a sympathetic and compelling performance as one of the other prisoners of war.

Herzog assembles a fine crew to bring the story to the screen. Klaus Badelt provides an often stark but effectively tense score. Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, who worked with Herzog on Grizzly Man and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, finds lush beauty in both the jungle and the violence done to it. The aerial shots of the bombings have a surreal beauty. But when you get down to the jungle on ground level, the jungle fights back, providing thick underbrush that sometimes slows Dieter's movement to a crawl.


Rescue Dawn (rated PG-13 for some scenes of intense war violence and torture) is not Herzog's best film but it's a solid example of his particular approach to film and the way he can tackle a genre and not be held captive by it. The only scene that seems out of place in this well calibrated film is the celebratory ending that turns the story into what feels like a conventional tale of heroism. Dieter is a hero but he, like Herzog, is not conventional.

Check out the Rescue Dawn website and Werner Herzog's site where you can get a copy of Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Companion viewing: Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Seven Beauties, Burden of Dreams, The Machinist