Rescue Dawn

cast: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies

writer and director: Werner Herzog

120 minutes (12) 2006
widescreen ratio 16:9
Pathé DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

Werner Herzog is a director who is arguably more famous than any of his films. This is perhaps unfortunate given that he has made many truly excellent films, like Aguirre: Wrath Of God (1972), and Grizzly Man, but arguably not a bad position for an art house director to be in. After all, if you were a movie producer would you rather give money to some German guy who made a bunch of films in the jungle, or the guy who once threatened to kill Klaus Kinski and then himself after the actor threatened to walk off set during filming? Herzog is an utterly unique filmmaker as his works are on the one hand fantastically nihilistic whilst on the other completely lacking in any kind of cynicism. He just enjoys making films about men with big ideas who break themselves against the hostile forces of nature and fate. Though boasting some Hollywood names and a larger budget, Rescue Dawn fits perfectly into the grand sweep of Herzog’s career.

Rescue Dawn is based on the true story of Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), an American air force pilot who was shot down during an illegal bombing mission over Laos during the Vietnam War. Born a German, Dengler became an American and a military pilot in order to satisfy his dreams of being able to fly. Shot down during his first mission, Dengler is shipped off to a rather thread-bare Viet Cong prison camp where he meets a cast of American and America-friendly POWs who have been there for two years, and are in the process of losing hope as well as their minds.

The problem with Rescue Dawn is that it is a mainstream genre film. The genre it belongs to is less popular than it once was but it includes such memorable films as as Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Rambo: First Blood II, Missing In Action (1984), and John Moore’s clever but sadly overlooked Balkans-based reworking of the genre Behind Enemy Lines. The POW genre tends to feature plucky American soldiers who are put through torture and starvation by inhuman foreign prison guards only to come out smiling and, more often than not, waving an American flag at the end. Rescue Dawn, a few innovations aside, is very much a part of this genre. Not because Herzog is showing any signs of wanting to sell out, but rather because the themes that Herzog naturally gravitates towards are also the themes that underpin the genre; at the heart of every POW story is the main protagonist who has a plan or a belief that will help him through his ordeal. Combine this with the ‘green hell’ concept so prominent in pretty much every single Vietnam film ever made and you have the perfect cocktail for a Herzogian tale.

Of course, Herzog introduces a few innovations of his own. For example, the use of torture is very much downplayed in Rescue Dawn. There are a couple of scenes featuring it but it’s nowhere close to being bamboo shards under fingernails or electrocution, instead there’s some staking out in the Sun, and some hanging upside down, but it all seems pro-forma as though the guards are merely going through the motions. The real obstacle that Dengler has to overcome is the camp and the jungle themselves; the lack of food, the terrible heat and the slow drip drip drip of everyone’s hope and sanity ebbing away. Intriguingly, Herzog suggests that the guards are in the same position as their captives as they too struggle with poor conditions and a lack of food that is affecting their minds.

Dengler himself is a traditionally Herzogian character who is utterly relentless in his faith in himself and his plans. When he states early on that he doesn’t plan to stick around, he really is stating a matter of fact, not of opinion. Almost immediately he makes life better for the other prisoners and, from that point on, he keeps their spirits high and their hopes up until he masterminds their escape against overwhelming odds. Unlike Rambo or Braddock who were in similar situations in other films, Dengler does not really fight his way out; he just keeps his head and keeps the people around him going. In one particularly memorable exchange, another prisoner accuses him of jeopardising their notional release with his escape plans and Dengler is taken aback, it simply hadn’t occurred to him that he might leave his fellow prisoners behind.

So Rescue Dawn is a very Herzogian story and very much part of the mainstream of the POW genre, and this is exactly the problem. I spent the length of the film expecting the other foot to drop in the shape of a twist or a change of pace, but Rescue Dawn never finds that higher gear. It is never outside of Herzog’s comfort area and it is never anywhere but well within the confines of its genre. This is unfortunate as it gives the film a terrible feeling of déjà vu; between the bearded American servicemen crouching in bamboo cages, the snakes and the insects, you cannot help but feel as though you’ve seen it all before. Indeed, when The Simpsons series and the Hot Shots movies parodied this genre, the best part of a decade ago, it should have been a sign that the genre was getting a little tired, but Herzog pressed on regardless. Unfortunately, this isn’t even a particularly good example of Herzog’s work as Dengler seems too good to be true.

In a couple of scenes, we see the dark side of Dengler’s personality emerge, once when he tries to take over another’s fantasy with his own preferences, and again when he leaves the other prisoners locked up at night after one of them suggested he was going to turn them all in. But Herzog never draws attention to these moments where Dengler’s sunny disposition is tested, instead the shine never really comes off Dengler, he always seems perfectly in control. The fact that Dengler never falters in his confrontation of the conditions not only serves to force the film further into the mainstream of the genre, placing Dengler next to Rambo and Braddock in a pantheon of superhuman POWs, it also serves to undermine the horrific nature of Dengler’s confinement. This is an effect that I also noticed in Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), a similar tale in which a Jewish man convinces his daughter that a death camp is part of some huge competition. The problem is that if you want to demonstrate that an environment is hideous, you can only do that by showing its effects upon the protagonists and if the protagonists show superhuman levels of endurance and tenacity, then that environment stops seeming like such a bad place. Had Herzog allowed Dengler to be tested in his resolve a couple of times then he would have reinforced how frightful the conditions were, but as it is he only undermines them.

Beautifully shot (particularly the colours in the camp) and full of emaciated Hollywood types chomping maggots and method acting their socks off, Rescue Dawn is an entertaining film that never quite manages to be anything more than part of an already over familiar genre. Disappointing.