An epic story of survival
Abbey screens 'Rescue Dawn,' a taut wartime thriller

by Judith Reynolds

Gripping. Daring. Extreme. Add “controversial” to that list for Werner Herzog’s newest film, “Rescue Dawn.” Then again, all of Herzog’s work is astonishing, from “Every Man for Himself and God Against All” (1974) to the more recent “Grizzly Man.” Siding with Darwin and Hobbes, the German art-film director has long viewed civilization as a thin, fragile crust covering a fundamentally beastial universe. With “Rescue Dawn,” Herzog explores that world view once again. In a harrowing tale inspired by the true story of a remarkable escape from a Laotian prison camp in 1966, Herzog unleashes an epic struggle for survival.

Since most movie fans know that the German-American Dieter Dengler survived his ordeal, it is not a betrayal to reveal that here and now. Dengler died of Lou Gehrig’s Disease in early 2001. How he survived is the issue.

The film opens with newsreel footage of aerial bombing raids in Vietnam. This is quickly followed by a dramatized briefing aboard the U.S.S. Ranger about a secret mission over Laos. Dengler (Christian Bale) is the smart, smiling rookie among the Navy pilots. It’s his first mission, and the jovial camaraderie among the men overrides the serious nature of the assignment.

The scene, however, feels like a gratuitous trope from too many American war films, hero jokes with buddies. There’s even one clown named Spook (Toby Huss) who borders on caricature. What’s far more important is that Dengler is willing to press a “you go to war with the army you have” supply sergeant for modifications to his survival gear. In a short exchange, Dengler is seen as assertive, intelligent, and imaginative. This side of his character is crucial to what happens throughout the rest of the film.

The mission begins, and Dengler quickly encounters enemy fire. The other planes peel away, but Dengler chooses to stay with his wounded Skyraider. Miraculously he survives a fiery landing and races through rice paddies chased by members of the Pathet Lao. It’s the first of several jungle pursuits, full of good and bad luck, near captures and a final, disastrous subjugation.

Herzog indulges his penchant for showing man’s inhumanity to man in a torture sequence which makes me question the PG-13 rating. Dengler is tied up and force-marched barefoot long distances. In one village guards tie him, spread eagled, to the ground. He’s hung upside down with an ant nest strapped to his face. And he’s all but drowned in a water pit – all to the delight or curiosity of his captors, village children, and silent women. Eventually Dengler is thrown into a Pathet Lao prison camp with five other men, Thai and, to his surprise, American.

The longest and strongest section of the film is the prisoner of war chapter where the men exist on spare disgusting rations, have limited daytime movement, and are shackled together at night, sardine-style, in heat, humidity, and human stench. Dengler learns about his comrades and the ways of the camp, intent on planning an escape from the moment he arrives. Even if the men escape, they would have to contend with dense and uncertain terrain, guessing how to hack their way toward the Mekong River and Thailand.

More I won’t reveal, except to say Dengler encounters unexpected glitches in his plan, each of which is fraught with tension.

Bale brings confidence and a fierce intelligence to his portrayal of Dengler. The actor lost 30 pounds to make a gradual emaciation believable. So did two other key actors, Jeremy Davies, who plays Gene, a half crazed ruin of a man, and Steve Zahn, acting against type in the role of Duane, a broken man whose tenuous grip on life and ultimate bravery are both achingly portrayed.

If you’re curious about the controversy surrounding “Rescue Dawn,” check out the websites of the families of other prisoners: It makes for interesting reading and supports my uneasiness about Herzog’s ending. That won’t be given away here, except to say the closing sequence may be true to Dengler’s book, but it smacks of convention. Like the opening scene, the final shot seems to pay homage to the history of filmmaking, American war films in particular. Too pat. Even if it mirrors Dengler’s account, this stunning but flawed film loses its power in the wrap. Herzog might have beat the final drum differently. •