Talking Movies

November 30, 2019

From the Archives: Rescue Dawn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down on his first mission over Vietnam. Captured by the Vietcong he plots to escape and find his way home.

Christian Bale adds another impressive characterisation to his resume playing real life Vietnam War POW Dieter Dengler. Rescue Dawn is inspired by events in Dengler’s life previously documented by the legendary (by which I mean famously bat-crazy) German director Werner Herzog in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Bale expertly plays a German who has become an American citizen and whose accent is American, but not quite genuine, and whose mental state could best be described as…peculiar. Herzog, the director of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo is quite at home in this cinematic territory of insane heroes in the jungle and produces his best fictional feature in years. Werner Herzog is after all the man who dragged a boat over a mountain for the making of Fitzcarraldo, about a 19th century rubber baron in Brazil who wanted to build an opera house in the middle of the Amazon.

Herzog brilliantly uses minimal dialogue for the first half hour to tell the story of Dengler’s capture and torture at the hands of the Vietcong thru the medium of pure cinema. He wordlessly conveys the utter terror of the Vietcong whenever an American airplane screams overhead. Herzog achieves a sense of location few Vietnam films have, even Apocalypse Now’s intense feeling for its locale is eclipsed by his extraordinary eye for landscape cinematography which makes the lush jungle almost another character. Bale’s time in the POW camp moves out of this art-house territory towards more mainstream fare, and the film slows down and becomes less distinctive. The men sit and bitch about being prisoners of war, plot escape plans (as all prisoners of war seem to spend most of their time doing, to the detriment of their guards’ nerves) and try to raise morale by fantasising over their favourite meals. Herzog inserts some excellent gags here but never lets you forget that Dengler is a very odd hero figure for these men to rally round.

The relationship between Bale and Steve Zahn as a fellow American prisoner in the small Vietcong camp is highly convincing but Jeremy Davies is endlessly irritating as the only other American POW. Davies has been using the same mannered tics since 1994 and has blighted films from The Million Dollar Hotel to Solaris. His popularity with casting directors continues to mystify. Steve Zahn, by contrast, grasps with both hands the chance to do something more substantial than his usual comedic sidekick roles and delivers a touching portrayal of man worn down by despair and malnutrition. Herzog’s languid pacing in this film, particularly in the second act, may irritate people raised on MTV editing but the majesty of the landscape and the emotional depth he achieves is more than adequate recompense, Rescue Dawn is an offbeat take on a familiar genre, welcome to the extreme as a matter of course.

3/5

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