Rescue Dawn

Dir: Werner Herzog
Star: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Galen Yuen

In recent decades, Herzog has been more interested in documentaries - whether real or, like the marvellous Incident at Loch Ness, fictitious - that dramas. Here, he returns to his roots, with another film which centers on a white man stuck in the jungle: thirty years ago, it would probably have starred Klaus Kinski, and not inappropriately, since the central character is a German native. Dieter Dengler is a Navy pilot whose plane is shot down in the Laos/Vietnam border region, while on a secret mission just before the Vietnam war fully blossomed. Despite successfully evading pursuit for a while, he is eventually captured by the Viet Cong and held in a prison camp with five other captives, some of whom have been there for several years. Dengler refuses to settle for imprisonment and hatches a plan to break out and head through the jungle to the Thai border; while some of his cell-mates are less enthusiastic, matters come to a head when their guards are overheard planning to execute them.

There has been some debate over the accuracy of the events portrayed here - one senses Herzog is much more concerned about cinematic 'truth' than the historical kind. This both works for and against the film. To be honest, it is pretty long, with rather too much footage of the skinny inmates [though after The Machinist, Bale should be used to that] sitting around the camp, whispering to each other - I had to restrain myself from yelling, "What? Speak up!" at the television set on a number of occasions. Maybe I'm just getting old... There's no doubt the background landscapes are majestic, and Herzog does put over the sense of how tiny and insignificant we are in comparison - I'm reminded of the opening shot of Fitzcarraldo, with the Spanish winding their way down the side of the mountain. While moments like this, or the portrayal of the hellish camp life, keep the film ticking along, and Bale is his usually-reliable self, it never quite captured my interest. Worthy, more than truly worthwhile.

[June 2009]

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