Rescue Dawn (2006) dir. Werner Herzog
Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies
“Rescue Dawn” is old-fashioned traditional filmmaking which wouldn't turn heads if it wasn't written and directed by one of cinema's most iconoclastic filmmakers - Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has never been one to do things the easy way. His track record is filled with wild adventures on location in some of the most remote and uncompromising places on earth. Each endeavour of his is like a different “Apocalypse Now”. He must drive his crew berserk, but the legacy of work has lasted longer than the hardships it took to create them. “Rescue Dawn” is such a film.
Herzog first filmed this story as a documentary in 1997 called “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”. This dramatic version starts out in 1965 before Vietnam was considered a full-fledged war. During this time it was a ‘Black Ops’ objective. Christian Bale plays Dieter Dangler, a pilot who is shot down flying over Laos, and taken prisoner in a POW camp. As Dieter first enters the prison, he’s surprisingly calm, perhaps expecting civil Geneva-code-approved treatment. He meets a group of other prisoners, among them, two Americans Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies). When he learns that they have been in the camp for over two years, Dieter quickly formulates a plan of escape.
Using his resourcefulness he devises ways to release themselves from handcuffs, hide their food and plot their escape under the noses of the guards. Ironically the major roadblock in his plan is Duane, who has delusions of being rescued miraculously and continually tries thwart Dieter’s escape. But the gang eventually does escape, which only puts them into an even more hostile environment – the Laotian jungle.
Christian Bale, as expected, delivers a great method performance. And Herzog makes things even easier for himself by casting the two great character actors, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies who match up perfectly as Dieter’s mentally exhausted compatriots. Davies contributes another wonderfully spacey and neurotic performance and Steve Zahn's easy-going affability provides genuine warmth and sympathy.
Knowing Werner Herzog’s track record, the biggest surprise is the film’s conventionality. After over 35 years of filmmaking "Rescue Dawn" was his first Hollywood-ish film. The plotting of events fits nicely into the grand old tradition of prison-escape films. Herzog even gives us a triumphant climax with a 1980’s freeze frame to punctuate his thoroughly satisfying and straightforward ending.
The success of “Rescue Dawn” reinforces my desire to see more avant guard filmmakers make straightforward films. I’ve always thought, at will, David Lynch could make the scariest genre horror ever made. “Rescue Dawn” proves Herzog’s innate talent for storytelling can transfer to any genre or any medium. Enjoy.