Werner Herzog's films often center on desperate individuals who exist on the very edges of human existence, pushed there by madness, ambition, or other forces outside their control. So then, what better story to tell than that of a prisoner plotting his escape from a Vietnamese concentration camp? Rescue Dawn, which is a follow-up to Herzog's 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly, is based on the true story of Dieter Dengler and his capture, plotting, and eventual escape and rescue from a POW camp.
It's the early years of the conflict in Vietnam, before American has declared outright hostilities, before the Vietnam War has actually started. However, that doesn't mean that American forces aren't dropping bombs behind enemy lines. Dengler (Christian Bale, in another strong performance) has only recently joined the U.S. Navy as a pilot, and his first mission goes down in flames -- literally. Although he's able to evade capture for awhile, he's eventually captured by the Vietnamese and forced to parade through the jungle and be subjected to various tortures.
His captors finally bring him to a small camp, where Dengler finds several other prisoners, including Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), American pilots who have been prisoners there for some years already. While the other prisoners, both American and Vietnamese, have resigned themselves to wasting away behind the walls, or in Gene's case, hold onto the false hope of a possible release, Dengler isn't so easily defeated.
Almost as soon as the doors are locked behind him, he begins plotting an escape for them all, scavenging tools, building equipment that will help them survive in the jungle, tracking the guard's movements, and so on.
The final third or so of Rescue Dawn chronicles the escape, and it's here that things really begin to pick up. Shortly upon escaping, Dengler and Duane find themselves alone, starving, and barefoot -- and are forced into the most primal, rudimentary existence imaginable just to survive until the next American plane or helicopter flies over. Thankfully, the film avoids much of the over-dramaticism that would mark a more Hollywood-esque production of the subject matter.
The camerawork is stripped down and basic, focusing all of our attention on Dengler and his plight, and chooses not to distract us with any extraneous elements. Looking back, I found myself waiting for some bombastic emotional moment, perhaps something along the lines of a heroic swell of the orchestral score, but thankfully the film keeps it simple and stripped down, soaking in both Dengler's plight as well as the incredibly lush countryside whose beauty hides any number of threats.
But at the same time, the film is perhaps too stripped down. Of course, everyone's going to try and dredge up comparisons to Herzog's most well-known films, such as Aquirre, which is somewhat ludicrous because Rescue Dawn is nowhere near as dark, intense, or desperate. Compared to the rest of the Herzog canon, Rescue Dawn might rank a little lower than others, but overall a very solid, if sometimes safe film.
I was unable to stay for much of the Q&A period following the film, but Herzog certainly professed an affection for the story of Dengler. So perhaps the best way to view the film is less a "typical" Herzog film and more as some sort of tribute or elegy for a friend, one that simply serves as a testament to the horrifying ordeals that one man was forced to survive in order to experience freedom.