Nothing about "Rescue Dawn" is quite as astonishing as the existence of the film itself. The idea that we now have an American film with English-speaking actors -- and a very good film at that -- by the visionary German director Werner Herzog is even more of an extreme wrench to the imagination than anything in the movie.
Consider this: One of Herzog's great early masterpieces -- "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" -- ends with Klaus Kinski as the ultimate paranoid conquistador alone on a raft overrun by screaming Amazonian monkeys (one of the most memorably harrowing images in movies of the past half century). "Rescue Dawn" ends with a spasm of military triumph and comradeship in Vietnam that, so help me, even John Ford might have rejected as being too excessively patriotic. And yet it is moving in context.
That's because the film is based on the very real tale of Dieter Dengler, a German who flew in the U.S. Navy during the early stages of the Vietnam War (1965). He was shot down, tortured, imprisoned in a Viet Cong camp and managed to escape through the murderous surrounding jungle. Herzog made a semi-documentary about Dengler in 1998 but, obviously, couldn't let the story go.
In one sense, this is very much a Werner Herzog film -- neither as starkly hallucinatory nor neo-expressionist as some of them ("Nosferatu," "Woyzeck") but very much the kind of harrowing man vs. landscape film ("Fitzcarraldo," "Grizzly Man," "Aguirre") for which he is probably the world's reigning genius.
Herzog is adored by film lovers everywhere for being possessed by a kind of divine madness. If he specializes in the Cinema of Ordeal, he's also delighted to make things as arduous for himself as his actors and crews. Look at how thin and ravaged Christian Bale and Steve Zahn are in the prison camp scenes of "Rescue Dawn." Those blighted, skeletal torsos are not done by CGI, believe me, but by actors getting in Herzog's film spirit. (Bale -- extraordinary in the film -- is an old hand at self-abnegation for film. See "The Machinist.")
Herzog's cinematic specialty is what Machiavelli once called "the great and steady malice of fortune." At the same time, this isn't a film that is accidentally American, either. It teems with loving, even passionate, references to our movies: to Gen. George Patton's joke about the point of war being to make "the other dumb bastard die for his country" (taken, by the way, from a very real Patton speech); to the sickening leeches stuck to Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in "The African Queen"; and to the napalm flowers of evil exploding into jungle bloom everywhere in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."
Don't even bother thinking of these things as "homages." This is a great German director making an American film for an American company and starring English-speaking actors and rejoicing, reveling in it.
Dengler is a ready-for-anything Top Gun type who is tested as a POW as severely as POWs ever are. Before he's taken to camp, children torment him with giant insects. Viet Cong put him into a well up to his chin. He is dragged over the ground by an enraged ox. (See the near-closeups of Bale's face as he is, so that you don't snort smugly, "stunt man." While you're at it, pay close attention later when Bale eats the skin off a live snake while his character Dieter is trying to survive in the jungle.)
When Dengler finally gets to the camp, his fellow prisoners celebrate his birthday by serving him a prison camp delicacy: a bowl of crushed insect larva.
Steve Zahn, as a long-afflicted fellow prisoner, is a major revelation for those who have always assumed him to be a manically comic actor.
We've long known that Bale is happy to take Robert De Niro's asceticism as an actor to harrowing, Herzogian extremes. Even so, he amazes you here.
A gripping and superb movie of a kind no one could have expected.
3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
STARRING: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies
DIRECTOR: Werner Herzog
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for extremely intense sequences of wartime imprisonment, torture and deprivation.
THE LOWDOWN: U.S. Navy flier Dieter Dengler escapes through the surrounding jungle from Viet Cong captors.