On a friend's recommendation, I watched Rescue Dawn last night, a 2006 movie by Werner Herzog about Dieter Dengler. Dengler was born in the Black Forest but moved to America and became an American citizen and Navy pilot. He was shot down over Laos on a secret mission in 1965, and held prisoner in a Pathet Lao camp. The film, which is based on Dengler's own account, traces his life in the camp with prisoners from Air America and his attempts to escape from the camp and from Laos.
Like so many Herzog movies, this one features an outsider stranded in the wilderness (sometimes metaphorical, this time real), hacking his way through the jungle, sweating and cursing. Bale plays Dengler with reckless intensity,* and the ensemble cast of American prisoners, including a bearded, broken Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies doing his best Crispin Glover impression, is stellar.
All of the men in the camp were on secret missions, so they have no idea whether their fate is on anyone's radar screen back home. Some have waited for rescue for years, as chronic malnourishment took its toll and their mental composure frayed. At first greeted with suspicion, Dengler emerges as a focal point for the group of prisoners, and uses skills obtained from a metalworking apprenticeship in Germany to free the men from the shackles in which they're kept at night. Eventually, Dengler develops a plot to escape from the camp, but the others are skeptical: even if they manage to flee the camp, they will still be stuck deep behind enemy lines, barefoot, emaciated, and with no idea where they are or where to go.
The film was shot entirely on location in Thailand, and you can just imagine wildman Herzog stomping around in the mud, tearing and staining the actors' clothes and insisting that they march for hours (behind him) to acquire real sores. The jungle is an oppressive, threatening backdrop, teeming with merciless parasites and villagers thirsting to avenge themselves on the foreigners who have been bombing them for years. The only training the men have in jungle survival was a short film shown, to general amusement, on board the aircraft carrier.
Rescue Dawn is a thrilling action film, and a harrowing account of human beings pushed to the limits. Bale is masterly, showing Dengler's initial proud defiance melting into anguish, but never despair. And since this is a Herzog film, there is no flag-waving or moralizing. You become intensely involved in the characters' fates because of the humanity they show in the face of their crushing existential** predicament, not because they're on any 'team' you are expected to identify with. A gem, perhaps even a late Herzog masterpiece.
* Like all red-blooded Anglo-Saxons, Bale can deliver himself of a rousing profanity-laced tirade when the occasion arises. Evidence here.
** It's a Herzog movie, so I had to use the word 'existential' in the review. It's not just a good idea, it's the law!
But it fits, it fits…