Lt. Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is shot down over Laos and taken prisoner, probably by the North Vietnamese, but what with the nebulous character of the jungle and the long strange hike he is first put through, there is no way of knowing for sure where we are as we enter the prison camp. There is a distinctly hallucinatory quality to the whole movie, but the very sense of un-reality actually brings this all closer to home. Dengler is captured in the jungle by irregular soldiers, treated with a random cruelty that seems at times to be only for the captor's amusement, and then brought to the prison camp where the lion's part of the action takes place.
The other prisoners have been interred there for upwards of two years. They are Duane (Steve Zahn), Gene (Jeremy Davies), Y.C. (Galen Yuen), and Phisit (Abhijati 'Meuk' Jusakul). You can sense the tension and the strange and inevitable coping techniques they have adopted to survive the harsh conditions right from the get-go. The guards are in an equally remarkable shape. Here is where things start taking an interesting turn for me and everything acquires a taste of Samuel Beckett. Holding someone captive in these harsh circumstances pretty much means that the captors are equally locked in the situation. When there is no food, there is no food for anyone.
Still, it's worse for the prisoners. Of course it is. They grow more and more gaunt, and their situation becomes more and more desperate. The prison itself is just a compound made of bamboo and rope, and Dengler starts making plans for his escape almost immediately. But, as Gene (Jeremy Davies) puts it, "the jungle is the prison". The irony of the jungle is that it's very difficult to find water unless it's the rainy season.
The prisoners are held in a bamboo hut and at night they are put in shackles which means they can't even go to the latrine. They stay locked down until day and the only reason they can start working on an escape is because Dengler is clever enough to fashion a lock-pick from an old nail, which enables him to open their handcuffs at night so they can gain a little more mobility, if not freedom. The struggle to remain sane here is compelling.
To my mind the really good war movies, or anti-war movies, as the case might be, are the ones that manage to portray the arbitrary nature of one's fortune in a situation like this. Random violence, random kindness, random good fortune, the difference the slightest detail can make for your survival and the inherent surrealism of the nature of conflict in general should all be represented in there somewhere. This movie provides all that. And then there is the jungle.
In a movie like this the jungle is a character in its own right and that is hardly surprising considering the director. Werner Herzog has been fighting his way through the jungle for most of his career. He has the ability to show the sheer size of the jungle, how dangerous it is, how hostile and impenetrable, and somehow that means the individual struggling through the green is more vulnerable and at the same time shown as persevering.
Dengler's will to survive seems to be the only thing holding him together as he and Duane (Steve Zahn) struggle to stay alive and escape the prison of the jungle, despite fatigue, starvation, and being pursued by hostile natives. Duane doesn’t make it out, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still with Dengler, though whether he is a ghost or a hallucination is anyone’s guess.
There is comedy and misery and struggle and pure absurdist moments that make this immediate and personal and intimate. I have seen enough of Bale’s work to expect a stellar performance, and I was not disappointed, all the way through to his speech patterns which are carefully constructed. I was, however, surprised by Zahn, who has mostly worked in a lighter vein, but who holds his own admirably in this movie.
There has been some grumbling that Herzog sold out with this movie and “went Hollywood” but I seriously doubt that anyone who watches this will think that it is like anything else they’ve seen in the genre and that is a feat in itself.
It isn’t the easiest thing to watch, but it is thought provoking and interesting and heartbreaking in the best possible way. It shows what life is “near the bone, where it is sweetest" to quote Henry David Thoreau and how much the individual can withstand when there is no other choice but to keep struggling.
This movie is based on Werner Herzog's documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997).
Rescue Dawn (2006), directed by Werner Herzog, stars Christian Bale (Dieter Dengler), Steve Zahn (Duane), Jeremy Davies (Gene), Galen Yuen (Y.C.), Abhijati 'Meuk' Jusakul (Phisit), Teerawat Mulvilai (Little Hitler), Yuttana Muenwaja (Crazy Horse), Kriangsak Ming-olo (Jumbo), Somkuan Siroon (Nook the Rook), Chorn Solyda (Walkie Talkie), Toby Huss (Spook), Pat Healy (Norman) and Farkas (GQ).