Twitter Plot Summary: Pilot Dieter Dengler is shot down during the Vietnam War and imprisoned. Then he escapes.
Five Point Summary:
1. Bad CGI airplane!
2. Those are some epic beards.
4. Into the jungle.
5. How to flag down US helicopters, Vietnam jungle style.
I’d not planned for Rescue Dawn to be my first Werner Herzog-directed film – I have a box set of his collaborations with Klaus Kinski that I had every intention of using as my introduction to his works. Alas, Rescue Dawn showed up on TV over the Christmas period and it seemed like a worthwhile viewing. Thankfully that turned out to be the case.
Based on real events, the story follows the crash and subsequent imprisonment of US pilot Dieter Dengler, whose name would likely work better in the adult movie industry. He’s shot down whilst undertaking a secret mission during the Vietnam War, and finds himself interned in a prison camp hidden away in the jungle alongside other pilots and civilians captured by the Vietnamese. It’s inevitable with a tale like this that Dengler escapes and starts making his way back towards civilisation, however the forests themselves are almost as inhospitable as the camp in which he was interned, throwing leeches and other unpleasant surprises his way and puts in question whether or not he’ll be rescued or recaptured.
Bale is typically dedicated to his role and fully embraces the character. It’s a small thing to pick up on, but the determination to escape is always clear in his eyes, and it’s equally surprising as it is blatantly obvious why nobody else has tried to escape from the camp before his arrival. As a previous fan of Lost, it was nice to see Dr Chang (Francois Chau) and Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies), although the former wasn’t in the story for anywhere near long enough. There’s fun to be had with the prison guards too, all of whom have nicknames that stem from either their personality or their physical appearance. Surprisingly not all of them are sadistic thugs – one’s actually the same size as Mini Me and for all intents and purposes despite his job he’s a friendly guy. Most peculiar.
Bale and his co-stars lost a ridiculous amount of weight to portray the effects of long term imprisonment where food was in short supply and torture was an everyday possibility. It certainly helps establish the reality of the situation, in particular the almost skeletal figure of Davies as he shambles around the camp like a zombie who’s not been told he’s dead. As the beards grow, it soon starts to look like a cross between The Walking Dead and an unkempt 60s rock festival.
With one exception of an instantly cauterised decapitation aside and some decidedly iffy special effects when Dengler’s plane is shot down, the situation and reality of the pilot’s predicament are easily believed, and the almost documentary-esque style chosen by Herzog is an interesting choice that also happens to work very well in its favour. When Dengler inevitably starts hallucinating the film’s style nicely blurs the line between fiction and reality without ever resorting to cheap tricks like clouding the screen with that stereotypical “waking dream” effect that is seen so often. Thankfully it doesn’t confuse you, as we know full well that Dengler is hallucinating.
Suffice to say, my introduction to Herzog’s work was perfectly acceptable. Tense in the right places, almost entirely realistic – which one would hope for given that Herzog had already made a documentary about this story – and not an epic flag waving exercise as these things often turn out to be.