Sunday, April 17, 2016


"The jungle is the prison."

Werner Herzog, one of the most influential filmmakers to emerge from the "New German Cinema", started making movies in 1968. He's still at it. But until the other day, when I watched RESCUE DAWN (2006), I had never seen a Herzog film. I was suitably impressed by what I saw and will certainly seek out some of his other films.

Based on true story and set in 1966, RESCUE DAWN details the odyssey of Lt. Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. Navy pilot who goes down into the green hell of Laos on his first bombing mission. Trouble is, the United States isn't supposed to be flying missions into Laotian airspace. Remarkably, Dengler survives the plane crash and sets out through the impenetrable jungle in an attempt to find his way back to Vietnam or be discovered by a Navy search and rescue mission, whichever comes first.

But it's not long before Dengler is capture by the Pathet Lao who proceed to mercilessly torture and degrade Dengler on a constant basis. They eventually take him a prisoner of war camp deep in the jungle. There's only a handful of guards overseeing the five prisoners being held there, two Americans and three Laotians. The Americans, Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), have resigned themselves to their captivity, going along to get along and patiently waiting their eventual release. All of the men have suffered both physically and mentally. Dengler refuses to acquiesce to imprisonment and begins to plot and plan an escape from the camp. The other prisoners are at first reluctant to go along with him, favoring the devil they know (their ruthless captors) over the unknown perils and near certain death awaiting them in the jungle.

But everyone eventually agrees to participate in the succeed or die escape attempt. The men do gain their freedom and go their separate ways once outside of the camp. Only Dengler and Martin stay together and their ordeal is unbelievably hellish. SPOILER: Martin is eventually slain by native tribesmen while Dengler is finally rescued by American forces.

Shot on location in Thailand, RESCUE DAWN features stunning cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger. His camera puts us right there in the jungle beside Dengler and the others as they struggle to escape and survive. The score, by Klaus Badelt and Ernst Reijseger is sparse but beautifully haunting. Herzog, who also wrote the screenplay, does a terrific job of making us feel the physical and mental anguish of the men. Most importantly are the performances by the three American actors. Zahn and Davies are both very good but it's Bale's show the entire way and he suffered for his art, losing weight before production began in order to shoot his emaciated final scenes first, then shooting the rest of the story as he gradually gained his weight back.

RESCUE DAWN is a grueling, at times tough to watch, tribute to one man's refusal to surrender against impossible odds. Recommended.

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