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Trial by fire: Rescue Dawn


It was at this moment that Steve Zahn and Christian Bale - suddenly realized their calling: Opening a tiki-themed - bar back in the States.
  • It was at this moment that Steve Zahn and Christian Bale suddenly realized their calling: Opening a tiki-themed bar back in the States.

*Rescue Dawn (PG-13)

Kimball's Twin Peak

Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog's sensational narrative version of the story he told in his acclaimed 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, is a wartime escape movie to top all others.

Set in a thick Laotian jungle, it tells the story of real-life former Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), said to be the only American to ever break out of a POW camp during the Vietnam War. And with Rescue Dawn, Herzog is back with a vengeance.

This movie is incredible.

Before Dengler's death in 2001 from Lou Gehrig's disease, he and Herzog were close friends, and you can sense the filmmaker's reverence for his fellow German subject throughout the film. Here, Germany's most admired and prolific living director returns to the same kind of harsh jungle conditions where his most famous film Fitzcarraldo (1982) made him a household name.

This re-telling of Herzog's original interview film, presented with full-blooded literary license, is perfectly transparent; the blunt storytelling defies subtext because this film, simply, is exactly what it is: an astounding tale of survival.

Dengler is forced to crash-land his fragile airplane after it's abruptly shot down during a secret mission over Laos, and Herzog films the scene with a raw immediacy that is cinematic in distinctly personal terms. He shoots the scene not as a director like Martin Scorsese would, but rather with a documentarian's eye for the circumstance and atmosphere. There is no separating the event from the character we watch with total empathy.

The suddenly grounded pilot pulls himself from the wreckage and runs through the unfamiliar terrain in a mad dash for survival. But Dengler's autonomy lasts only a couple of days before Pathet Lao soldiers corner him and eventually place him in a North Vietnamese-run POW camp.

The troops are quick to torture Dengler in a series of violent methods but, when a Laotian soldier fires a rifle near Dengler, he screams at his captor with a fury and indignity that matches their cruelty. Here is a man who will not be cowed.

Like all great escape movies, Rescue Dawn examines the inner logic and methodical small work that goes into planning and executing a breakout from a seemingly impossible situation. But there is so much more at work in Herzog's film, which explores the effects of war on prisoners who are constantly reminded of the cheapness of their lives by their cruel and insane guards.

Dengler's fellow captives Duane (a fantastic Steve Zahn) and "Gene from Eugene" (Jeremy Davies) are already broken spirits when he arrives, and over the course of his stay Dengler is only somewhat able to invigorate a survival instinct in them.

Watching Little Dieter Needs to Fly after Rescue Dawn would help the viewer understand more about this fascinating tale of endurance. The corollary films bear witness to the life-altering effects of wartime captivity from a deeply personal perspective that is unprecedented.

Remember, Dieter Dengler escaped to talk about it. Herzog just does his friend justice in the telling of it.

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