World renowned film director Werner Herzog is one of the most unique voices in the history of film. His work mainly focuses on obsessed characters with a bit of madness inside of them (some claim that is very similar to the director himself). Rescue Dawn is Herzog’s second film on a German-American fighter pilot named Dieter Dengler. In 1997 he directed the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly about Dengler and retraced the pilot’s steps as he recounted how he was captured and tortured by Vietnamese soldiers. Now, Herzog fictionalizes the account and uses Christian Bale as Dieter. He has made better films than Rescue Dawn, but not too many others have.
The story begins with a Navy debriefing about a secret attack on Laos. As Dieter flies overhead, dropping missiles, he is shot down and crashes in an open field. Herzog does something interesting in this scene because he uses little to no soundtrack music. Instead we just hear the plane crashing and Dieter beginning to run. It is important because it sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Herzog is not going to use superficial tactics that tug at the audiences emotions, but will show us an interesting story about a man’s struggle to regain his freedom.
After escaping a group of Vietnamese that chase Dieter into a forest, he manages to stay in hiding for a day, but is found the next day while trying to flag down an over-passing helicopter. We then follow Dengler as he is tortured in horrifying ways. At one point he is strapped down by his arms and legs as a child holds a huge bug over his face. Later, he is hung upside down with an ants nest fastened to his head, then taken down, only to be placed in a small well with water up to his eyes.
Finally he is taken to a prison camp and placed in a bamboo cage with five other prisoners. Dengler tells his cellmates about his idea for escape from the weak bamboo prison structure, but is told by Duane (Steve Zahn in a powerful performance) that the jungle surrounding them is the real prison. He’s right. One of the distinctive qualities in Werner Herzog films is his location shooting. It works marvelously here because there is no way around the fact that these people are actually in a jungle. This isn’t a set.
Dieter befriends Duane and the group begins to plan a real escape. They study the habits of the guards and slowly gain enough knowledge to attempt the unthinkable, survive in the jungle. As this process goes on the most striking fact is that the guards are somewhat prisoners themselves. They don’t get much food, have to stay at the prison all day, and take orders from people above them. Another important thing to note is that this isn’t a typical adventure film. Most prison escape films are about the actual act of escaping, but very little time is given to the escape. Much more time is given to the relationship between Dieter and Duane and how the two must survive alone in an untamed environment.
The best way to categorize the pace of this movie is deliberate. There isn’t one time when Herzog goes for the thrilling action scene. Dieter Dengler becomes a character we watch carefully, studying his habits and getting into his mind. Not many films can keep an audiences attention by playing everything down to its most minimal, but there aren’t many films that attempt to show a character struggling to survive on the minimal, and there aren’t many directors like Werner Herzog.