Rescue Dawn

Christian Bale attempts a great escape

War! What is it good for? Making films of heroism and escape, usually served up with a side salad of jingoism. But under the direction of maverick filmmaker Werner Herzog (a man eccentric enough to have appeared in a short film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, doing exactly that after losing a bet with a wannabe first time film director), there was never much chance of Rescue Dawn being such a clichéd genre piece.

Rescue Dawn is a dramatisation of the same story that Herzog captured in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly. German-born US air force pilot Dieter Dengler (Bale) was assigned to a routine raid over Laos during the Vietnam war, only for his plane to be hit by gunfire that forced a crash landing in the jungle adjacent to the city. Dengler was soon captured, subjected to surreal methods of torture and imprisoned alongside a disparate group of other POWs including the desperate but determined Duane (Zahn) and the seemingly institutionalized Gene (Jeremy Davies). Dengler realises that escape is his only chance of survival, but the desolation of the camp and the savagery of the guards makes the odds of getting out look very slim indeed.

Much of Rescue Dawn’s success can be put down to Herzog’s skills; war films are too often flat, generic characters performing a flat, generic role to get a story of gunshots and explosions from a desperate A to a remarkably heroic B. But Herzog infuses Rescue Dawn with soul; Dengler bristles with charisma, Gene’s cowardly nature is empathetic rather than derisory and the jungle is a depicted as a claustrophobic nightmare of eerie silence and hostile terrain punctuated by sudden shocks of violence.

All of which would mean very little if not for the acting ability of the three lead characters. Bale is typically brilliant, morphing from a beefy pilot to a starving waif of a man and offering many mesmerising contributions. Davies, too, makes Gene a multi-faceted personality when it would be easier, typical even, to portray him purely as a weak individual resigned to his fate. But Zahn is the real star here, a haunted soul ravaged by physical and mental torment.

A few moments threaten to lay on the American patriotism a touch too heavily, but it’s a minor issue as Herzog tells Dengler’s story for what it is rather than making familiar parallels between Vietnam and Iraq.

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