The German-American naval pilot Dieter Dengler was one of those immigrants to this country who embodied what some have termed “patriotic assimilation” — he became more American than the Americans. Born in the Black Forest, Dengler was a child when Allied bombers buzzed his family’s home at the height of World War II, inspiring in young Dieter a tantalizing dream of flight. But it was America that would ultimately give Dengler his wings, and which he would refuse to betray after being shot down over Laos in the early (i.e., unofficial) days of the Vietnam War. Instead, Dengler became the only American to successfully escape from a Laotian POW camp, and now there is a movie, Rescue Dawn, that is a tribute to Dengler and his solid, unyielding American patriotism.
Probably no dramatization of Dengler’s remarkable odyssey could hope to match the beguiling double helix of fact and fiction that was Werner Herzog’s 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly — a movie in which the German director (whose own childhood bore uncanny similarities to Dengler’s) made his subject cop to a compulsive door-opening habit he didn’t really have and, in the pièce de résistance, dropped Dengler back into the same snake-infested jungle where he was once held captive and asked him to re-enact his harrowing flight to freedom. But if Rescue Dawn, which Herzog directed from his own script, and which substitutes Christian Bale for Dengler and Thailand for Laos, is necessarily a more conventional movie, it is no less of a fascinating one.
Rescue Dawn has been tagged by some as Herzog’s first “Hollywood” movie — a vague distinction owing mostly to the fact that, among Herzog’s English-language films, this is the first to be made with a majority of American financing and a predominately American cast (though Bale himself is Welsh). To an extent, the shoe fits: The movie’s early scenes of joshing soldierly camaraderie, set on a naval aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, suggest a period prequel to Top Gun, complete with the obligatory scene of cocky cadets paying no heed to a hopelessly square jungle-survival film, sure that they’ll never need to know any of that stuff. But once Dengler crashes behind enemy lines, Rescue Dawn becomes something else entirely — an intensely physical, distinctly Herzog-ian chronicle of one man’s battle against nature, hostile combatants and, finally, himself. Tossed into a thatched-hut gulag alongside a downed U.S. helicopter pilot (Steve Zahn) and a spaced-out “Air America” pilot (Jeremy Davies, seemingly channeling Charles Manson), Dengler plots and executes an escape that rivals, in its sure-footed methodicalness, that of the jailed French Resistance lieutenant in the greatest of all prison-break movies: Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped.
That most Conradian of contemporary filmmakers — even if one can never be sure whether he is more Marlow or Kurtz — Herzog has long been drawn to lives Olympian and Pyrrhic (if both at once, all the better) and to film projects destined to panic insurers and inspire documentaries about their tumultuous making. In particular, the jungle calls to him across continents and decades, and the one in Rescue Dawn exudes a particular rapture — it shimmers with the most intense green hue and hums a hypnotic symphony of chirps and hisses and shapeless figures heard but not seen beneath the dense brush. When Dengler moves through the terrain, the palm fronds and blades of grass aren’t merely part of the scenery — they’re living, present things interacting with this human intruder, and Herzog and his cameraman, Peter Zeitlinger, have lit and shot everything so that you’re aware at every turn of Bale, the other actors and the crew pressing on through inhospitable conditions — no special effects about it.
Mad visionaries, of course, need willing accomplices, and Herzog has found one in Bale, who, like Klaus Kinski before him, willingly hurls himself into whatever perilous situation his director demands — swimming through surging rapids, eating a bowl of live grubs and worms, skinning a snake with his teeth, and losing an alarming amount of weight right before our eyes — and does so with an exuberance that the surly Kinski could never quite muster. The canniness of Bale’s performance (which may be the best of his young but brilliant career) is that he plays Dengler as a fundamentally kind and simple yet rather ingenious man — a cross between MacGyver and Candide — whose life was effectively fulfilled once he achieved his dream of flight and who, upon being imprisoned, never paused to intellectualize the situation in a way that might have dulled his sunny optimism.
Herzog, who has himself lived in the U.S. for decades now, has said that, for him, Dengler (who died in 2001) embodied everything he personally loves about America, and what may throw some people for a loop about Rescue Dawn is the way it exalts Dengler’s own zealous adoration of his adopted home country — it’s probably the most unapologetically patriotic American movie since Yankee Doodle Dandy. Herzog has already taken some flack for the movie’s supposedly unsympathetic view of the Viet Cong, no matter that Rescue Dawn takes pains to show that Dengler’s captors were subject to the same starvation conditions as their prisoners, and that they too longed to return to their families. (And hey, nobody plays Russian roulette.) But this resolutely apolitical movie sees love for king and love for country as two separate and distinct things. Dieter Dengler wanted to fly and, by happenstance, found himself caught up in a war he didn’t even realize was going on. Who might he have voted for in the 2004 election? I haven’t the foggiest. But in a time of überfashionable U.S.A. bashing, Herzog has the temerity to suggest that homilies like “land of the free” and “home of the brave” haven’t entirely lost their meaning. For that, I suspect, Dieter Dengler would salute him.
RESCUE DAWN | Written and directed by WERNER HERZOG | Produced by STEVE MARLTON, ELTON BRAND and HARRY KNAPP | Released by MGM | ArcLight and Monica 4-Plex