Welcome (back) to the jungle

Werner Herzog revisits Dieter Dengler's great escape


Early in Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog's narrative retooling of his 1997 doc Little Dieter Needs to Fly, a group of pilots aboard an aircraft carrier watches an instructional reel on jungle survival. They're young and cocky, and since this is 1966, the Vietnam War still seems entirely impossible. Naturally, they heckle the hell out of the film — lending a certain amount of irony, as one of them, German-born but proudly American Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), is about to crash-land directly in a situation that would daunt even the toughest solider. But as Herzog is careful to show, it's not Dengler's fire-building skills that save his neck; it's his unbreakable spirit. Rescue Dawn is probably the most uplifting movie ever to feature a scene with its lead character munching down a bowl of maggots and worms.

It's also the only film in recent memory to feature a comic-book movie hero doing same, though among the recent crop, Bale (Batman Begins) is perhaps the least likely to be identified with his biggest-budget character. His gift for physical transformation serves Rescue Dawn well; the film was shot in reverse to better highlight the extreme dieting efforts of Bale and costars Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, who play Dengler's long-suffering fellow POWs.

When Dengler enters their world, he's been through some serious shit (like being dragged behind a cow by his ankles), but he has more hope than all of the others combined. His plan to "scram" immediately begins to form, though his comrades find his confidence insane. "The jungle is the prison," explains Gene (Davies), a seriously unbalanced walking skeleton who fetishizes an old food wrapper and believes that release is imminent. Far more broken is Duane (Zahn), whose weary eyes brighten only when the starving men discuss the contents of their fantasy refrigerators: "a 35-pound turkey and raspberry pie with crust thick as a steak."

If Rescue Dawn is Herzog's most accessible fiction film to date, with its big-name stars, English script, and dialogue like "The man who will frighten me hasn't been born yet," its transcendental tone assures it's hardly a typical war movie. (It is, however, deeply patriotic, evidenced by the fact that MGM screened it for American troops in Iraq on the Fourth of July.) The prolific director, whose earlier narrative works include Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), both starring Klaus Kinski, has lately made his mark in documentaries, with 2005's Grizzly Man being his most mainstream film prior to Rescue Dawn. Herzog's films are diverse, but they tend to reflect his fascination with human beings who engage in extreme behavior. In Dengler's case — explored more matter-of-factly in Little Dieter, more existentially in Rescue Dawn — his proactive outlook was predicated on his life experiences (including a tough childhood in post–<\d>World War II Germany, where food shortages forced him to eat wallpaper) as well as a deeply rooted temerity that left no room for hesitation or doubt. He knew he would survive, and he did survive. (Dengler, who eventually settled in Marin County, died in 2001.)

Like Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn is also about nature at its most extreme, with a jungle that's every bit as deadly as an angry bear. Even if you haven't seen Little Dieter, Rescue Dawn's title pretty much lets you know that Dengler makes it out alive, climbing aboard a rescue copter and exchanging his slithery last meal in the wild for the comfort food of civilization (in this case, a Butterfinger). But Herzog never plays it safe. Even with its Hollywood sheen, Rescue Dawn conveys palpable danger.

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