Christian Bale has recurrently gone far out on limbs in portraying a range of characters and taking physical as well as emotional risks. I guess that Steven Spielberg saw the resiliency of a survivor in Bale when he cast him as the lead in “Empire of the Sun”(1987). Batman is also a survivor, and Dieter Dengler, the German-born US Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1965 and was one of very few Viet Cong POWs who did not sign the standard propaganda letter denouncing imperial aggression and is said to be the only one who escaped captivity and survived, provides him a role as a survivor of extreme hazards.
Especially given the availability of Les Blank’s great documentary “Burden of Dreams,” anyone signing on to go to a jungle with Werner Herzog to make a movie about survival has to be very brave. Bale and his costars, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, signed on and starved themselves before showing up in Thailand to make “Rescue Dawn.” Because the American POWs needed to look more emaciated as the story went on (and because radical weight loss should be done slowly with medical supervision), they showed up for work in a weakened, very thin condition, and had to shoot the scenes in reverse order, which obviously makes development of character considerably more difficult than shooting in an approximation of beginning to end.
The rapport beween Bale and Zahn had to be at its most poignant in their first scenes shot. Moreover, the scenes of escaping barefoot through the jungle had to be filmed when they were weakest. In the making-of feature, they make abundantly clear that Herzog did not ask anything of them that he did not ask of himself. Indeed, he invariably went first, showing them what he wanted. What he wanted, as Herzog recognized, was taking risks and meeting physical demands far beyond what movie stars typically do.
In the commentary track and the making-of feature, Herzog speaks of wanting the audience believe it could trust what it saw (not CGI effects or stuntmen). Bale chowed down on maggots and underwent tortures, including being hung upside down and spun, submerged in water, and dragged behind a water buffalo (and running through dense jungle barefoot). The physical demands of being at the forefront “Rescue Dawn” for Bale and Zahn were extreme, apart from having to create characters and relationships (backward).
I think they are completely convincing: Bale as the savvy flyer determined to escape, Zahn as the follower whom Dengler kept going and protected as best he good. Their trek across Laos (impersonated by Thailand) during the rainy season, with basically no food, is arduous. Its impetus is war, but only the frame of “Rescue Dawn” is a war movie (on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, and the secret bombing of Laos). The middle is half survival in a prison-camp and half trying to get to the Mekong River and into Thailand.
Dengler’s optimism was not shared by the other prisoners (two Americans, two Thai) with whom he was incarcerated, but by force of personality and resourcefulness, he convinced them to attempt escape with him. From Herzog’s documentary about Dengler, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” (1997), I knew about Dengler’s background. That he was inspired to become a flyer by brief eye contact with a US pilot coming in low and shooting up his childhood home in the Black Forest during World War II gets into “Rescue Dawn,” along with the story of his capture, incarceration, escape, and eventual rescue. Knowing the story did not get in the way of my admiring how the events (and Dengler) were portrayed in the film. There was considerable interpersonal and physical tension, abetted by the musical score that was varied and not over-insistent (as war movie music so frequently is!). (Klaus Badelt has also scored Gladiator, The Pledge, Constantine, and Curse of the Black Pearl)
The cinematography by long-time (including “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”) Herzog cameraman Peter Zeitlinger was outstanding. Herzog spoke of having to curb Zeitlinger’s inclination to make every shot beautiful, but Herzog, throughout his career, has shown the harsh beauty of various kinds of wilderness. There are striking shots of the scenery in “Rescue Dawn.” More remakrable still, is Zeitlinger’s shooting of Bale and Zahn going through dense (very real!) jungle. Even Herzog expresses astonishment at how the camera got in there.
Both Bale and Zeitlinger report that Herzog focuses on the scene as a whole, and Zeitlinger figures out how to shoot it (though the hands-on director seems to look through the camera, too).
Herzog has made some films I strongly dislike (Heart of Glass, Even Dwarves Started Small), but is a fascinating raconteur who always has interesting things to say about making movies. I think that the movie “Rescue Dawn” is outstanding. Herzog’s commentary track and the extensive making-of feature (with additional insights from Zeitlinger and the actors) make for a five-star DVD for anyone interested in how movies are made (on location with anticipated and unanticipated problems). Unusually for Herzog, there are also some deleted scenes with clear explanations of why Herzog did not include them.
And, returning to Bale, he shows Dengler’s charisma and ability to solve whatever problem comes his way. His matter-of-fact discussion of the role and what he did in Thailand on the making-of feature show an intelligence to match the courage (and that he has a sense of humor and good comic delivery!). He and the other actors playing Viet Cong prisoners underwent grueling location work at what looks like dangerously reduced weight (as Bale did for the less worthy project of “The Machinist”).
The only qualm I have to offer is that Herzog, as in “Lessons of Darkness,” has a fascination with fires and explosions that I think aestheticizes viewers to their horror (as with John Woo). I also have to note, again, especially after “Lessons in Darkness” and Herzog’s many statements over his career of not caring about distinguishing documentary from fiction that there is something dubious about his wish to allow the audience to believe what it sees. (Hereon, he makes the distinction between a feature film based on Dengler’s story and the documentary of Dengler telling his story and revisiting Laos with Herzog. And his recreations are certainly not “faked.”…)
©2017, Stephen O. Murray