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Rescue Dawn (DVD)
Member Name: hogsflesh
Rescue Dawn (DVD)
Date: 07/11/07, updated on 08/11/07 (158 review reads)
Advantages: It's a good return to the jungle for Werner Herzog
Disadvantages: Perhaps ten minutes too long
A pioneer of the New German Cinema movement of the 70s, Herzog is best known for his work with the deranged but occasionally brilliant actor Klaus Kinski (their collaboration on Aguirre, The Wrath Of God gave us one of the greatest films ever made). His fictional films without Kinski are also worth a look, especially the mind-boggling Even Dwarfs Started Small (you really havenít lived if youíve not seen that one). There are two nice boxsets of Herzogís films put out by Anchor Bay which belong in every cinema fanís collection.
Since the late 80s Herzog has mostly made documentaries, which are also excellent but tend to be a little more elusive. The Ďidiot gets eaten by bearsí documentary Grizzly Man, which did well last year, was one of Herzogís. Rescue Dawn is Herzogís first ever Hollywood film and his first non-documentary for some years. Itís a retelling of an apparently true story he already made a documentary about (Little Dieter Needs To Fly).
It tells the story of Dieter Dengler, an American pilot. On his first mission (bombing Laos in 1965, as the American military presence in Vietnam was escalating into a real war) his plane is shot down. Heís taken prisoner by the Viet Cong. Tortured and starved, he eventually ends up in a small prisoner camp with a handful of others. The camp is in the middle of a rainforest, but Dieter is determined to escapeÖ
The film begins by telling us that this is a true story, and the big disadvantage of that is that you know from the outset that Dieter makes it home. I doubt this was a consideration for Herzog, who generally doesnít venture too close to anything commercial, but it does rather minimise the threat to the central character. Thereís a fairly suspenseful sequence as the prisoners plan their escape, as we donít know which of the secondary characters are going to survive, but I donít know if Herzog really wants us to care or not. For him, itís a return to his abiding theme, that of manís insignificance in relation to a natural world which is hostile and terrifyingly inscrutable.
Itís surprising how long it takes us to get to the jungle-survivalist stuff, as Iíd imagine thatís what chiefly interests the director. Itís more than halfway through before Dieter and friends get out there and have to fend for themselves. It doesnít disappoint, though. Herzog has the uncanny ability to make any landscape seem alien, and this is not the cuddly jungle of Hollywood efforts like Romancing The Stone or Apocalypse Now (a film which tried desperately to be Aguirre but just doesnít have the intelligence). The usual jungle-film clichťs are not present Ė there are no blowpipe wielding savages or big cats. Instead it gives you some idea of just how terrifyingly vast a jungle is and how utterly disorientating it would be to be lost in one.
Dengler is played by Christian Bale. Itís a sign of how little interest I have in modern cinema that I think this is the first of his films that Iíve seen. Iím aware of his reputation, and certainly he carries the part off with immense skill, but I didnít find him particularly likeable. He loses a whole load of weight and gets to do all kinds of icky things like eating live maggots and being covered in leeches. Which is fine and all, but it feels a bit technical, as if itís been done with one eye on the Oscars as much as anything. Dengler (the character) has a cheerful, almost cocky streak in the face of adversity, and that didnít really work in the performance. I felt like I was watching an actor of great technical ability but no heart (I get a similar reaction to Daniel Day Lewis).
There are two other significant American characters, Gene and Duane, Dieterís fellow prisoners. Played by Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies, neither of whom was familiar to me, theyíre both very good. Painfully thin, they convince as men whoíve been held captive for months or years, both perilously close to losing it, but both capable of being petty and irritating, I actually found them rather more endearing than Dieter. Theyíre both based on real people, of course, but they brought the film closest to war-film clichť, as you can tell one of themís going to be the-one-that-cracks-up.
The rest of the cast, beyond the opening minutes, is made up of South-East Asian actors. The people who initially capture Dieter are successfully shown as both a terrifying, unreasoning force of destruction and a realistic community that has a good reason for wanting revenge on America. (Although Herzog doesnít make glib political statements, it takes quite a while to forget that Dieter is participating in a war crime Ė bombing a non-combatant nation Ė when heís shot down.) The audience never gets more than a fleeting idea of what the prison camp guards are really like, as theyíre seen from the prisonersí point of view, so we just get to know them as they do Ė the nice one, the nasty one, the crazy one etc.
There are a couple of nice Herzog touches, including a machine gun toting dwarf and a dog walking on its hind legs across the screen for no reason whatsoever. The photography is very good, having a raw edge to it, and never letting the jungle be beautiful. Above all the film has an energy that just seems to be lacking in so many films these days. Even if I wasnít totally engaged by the main character, I still found his journey Ė as a piece of cinema Ė utterly compelling. And itís not some kind of dry academic exercise in arthouse; this is a real, vivid portrait of an environment where man doesnít belong.
The production company apparently had a fraught relationship with Herzog during the making of the film. This may explain the fact that the film goes on about ten minutes too long - thereís a very obvious point at which it should have ended, but instead we get a mildly annoying Ďgod bless Americaís wacky armed forcesí coda. And although the incidental music is generally pretty good, the end theme is hackneyed, the kind of slow orchestral stuff thatís been slapped onto Vietnam films ever since Platoon.
But all in all this is well worth a look and Iím glad I was tempted into a cinema to see it (the fact that it was free didnít hurt, of course). Itís rated 12A, probably because of the torture sequences (which donít go on too long and arenít particularly visceral). Itís released in the UK on 23rd November, and probably wonít do as well as it deserves.
Summary: Werner Herzog's latest film - it's a good one