Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 02 October 2006
Source MGM 35mm print
Features: Directors: Werner Herzog
While I was growing up, like many other people my age, I was exposed to a great deal of information about the Vietnam War, whether through news, literature, movies, or music. Naturally and naïvely, I assumed that film provided the most vivid version of history, and so I savoured the opportunity to occasionally peer at the war movies that my parents cautioned against viewing until I was more mature. Obviously their warning only stirred my curiosity further, so after secretly watching Platoon, I hunted down movies such as The Deer Hunter and Full Metal Jacket at what, in hindsight, was probably an inappropriate age. Truthfully, the whole situation of the war was fascinating since the eventual result of Vietnam, not to mention the entire prolonged quagmire, makes very little sense to childhood logic; how could a nation as mighty as the United States of America return from such a meagre country as Vietnam with the stain of defeat? In a child’s reasoning, the big and the strong are always supposed to trounce the small and the weak, otherwise the playground-bully feudal system makes very little sense. In order to rectify this confusing contradiction of how actual history somehow diverged from my childish reasoning I turned to my parents to solve my puzzlement. They offered me a number of possible causes for America’s surprising setback, but my mother resolutely focused on one particular “unknown” that she believed the U.S. vastly underestimated: the jungle. My mother was convinced that the U.S. military had greatly miscalculated the inherent difficulties of jungle warfare in Vietnam and had cavalierly dismissed the ability of the Vietnamese to understand their homeland and utilize their environment to their own advantage. More importantly, the U.S. lacked a fundamental respect for the environment that enveloped their military forces for so many years.
Twenty years later, Werner Herzog has basically dramatized my mother’s argument with his latest film, Rescue Dawn, which uses his own documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, as a blueprint. Admittedly, Rescue Dawn is not as accomplished or enjoyable a film as Little Dieter Needs to Fly and it habitually reeks of the type of conformist filmmaking that most Herzog-fans believe the German filmmaker has attempted to avoid throughout his career. In fact, Rescue Dawn is so maddeningly conventional for a Werner Herzog film that it may well be enough to drive his most loyal fans insane. However, even though the film suffers from a certain traditional tone throughout a predictable plot, since Herzog is familiar with his central subject matter from his previous explorations, his latest film still exhibits his characteristic touch, thus allowing his obsessions and eccentricities to seep through the work and leaving the personal imprint that may also lend comfort to his demanding admirers.
Rescue Dawn begins with slow-motion images of US jet fighters bombing the Laotian countryside. Seemingly seeking to convey the tranquility of flight, the scenes are oddly serene and are accompanied with a sweeping score that builds as we witness the destruction. We then arrive, with little background but with heavy bluster, on a US aircraft carrier to meet a squadron of cocky American fighter-pilots who appear to have been trained alongside Maverick and Goose from Top Gun. We specifically concentrate on young recruit Dieter Dengler, a U.S. Air Force Lieutenant eager to begin his maiden combat mission. Dengler is apathetic to the details of his mission, which include top-secret bombing raids on targets in Laos, and is instead impatient at the possibility of soaring in enemy skies and kicking Charlie’s ass. As portrayed by Christian Bale, it’s immediately noticeable that Dengler is almost devoid of any trace of his German upbringing. In a stark contrast to the reality displayed in Little Dieter, any hint of the German accent that Dengler retained has vanished in favour of Bale’s thoroughly American interpretation. While this creative choice may initially sound blasphemous, Herzog appears to have ulterior motives in allowing Dengler to embody American assimilation.
Part of Herzog’s scheme is revealed immediately, as Dengler and his fellow squadron members are corralled into a screening room to watch mandatory military training films before flying into Laos. The inexplicably authentic but laughably antiquated training film regarding survival in the jungle, which ought to be familiar to anyone who watched Herzog’s related documentary, is justly ridiculed by the restless troops. However, though the hokey style of the training film is hilarious, the content proclaiming nature to be man’s friend and asking if each viewer is a “smart soldier” is unfairly dismissed. Though one may doubt whether the raucous cynicism and severe scepticism exhibited by the troops was so pronounced and prevalent during this period, the scene bluntly articulates Herzog’s ongoing concern with man’s refusal to respect the might and capacity of nature. Apparently, being granted the opportunity to soar through the sky has caused these pilots to mistakenly believe they have conquered the physical world by mastering a specific technology. Thus, Herzog is not only able to reveal the misguided methods of instruction applied by the military administration, but he also succinctly illustrates the arrogance that plagued the American military forces.
Herzog then attempts to demonstrate that the military’s hubris is not only contained to their view of the foreign environment they intended to invade, but also extended to the foreign resistance forces they were to encounter, who they mistakenly assumed to be an inferior enemy. In an altogether terse scene that mirrors more contemporary remarks, Dengler arrogantly admits he thought the skirmish would be over in just a few days. Dengler goes on to disclose that he enlisted not only to achieve his dream to fly planes but also due to the promises of exotic sex readily provided by Vietnamese prostitutes. However, unlike some of his cohorts, Dieter isn’t completely oblivious to the dangers of the Asian jungles, as he wisely instructs another officer to enhance the mosquito net that Dengler has been provided.
With gear in hand, Dieter is airborne, but his preparation turns out to be futile. Enclosed and isolated in his cockpit, Dengler is placed upside-down in the frame by Herzog to convey the disorientating experience of battle. Perhaps Herzog’s compositions also foreshadow Dieter’s disastrous demise, as he is shot down moments after he drops his destructive cargo. Relatively unscathed from the ensuing crash landing, Dengler spends the next few days alone in the jungle attempting to escape the pursuit of enemy forces. Unfortunately, though Dieter adequately endures some of the hazards of the jungle, his survival skills are no match for the Laotian soldiers that track him, and he is captured with almost minimal effort. It quickly becomes apparent that all the massive sophisticated technology of the American Army employs is rendered relatively useless in the tropical forest, where nimble and knowledgeable guerrilla fighting tactics are far more advantageous. It’s also evident that communication is a major obstacle between the Dengler and Laotian soldiers as neither party comprehends the foreign dialect. Herzog parallels the persistent linguistic confusion for the audience by not permitting subtitles for the Laotian soldiers as the scream orders at Dengler.
Dengler’s crash and capture provides Herzog with his first occasion to explore the potential of the Laotian rain forests and also allow the director ample opportunity to demonstrate his filmmaking skills, as he permits an extended period with little to no dialogue as Dieter attempts to evade his eventual apprehension. Amongst a few scenes stressing the primal aspects of nature, including shots of hostile wasps and tranquil fish, Herzog begins to visually illustrate how intimidating the jungle can be to a foreigner, as numerous scenes emphasize the scope of the surrounding forest while they reduce Dengler’s size and discard him to the edges of the frame. Whether it’s the immense canopy that entangles him, the scorching heat that exhausts him, the daunting mountains that loom over him, or the lush tall grass that encircles him, whatever authority Dieter foolishly assumed he possessed over the physical world is severely diminished, to the point that Dengler appears rather insignificant and helpless. Equally indicative of Dengler’s suddenly diminished stature is the fact that Herzog basically balances his frame between the American and his rivals. While ordinary in appearance, the symmetry of the compositions provides each with an equal prominence, thus giving the appearance of similar size even though Christian Bale would seemingly tower over his cast-mates.
Upon his capture, the Laotians begin transporting Dengler through the dense underbrush, before briefly pausing for Dengler to discuss political beliefs with an unexpectedly westernized Vietcong leader who offers Dengler leniency if he denounces American Imperialism. Dieter initially attempts to camouflage his nationality, only to reaffirm his loyalty to American ideals afterwards, emphatically stating his adoration for the country that “gave [him] wings.” After suffering a few distressing indignities, including a deafening gunshot used to curb Dengler’s proud protests, and numerous instances of deliberate torture, including being dragged through the dirt by a cow and nearly drowned, Dengler is quickly escorted to a POW camp and imprisoned amongst a handful of other detainees. The band of POWs include two American soldiers named Duane and Gene amongst a few local Vietnamese, and all are amiable and quickly provide Dieter with valuable advice concerning the ideal season to attempt an escape, their expected daily routine, and how to avoid confrontation with specific Vietcong guards. Unfortunately, it’s at this point that Herzog’s film loses some momentum as the director sacrifices much of his distinctive filmmaking flare for creating hypnotic atmosphere and haunting tones in favour of conveying the stamina required to survive the POW experience, mostly recounting the prisoners’ efforts to evade torture and avoid detection. Though he is able to continue dwelling on images of animals throughout the film, Herzog is somewhat hindered by narrative constraints that will not permit him to return to the overwhelming jungle until much later. Instead, Herzog grows increasingly preoccupied with cataloguing the dementia polluting the various prisoners via very predictable methods. Thus, the audience relies predominantly upon the performances of the assorted actors to guide them through this section, though it sometimes becomes a strenuous weight to sustain.
However, the commitment of the cast cannot be disparaged. Not only do we witness Bale suffer through the scenes of torture without the usual relief of a body-double, but within moments of arriving at the POW camp, the audience is confronted with the realization that the other prisoners are noticeably gaunt and weary, especially Gene, portrayed by Jeremy Davies, who has become stripped of all impulse to escape imprisonment and bares a startlingly skeletal frame. Perhaps equally excruciating to witness is Dengler’s gradual starvation, as Bale steadily sheds his mass almost casually. Although Davies and Bale have made similar sacrifice for previous roles, in this instance the weight their characters lose appears to not only be replaced by further psychosis, but also by a certain paralysis in confidence and an increasingly lethargic attitude, which only encourages Dieter’s desire to urgently escape.
As portrayed by Christian Bale, Dieter Dengler fulfills Herzog’s requirement to center his story on a slightly deranged male who dreams of achieving something impossible. Bale seems to specialize in roles where his character’s dementia or fear initially hinders his ability to perceive and affect the physical world that surrounds him. Often the illusionary world ultimately consumes his characters, but occasionally his lunacy serves as inspiration to contort the physical world to his will. In this instance Bale’s interpretation of Dengler valiantly struggles against the approaching madness, though he begins to deteriorate towards the end. However, in the Vietcong camp, Bale and Herzog sketch Dieter to be a single source of stubborn resolve against the imminent insanity. Since Dieter in the most recent detainee, he refuses to surrender his hope and maintains an unlimited optimism that diverges so drastically in comparison to the negativity his fellow captives constantly exude that it begins to resemble his own form of insanity. This strange self-assurance has even been displayed earlier, as Dieter remains naïvely courteous while he is unloaded at the local village, smiling politely at inhabitants without sensing the palpable tension of the situation. Indeed it’s Dieter’s sanity and resilience in contrast to the other prisoners, who have long since descended into madness, which allows him to change his circumstances. Thus, Dengler begins to represent a general sense of American optimism and confidence and it’s not surprising that he embarks upon a strategy to escape, including gathering and shaping crude tools through a series of resourceful methods, planning methods to steal guns from the guards, and providing support and motivation to his fellow detainees. Of course, it’s also not surprising that Dengler is the only captive able to execute his plan with any coherence.
Unfortunately, during much of the time Herzog spends in the POW camp Bale’s performance feels slightly awkward and somewhat unsatisfactory, as his depiction is unable to match the engaging personality of his counterpart in Little Dieter. In fact, as Bale speaks of Dieter’s childhood desire to fly fighter planes after witnessing allied forces destroy his home in Germany, his portrayal begins to feel more akin to a glossy interpretation, synthetically constructed to bind Dengler to the image of a bird seeking freedom, as if he were part of nature. Some of the disappointment is also due to the performances of Bale’s supporting cast, as he is frequently overshadowed by Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies in displaying the nadir that their imprisonment has created. Zahn, Davies, and the rest of the supporting cast are able to suggest the sense that the jungle serves as an extension of their prison and heavily influences their hesitation to attempt an escape. Not surprisingly, by again emphasizing their magnitude, Herzog makes the surrounding forest and impending mountains appear even more ominous before the captives are finally compelled to escape. Hence the surrounding wilderness acts as both a physical obstacle and a psychological barrier as the POWs harbour doubt that they can navigate through its numerous hazards. The novel part of their depiction is that the POWs are fairly cognisant of their irrational reluctance, but are reconciled to remain delusional. In fact, Gene repeatedly threatens to sabotage Dieter’s scheme in order to preserve himself long enough for a peaceful resolution of the war to present itself. In order to heighten the tension between an imposing Dieter and a meek Gene, Herzog purposely tilts his frame to create a sense of unease and convey the threat that Gene represents. Truthfully, Davies has some experience playing severely altered characters, so his role as Gene seems like familiar territory, especially considering he continues to resemble Charles Manson and his mumblings and mannerisms are reminiscent of his work in Soderbergh’s Solaris. It’s actually Zahn who is more impressive as Duane. Zahn is able to convert his introvert stoner charm into a timid habituated anxiety that feels refreshing to watch. Though Duane provides the proceedings with a gloomy humour, he also expresses a mounting frustration at the incapacity to alter his circumstance, suggesting his spirit would be broken without Dengler’s company.
Once the film returns to jungle, Bale’s performance is far more impressive, although it comes with a certain amount of sacrifice as his weight-loss is far more pronounced. Whereas Herzog appears far more comfortable within the tropical atmosphere, Dieter and Duane continue to endure distressing situations which they must find a way to conquer. Though Dengler has quietly acquired survival techniques by carefully watching the Vietcong and Laotian soldiers, he quickly realizes that the modern weapons the pair has acquired after much sacrifice may no longer serve a useful purpose, as the simplicity of footwear and a machete prove far more useful. At this point Herzog is content to demonstrate the bond that forms between Dieter and Duane. Deserted by the others, lacking adequate provisions, and constantly enduring attack from both adversary and ally, the two men also struggle to sustain themselves against nature’s unvarying assault of bugs and branches as they trek through the confusing underbrush.
With their bodies weakening and madness encroaching, the pair builds a raft to sweep them downstream to safety. At this point the shadow of Klaus Kinski intrudes upon Bale’s performance, as Dieter soon begins to suffer through delusions while isolated. While more transparent and strenuous than his predecessor’s simple magnetism, Bale’s attempts to match Kinski’s demented intensity are mostly successful, though the ferocious presence that Kinski was able to exude so effortlessly are hard to match for any actor. Thus, Herzog establishes a clear parallel to his earlier films, specifically Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, though Bale’s compassion for his companion is far more mild and tender than any obsession that Kinski’s characters ever displayed.
As Herzog’s film gradually progresses, an expected parallel emerges between Dengler’s experience during the Vietnam War and events of recent history. The similarities are made more noticeable by Herzog’s decision to remove a great deal of cultural context from the proceedings. In fact Rescue Dawn is devoid of any of the typical traits often attributed to the era, lacking any of the evocative music, fashions, speech, or passionate political discussions that readily identify the period. In fact, other than a passing note that the action we witness takes place in 1965, it’s difficult to distinguish which war the film intends to chronicle, as the characters act and appear akin to their contemporaries. Unfortunately, while the attempt at making the analogy is clear, the results of the allegory are considerably convoluted, mostly due to the fact that his characters must concurrently represent a variety of conflicting parties. Dengler and is crew are easily classified as the current U.S. administration when they initially engage in covert military operations and assume a swift victory will follow. However, later scenes involving the detainment and torture of the prisoners reverse the dynamic of the relationship. As the resources of the camp begin to dwindle, the Vietcong guards’ behaviour towards the POWs becomes overly cruel. Already forced to be shackled to one another on the floor during the night, the POWs must soon endure excessively harsh treatment, including degrading meals designed to accelerate their starvation and further physical torment intended to break their spirit. However, while these scenes appear to be an obvious allusion to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib on the surface, the effectiveness of any direct analogy is diluted by having the Americans assuming the role as victims. Considering torture has almost become a horrible corollary to any war, these types of echoes are easily perceived, but rather than take exception to specific instances, Herzog appears to have a severe distaste for any form of agony and suffering humanity chooses to inflect on its own members.
Herzog’s film concludes rather contentiously for most Herzog admirers, with Dieter’s eventual rescue by U.S. forces. Smuggled away by his squadron buddies from a debriefing with the CIA, Dengler is greeted with a rousing celebration by thousands of troops on board an aircraft carrier. The gung-ho approach of the festivity represents a severe deviation from the contemplative attitude of Herzog earlier documentary and rightfully exasperates Dengler upon his arrival after his horrific ordeal. Yet even though Herzog seems sincere about granting Dengler a hero’s welcome, the entire occasion also appears fittingly self-aware of it own conspicuous artifice. Surrounded by civilized men and modern machinery in a staged ceremony, Dengler is able to momentarily forget the traumatic reality of nature’s incessant brutality and temporarily disregards the lives forfeited during his journey. While this scene may seem disingenuous to some viewers, the promotion of Dieter’s survival is a method of coping with the ruthless reality of war that occurs in some distant country. Captured from a distance in order to grant us a view to the conductor coaxing the chorus of cheers to arrive in unison, Herzog appears to acknowledge the spectacle required to motivate and market a modern war.
The simulated spectacle provides an apt conclusion for Herzog, considering the director has so often enjoyed fracturing the form of documentary filmmaking and has taken pleasure in smudging the line between reality and fiction. Ultimately the success of the film resides largely in the ability of the viewer to tolerate traditional filmmaking and the standard Hollywood Studio film. If one is willing to accept Herzog’s willingness to severely suppress his signature techniques, Rescue Dawn could be viewed as a balanced, blunt, but occasionally poignant tale of extraordinary survival in modern war, which Herzog has effectively infused with his own fascinations. Conversely, if one refuses to accept Herzog’s creative restraint, it’s just as possible to view the film as a project designed to cripple the director’s unique delivery, or as a redundant abomination of the director’s usually engaging eccentricity. While either viewpoint holds some truth, Rescue Dawn, like so many previous Herzog films, probably straddles the established boundaries that others impose upon filmmaking, and is probably better for doing so.