When war movies follow a very specific formula, there’s a good chance that the whole movie watching experience will by tainted by over dramatic dialogue and an ending that can be seen a mile away. This can be said about any genre of film, but it bothers me the most in war movies, for some reason or another. In 1997, uber-director Werner Herzog made a documentary about the harrowing experience of Navy pilot Dieter Dengler in a Vietnamese POW camp. He then returned to the subject in 2006 with Rescue Dawn. While Rescue Dawn is a memorable war movie with some amazing performances, it does sort of get bogged down in war movie cliches, but somehow it seems to pull through.
Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) is a Navy pilot about to go on his first mission. Since he was a boy, Dengler has always wanted to fly so this is his chance to show what he’s made of. Unfortunately for him, he gets shot down almost right as the mission begins. He is soon captured by Laotian soldiers, tortured, and thrown into a miserably sadistic POW camp. There he meets fellow pilots Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Gene DeBruin (Jeremy Davies), along with some Vietnamese citizens. Instead of giving up and trying to survive in the camp, Dengler plans an escape to only face another dangerous foe: the dense jungles of Vietnam that stand between him and his freedom in Thailand.
I’ve seen this movie compared to the classic war/escape film, The Great Escape, but I would compare it more to the much less acclaimed film Hart’s War. Both are about an American soldier forced to brave a violent prison camp. Still, while they sort of have the same vibe, Rescue Dawn is a far superior movie to Hart’s War. Anyone who knows about film history and the many characters that inhabit it will know of Werner Herzog and his legendary filmography. If this movie was in anyone else’s hands, the result would be something very bland and predictable, but Herzog isn’t afraid to take chances with his film making and take us places where we see things that we really don’t want to see. That is where the success of this movie lies.
Herzog and his actors literally put their lives at risk making Rescue Dawn by braving the dangers in the jungle. Everything you see the actors do, no matter how gross, is being actually done in real life. Bale, Zahn, and Davies all lost a lot of weight to get into their roles, and it really helped bring me into the world of the movie, which is not a very comfortable place to be. Zahn and Davies give incredible performance, but Bale can sometimes feel a little awkward. Still, one of the main draws of this movie is the incredible story of Dengler’s escape as it happened, which is actually pretty damn accurate. This is not a comfortable movie to sit through, but Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger shoot the film so well that it’s hard to become disinterested.
I said before that Bale’s acting feels a little awkward at times, but I can’t put all of the blame just on Bale. While Herzog is really a wonder behind the camera and coming up with innovative ways of shooting a movie, his writing is really bland at times, and it shows in Rescue Dawn. Some of the lines that Dengler says is almost laughably cliched and can be found in most war movies. Scenes like that really shaked me out of the entire experience and made me look at it as a conventional war movie and not one that separates itself from the others. Luckily, Herzog’s storytelling works very well, and the acts all seem to blend into each other very well. Not to mention the suspense and terror in this movie is written and executed very well. Breath was held, ladies and gentlemen. Breath was held.
Rescue Dawn has a lot of potential to be a derivative, cliched, and boring war/drama film, but luckily it saved from the deep, dark depths of mediocrity. Zahn’s, Davie’s, and even Bale’s performances are all way above average. It would have been more enjoyable if Herzog’s dialogue didn’t shake up the flow of the movie. Still, it’s filmed so beautifully and horrifically that it’s both hard to watch but impossible to look away. More than anything, it tells a near accurate true story about a daring escape in the early years of Vietnam. This film will not attract everyone, and it will repel many, but for war and history buffs, it’s a movie that should be seen.