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Rescue Dawn

dir: Werner Herzog
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What is it about crazy men and jungles that Herzog can’t get enough of? Every flick he’s ever done seems like it’s been about one or the other, or both at the same time.

His greatest flick, and one of my absolute favourites, is the utterly demented Aguirre: Wrath of God, which transpires on a river that passes through a candy-coloured brothel. No, wait, I meant to say South American jungle. The demented Klaus Kinski stars as the main crazy person.

Fitzcarraldo focussed on the actions of another crazy man who decided he’d somehow transport a massive riverboat through a jungle and over a mountain to the other side. The demented Klaus Kinski stars as the main crazy person.

His documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, looked at the true story of US Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down over Laos in 1966 and taken prisoner in the jungle, going somewhat mad from starvation and torment. Rescue Dawn is a dramatic retelling of the same story. The ghost of Klaus Kinski stars as the inhospitable jungle itself.

So, again, it’s crazy men and the jungle. I think Herzog’s a bit obsessed. His other non-jungle films still focus mainly on crazy people, but there’s always a bit of jungle lurking around the corner or in their souls.

Where I use the word crazy, it shouldn’t just be seen as a slur on the mentally ill or as a medical diagnosis. It is not the circumstances of whether a person is crazy, or what way they are crazy, so much as his focus being on how driven they are by their obsessions, and how far they are willing to take matters. And only all the way, towards complete self-destruction, is good enough for Herzog.

In comparison, Rescue Dawn is practically light fare, but the fact that the story is true, and the lengths Christian Bale and the other actors are prepared to go in order to make the tale believable, makes this rank right up there in terms of the ‘crazy men’ scale of things. This is fucking nuts, and I’m not talking about the characters.

Bale yet again starves himself to a dangerous extreme in order to embody a character going through something terrible. In The Machinist he starved himself down to a skeletal level in order to play a strange character suffering from more than just insomnia. We thought that would be the end of it. He bulked up again to play Batman, and people relaxed. They breathed a sigh of relief.

Then he goes and emaciates himself again. I hope all that crystal meth was worth it, Christian.

Deiter, a German-born naturalised US citizen, desperately wants to fly, and gets to do so for the country he loved, on a secret mission over Laos. When he crash lands and is eventually caught, Laotian meanies torment him for a while before taking him to a camp run by the Pathet Lao for the Viet Cong. He meets men who have been starving and wallowing in their own excrement for a long time. Which is strange, since America isn’t officially at war with Laos.

They are given a bare minimum of food, and chained to each other at night in order to prevent them from having sex with each other. At least I think that’s what the rationale is. As is pointed out to Dieter when he introduces himself to the others and in the next breathe speaks of escape, the real prison is the jungle itself surrounding them. Chaining them up is more of a formality than a necessity, since as the irritating Gene character played by Jeremy Davies continually points out, where would they go?

Dieter plans for escape as soon as the monsoon season commences, which is several months hence. In the mean time he develops and hones his plans and the little tools with which to facilitate their getaway. This is probably the section of the film most people will find agonising, because it feels endless. But just imagine how it must have felt for these poor buggers.

Curiously, despite the fact that the guards threaten them continuously, and they are slowly starving to death, Dieter finds ways to stay upbeat. He laughs, jokes and even flirts with a female VC who visits in order to torment them. He remains unbowed by the experience, unbroken by adversity even as his body gets weaker and weaker. He also doesn’t let rotting, maggot-ridden food go to waste, since he never loses sight of his goal to make it out alive, and he needs all the sustenance he can get.

Maybe that’s the way in which Dieter is the classic mad Herzog protagonist: he remains crazily sane in a situation designed to make anyone crazy with despair and deprivation. Maybe his madness only goes so far as to give him the single-minded pursuit of his goal to escape, and no further than that. Even at its most extreme, he doesn’t lose sight of what he sees as his obligation to the other prisoners, especially Duane (Steve Zahn), insisting that they come with him as well.

Laughing, still laughing all the while.

It might sound like a slog, like an earnest and worthy (read: dull) movie little different from concentration camp flicks, but it’s nothing of the sort. I’m not sure whether most viewers would get as much out of it, but Herzog has managed to craft a pretty engaging and compelling film, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise, since he’s a great director. The story unfolds without too many scripting conceits and cliché plot devices, and manages to represent their dire situation in a way that doesn’t depress the viewer too much.

The cinematography is lush and impressive, and highlights for me what is such an irony about their circumstances. The incredibly idyllic scenery reminded me that these days, in similarly tropical locales, wealthy, mostly white tourists go to places as rustic and as ‘traditional’ as the area where our main characters are incarcerated, for a holiday.

42 years ago though, it was a hell on earth.

Most of the actors do a decent job, which you’d hope was obvious from the way in which they choose to starve themselves down to unhealthy levels for their roles. Now that’s dedication. Jeremy Davies though, man, I’ve got to say, I can’t figure out how this guy continues to get work. He must give head like no other actor on the planet, because casting agents keep hiring him, despite the fact that his performances are excruciating to watch for all the wrong reasons.

He brings to this role the same level of affectation and falseness that he does to everything he does, and has done since the heady days of playing the feckless Corporal Upham in Saving Private Ryan. Since around that time he’s put in performance after performance that rings false on almost every level.

My personal favourite, as in one of the roles that I hate him the most for, was in the Solaris remake where he delivered all his dialogue in the following manner, and not because the director asked him to:

“The, uh… question, is, um… how did… that, no, wait… question… was that, ah, oh yeah, uh… pancakes.”

He might as well have repeated “fiddle-dee dee, potatoes” for two hours for all the good it would have done. I feel like kidnapping him, strapping him to a chair and forcing him, Ludovico Technique-style to watch his own performances for a month.

If he doesn’t kill himself at the end of it, there is no Jesus, no Satan and no justice in this world.

He’s a little better here, and that’s only because you have to cut him some slack for the character, who looks like a starved Charles Manson, demented with fear and circumstance. But it does not endear him to me at all.

The ending has a mixture of sadness and joy, since Dieters’ drive and resourcefulness cannot be faulted, and his determination to survive does not come at the expense of the others (well, not counting a few of the guards). But even the best of intentions can’t always guard against the strange ferocity of the Laotians, who seem to hate the Americans with a white hot fury. It’s like they resent the Americans for bombing their villages and villagers, which frankly, makes no sense to me. I thought people loved that kind of stuff.

Surely they were going to greet them as liberators, holding out their hearts and minds in their outstretched hands, or at least the hearts and minds of those unlucky enough not to survive the bombings in an undeclared war, as gifts for their new overlords. When will these inferiors races learn?

It’s an amazing story, very well told by a director who avoids no difficulty or danger (visited upon actors, crew and himself) in order to tell a good yarn. Clearly Dieter Dengler was an amazing, albeit a bit strange, man who survived some very trying times and prospered, and this film does his story justice.

Would that Herzog could tell my biography in as interesting a fashion, although I suspect I’m just not mad enough for him. And the jungle gives me a rash.

8 times I don’t doubt for a second that Christian Bale really was eating that snake or those maggots out of 10

“No, I never wanted to go to war. I just wanted to fly.” – Rescue Dawn