Nothing if not appropriate for summer blockbuster season, Werner Herzog's latest feature, based on his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, offers a suitably fantastic tale of war, freedom, and fortitude, set in the jungles of Indochina and featuring an immigrant lad who turns out to be just as American as John McCain — or is it John McClane?
Dieter Dengler was, like Herzog, a small child during World War II; his town was destroyed in an American bombing raid. In Little Dieter Needs to Fly, he maintains that the plane strafing his home flew so low he actually made eye contact with the "almighty being" in the cockpit: "From then on little Dieter needed to fly." This story is repeated in Rescue Dawn. "You're a strange bird, Dieter," is the response from a colleague. For sure: At age 18, little Dieter left for victorious America, enlisting in the air force and peeling potatoes for years before he was permitted to enter navy flight school. He graduated in 1966 and was sent to Vietnam.
Dieter went to war because he wanted to fly; he wanted to fly because his childhood had been traumatized by war. Perhaps to inoculate the viewer against the queasy realization that this relentlessly upbeat hero sought to inflict on others the pain he experienced as a child, Rescue Dawn fudges chronology and opens with the questionable assertion that "In 1965 few people believed that the still limited conflict in Vietnam would turn into a full-scale war." (There were 23,000 American soldiers in Vietnam at the end of 1964; a year later there were 184,000.)
This disclaimer is followed by a crescendo of lush drone music and slo-mo aerial bombing footage. It's Wagner lite but pure Herzog. (Little Dieter also includes some stunning aerial views of napalm explosions, if no images of napalm victims.) Dieter — played by Christian Bale with a sunny disposish and intermittent German accent — and his comrades, aboard an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, are thrilled to receive orders to bomb Vietcong sanctuaries inside Laos. And all concern for the morality vanishes when, two minutes into the mission, Dieter is shot down and captured by a scary band of Pathet Lao irregulars.
Tied down for the entertainment of the sadistic rabble, Dieter is subject to the sort of torture Americans would never condone, even if someone were captured in the act of imagining a dirty bomb. Then he's put in a stockade with a number of other captured Americans, most spectacularly Jeremy Davies, whose patented neurotic gesticulation riff keeps the movie bearable during the lengthy incarceration sequence.
Dieter's attitude oscillates between gung-ho enthusiastic and relentlessly positive — he's able to grin like Victor Mature even when the guards reduce prison rations to a stingy helping of live worms. He is certain he's going to escape and determined to bring everyone along with him. The date is set for July 4, although it scarcely needs to be emphasized that Dieter's experience of savage captivity and escape through the wilderness is a story with a particular American resonance. Although suffused with Herzog's own particular brand of jungle madness, Rescue Dawn, which was shot mainly in Thailand, has as much in common with James Fenimore Cooper novels and Viet-era Indian westerns (A Man Called Horse, Jeremiah Johnson) as it does with The Deer Hunter.
Little Dieter Needs to Fly was a powerfully incantatory film in part because of Dengler's matter-of-fact description of running barefoot through the tangled tropical foliage — dodging monsoons, sliding down ravines, fending off leeches, eating snakes, and fighting delirium as well as sudden attacks by Laotian tribals. Rescue Dawn, which rivals Apocalypto as a jungle marathon, has all of this and more. Bale even looks authentically starved (as in The Machinist). Seeing Dengler's adventure staged hardly seems more real than hearing his account — although, as conventionally framed and lit as it is, Rescue Dawn is the closest thing to a "real" movie that Herzog has ever made.
The lone conquistador has joined the club. Rescue Dawn is a Rambo movie without the Man (who, if I remember my Rambology, was himself of German descent). Here Herzog demonstrates his own American-ness by applying Stallone's triumphalist logic. It's not enough for his essentially solitary protagonist to prevail; survival needs to be consecrated by a mob of flyboys showing the love, and inscribed for the ages with a salutary confetti freeze frame. Yo!