Rescue Dawn (2006): Werner Herzog, Back in the Jungle (Little Dieter Needs to Fly)

In Rescue Dawn,┬áiconic German director Werner Herzog goes back into one of his works’ most defining locales–the jungle–to recreate the true-life tale of Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. navy pilot whose plane was shot down over Laos in 1965.

If the story sounds familiar, it should. The same subject was treated even better in Herzog’s own documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which I saw and reviewed for Variety at the 1997 Telluride Film Festival.

The new film also bears thematic echoes to other great Herzog epics, most notably Aguirre the Wrath of God and “Fitzcarraldo.

“Rescue Dawn” is the helmer’s most accessible feature to date at a certain price: This actioner is also one of his most conventional narratives. It will be interesting to see how hardcore fans, used to Herzog’s more eccentric and idiosyncratic sensibility, will relate to “Rescue Dawn.”

Christian Bale (who doesn’t even attempt a German accent) is well-cast in the lead, playing a gung-ho, who realizes that the Laotian guards at his prison camp arent as much of a threat to him as the jungle beyond its walls. Gorgeous imagery by lenser Peter Zeitlinger makes “Rescue Dawn” a vivid, quite engaging saga. With strong critical support, this feature may broaden Herzog’s appeal base in the U.S., which has been confined to the art house circuit.

Rather admirably, “Rescue Dawn” unfolds as a prison-escape actioner-drama, without resorting to any thematic or stylistic clichs of those familiar genres. Indeed, Here is a Vietnam film with no music by Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, or The Doors. Klaus Bartle’s original score features Wagnerian opera and other classical compositions.

Nonetheless, the movie is marred by routine treatment in its second half (in the camp sequences) and by some mannered acting of the supporting cast, particularly Jeremy Davies, who’s quickly becoming, alongside Giovanni Ribisi, our expert at neurotic overacting.

The saga begins with revealing how German-born Dengler became a U.S. Air Force fight lieutenant. An arrogant young recruit, he’s keen to engage in his debut combat flight, a top-secret bombing raid over Laos. Before flying out, Dengler and his peers watch a military information feature about surviving in the jungle, one that Herzog satirized in his docu “Little Dieter” for its naive tone”Don’t forget to wave at helicopters flying right above you.”

Dengler drops only a few bombs before he’s shot down; miraculously, he is not injured. He survives alone for one night before being captured by a squad of Laotian soldiers. Then, the torture begins with an ant’s nest is tied to his face. With his hands and feet tied, Dengler’s is dragged by a cow across a village and nearly drowns in a well.

Several weeks later, offered a chance to be released, if he signs a statement denouncing American imperialism, Dengler refuses, proudly declaring: “I love America. America gave me wings.” Dengler ends up in a POW camp, where he meets two fellow American prisoners, Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies). Both men are against escaping, holding naively that the war will be over soon! He also meets Southeast Asians, English-speaker Y.C. (Galen Yuen), wiry Phisit (Abhijati Jusakul) and more stolid Procet (Cahiyan Chunsuttiwat)

Through it all, Degler endures, proving to be an inspirational leader, whose unique skills and strong will to survive keep his fellow prisoners’ spirits up, while they endure brutality from the guards, eagerly wait for the rainy season, when escape is more feasible. Dengler’s survival in the face of obstacles and threats derives from his courage as well as knowledge that the Viet Cong considered him more useful alive than dead.

Here and there, you can detect echoes of Herzog’s thematic obsessions, such as Man versus Nature–the horror of Natural and the futility of humans’ struggle to transcend it–which was also explored in his recent, highly acclaimed docu, “Grizzly Man.”

It’s hard to tell whether the lack of explicit political platform in “Rescue Dawn,” a strange omission in a Vietnam War saga, is based on commercial considerations and/or the desire to make the historically grounded story more universal and more relevant to our current turbulent times, defined by the Iraq War. Thus, the deluded belief that the war will all be over soon, as well as the torture scenes (that inevitably recall Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib), should touch a chord with the public.
I am curious to know how audiences will interpret the final scenes, which use extras from the Thai army and suggest an almost pro-military quality, one that deviates in tone from Herzog’s docu “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.”

Herzog’s blurring of the lines between documentary and fiction are evident in this nominal feature, as they were in the 1997 non-fictional work. As in every Herzog movie, there are some powerful, even lyrical images, in one of which Dengler hallucinates a lost buddy, offering him the tattered sole of a shoe they had been sharing through the wilderness.

As noted, this is Herzog’s most straightforward–and one of his least original films–one that benefits from a bigger budget than the usual, and is defined by a more mainstream sensibility and less ambiguous emotions.


Running time: 125 minutes

An MGM release of a Gibraltar Entertainment presentation.

Directed, written by Werner Herzog.
Producers: Elton Brand, Steve Marlton, Harry Knapp.
Executive producers: Elie Samaha, Gerald Green, Nick Raslin, Freddy Braidy.
Cinematography: Peter Zietlinger
Editor: Joe Bini
Music: Klaus Bartle
At director: Arin “Aoi” Pinijvararak
Costume designer: Annie Dunn
Sound: Saul Paragon
Visual Efects Producer: Chris Woods.


Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale)
Duane (Steve Zahn)
Gene (Jeremy Davies)
Y.C. (Galen Yuen)
Phisit (Abhijati “Muek” Jusakul)
Procet (Chaiyan “Lek” Chunsuttiwat)
Little Hitler (Teerawat “Ka-Ge” Mulvilai)
Crazy Horse (Yuttana Muenwaja)
Jumbo (Kriangsak Ming-Olo)

Reviewed out of Toronto Film Festival by Robin Catapano