Reviewed by Alexander Bisley

AFTER stunning documentaries The White Diamond and Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog returns to feature film with Rescue Dawn. Rescue Dawn fictionalises the story of pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), whose real-life story Herzog previously documented in Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Born in Germany, Dieter became obsessed with being a pilot watching American planes bomb his town. He moved to America, joined the US airforce and was sent to fight in the Vietnam War. The film begins with a brazen, secret flight deep into Laos. Dieter is shot down and imprisoned in a brutal Laotian jail.

Dieter’s jailers don’t subscribe to the Geneva Convention. He is subjected to a range of deprivations and tortures; but refuses to sign a statement denouncing American imperialism that would win him release. He protests “I love America. America gave me wings.” A tough, resilient man, he eventually persuades fellow prisoners Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies) to escape into the unforgiving jungle. More ordeals are in store.

The lightweight The Machinist demanded him to be shockingly emaciated. Bale is completely committed to his part here. He does his own stunts. He actually eats maggots and appears to be tortuously dragged across a field by a cow. Rescue Dawn’s physicality accentuates strong points about war’s effects on man. Herzog explores other favourite themes, such as man versus nature and the pursuit of transcendence, with characteristic obsessiveness.

This wily maverick creates a muscular, pungent sense of place and period—you feel like you are in the jungle. Herzog, cinematographer Peter Zietlinger and editor Joe Bini employ a dramatic visual style. There are atmospheric explosions in the vein of Apocalypse Now; complemented with gloomy, sometimes Wagnerian music. Finally, Herzog’s respect for his characters, particularly the gritty camaraderie of Dieter and Duane, involves you.