In 1966, the American military were carrying out missions in Vietnam, but were also performing top secret bombing raids in Laos, of which Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) was part. It was his first mission, having wanted to fly planes all his life, and before he had embarked he had watched a survival guide film with the rest of his comrades, where they all laughed at the sanitised depiction of being stranded behind enemy lines, without it sinking in what possibilities there could be of this happening to them. So it was that when Dieter flew out to Laos, he was shot down and left to fend for himself in the inhospitable jungle...
Writer and director Werner Herzog had his biggest financial success with Rescue Dawn, a fictionalisation of his previous documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which had detailed the wartime experiences of the title subject, which included being a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict and his subsequent escape. There was more to that earlier film, but aside from Bale's Dieter regaling other characters with the odd fact-derived anecdote, Herzog stuck closely to the late sixties for his setting so yet another of his tales of people possessed by an overriding idea could be better realised. Add in his familiar suspicion of nature, which is mainly brought out in the second hour, and you had surprisingly one of the filmmaker's most commercial efforts.
If Rescue Dawn introduced Herzog to wider audiences, then that was all to the good, even if his diehard fans might not have been as enamoured of this as they had been of his other cult classics. There were complaints, nothing major but complaints nonetheless, of this being far too conventional for the director's canon, as if it were a straightforward war adventure of derring-do rather than a gritty relating of some harrowing experiences, but look a little harder and it fit right in with his usual style, even if it was a little more slick in its appearance than previously had been the case. Was this the result of casting a big time star like Bale? Did he raise the production values with his higher profile?
Bale certainly exhibited the dedication that a method actor in the twenty-first century manner might expect to do, losing a lot of weight for the role, as did his co-stars who appeared as his fellow prisoners, but they did not eat the mealworms in the food as Bale did, and neither did they chew on a snake, not to mention performing every one of his stunts on location in the jungle apart from the plane crash near the beginning. It was the perfect match between director and leading man, both as driven and preoccupied with their chosen profession and the baggage that came with it as each other, and Bale captured the optimism of the real man he was portraying that helped Dieter make it through his ordeal.
Naturally there were a few liberties taken with the facts, but you could say the same of Herzog's documentaries, all in the service of getting to a more elusive truth about the situation depicted. Bale, not using Dengler's actual German accent for a start, nevertheless makes him convincing in that we can believe that he would have the sense of purpose that would make him survive where many others did not, and we're meant to admire a personality trait that not only makes him prevail, but also makes him somewhat crazed. In contrast to his the other prisoners, who simply get crazed, Dieter here makes that mania work in his favour, which may be doing the real people he met during his incarceration a disservice, but does wonders for making him look like a true hero. Herzog is obviously taken with this notion, and Dengler is celebrated by the end with an apparent lack of irony - no comment on the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War here, that's for sure. Music by Klaus Badelt.
Eccentric German writer/director known equally for his brilliant visionary style and tortuous filming techniques. After several years struggling financially to launch himself as a filmmaker, Herzog began his career with the wartime drama Lebenszeichen and surreal comedy Even Dwarfs Started Small. But it was the stunning 1972 jungle adventure Aguirre, Wrath of God that brought him international acclaim and began his tempestuous working relationship with Klaus Kinski. The 1975 period fable Heart of Glass featured an almost entirely hypnotised cast, while other Herzog classics from this era include Stroszek, the gothic horror Nosferatu the Vampyre and the spectacular, notoriously expensive epic Fitzcarraldo.