Oeuvre: Herzog’s Feature Films: Rescue Dawn

Oeuvre: Herzog’s Feature Films: Rescue Dawn

If Rescue Dawn is Herzog’s last foray into the obscenity of the jungle, he made a fitting escape.

Much of Werner Herzog’s legend was born in the jungle. An exotic yet oppressive terrain that the famed auteur has called “full of obscenity,” the jungle amplified the harsh realities in some of his greatest films and prodded Herzog into some of his most mythic audacities. In Les Blank’s 1982 documentary Burden of Dreams, Herzog described the jungle as brimming with misery, a place where everything suffers, where the birds don’t sing but rather “screech in pain.” In other words, it’s the perfect setting for a Herzog film.

Not only did the Amazonian jungle give us Aguirre: The Wrath of God, widely considered his greatest triumph and one of the best films ever made, but it also gave us the tall tale of Herzog directing the frenzied Klaus Kinski at gunpoint (though Kinski did famously shoot a finger off an extra in a fit of rage). There’s also the matter of Herzog posing as a veterinarian in order to retrieve 400 monkeys that had been swindled from him. Meanwhile, Fitzcarraldo not only gave us another tremendous Herzog/Kinski collaboration, but also saw Herzog’s crew literally pull a steamship over a rainforest mountain. Hell, in 1971, while scouting locations for Aguirre, Herzog even narrowly missed boarding a doomed Peruvian jetliner that disintegrated midair after a lightning strike.

But by the dawn of the new millennium, Herzog had little left to prove. He went from 1991 to 2001 without a feature film (and 1991’s Scream of Stone he’s more or less disowned). He began to flirt with self-parody, lampooning himself (and specifically the directing-Kinski-by-gunpoint myth) on Zak Penn’s 2004 incredibly meta mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness, which Herzog co-wrote. He even tried his hand at sci-fi with 2005’s little-seen The Wild Blue Yonder, which was overshadowed by the release of his Grizzly Man documentary that same year. But the jungle still called him, as in the late ‘90s he filmed two documentaries featuring survivors of jungle plane crashes revisiting the landscape that brought them so near death: the made-for-TV doc Wings of Hope (which featured the lone survivor of that doomed Peruvian flight) and Vietnam POW doc Little Dieter Needs to Fly.

Ten years after he first filmed Dieter Dengler—the German-born American POW who not only survived his warplane crash, torture and crude jungle imprisonment in Laos but also somehow endured a 23-day escape through the jungle—Herzog adapted that story into war drama Rescue Dawn. The film took Herzog back to the jungle, while once again pairing him with another volatile star in Christian Bale. In his opening moments as Dengler, Bale yuks it up with his war buddies, jumps in a plane and is quickly shot down in enemy territory. Herzog uses some actual war footage of bombs dropping on the Vietnamese jungles in slow motion, shots that were lifted directly from Little Dieter Needs to Fly. The following narrative hews closely to Dengler’s firsthand account from that documentary as well, incorporating specific details about torture methods (including near-drowning and exposure to biting ants while hung upside down). The jungle remains a misery for Dengler, even after he’s relocated to a POW camp guarded by local Laotians who are under the thumb of the Viet Cong. Joining a handful of other POWs is little consolation, and Dengler immediately works with the men he’s shackled to at night in order to begin devising a plan for escape.

Playing Duane Martin (Dengler’s closest friend at the camp) is Steve Zahn in a haunting performance. Herzog tapped Jeremy Davies (of Saving Private Ryan fame) to portray Gene DeBruin, an increasingly unhinged POW who’d rather await his anticipated (though unlikely) rescue than risk it by escaping into the unforgiving jungle that serves as a far more menacing prison than the bamboo fences and easily-picked shackles. That depiction earned Herzog significant blowback from DeBruin’s family and the only other survivor of the escape besides Dengler, who claimed that DeBruin actually acted heroically in refusing to leave an ill POW behind.

Rescue Dawn was a return to form for Herzog, even as his style was adapting to appeal to 21st century American film audiences. Regardless of its greater accessibility, Rescue Dawn flopped at the box office, not even hitting the $5.5 million mark domestically on a $10 million budget. DVD rentals and sales eventually turned a profit, but more importantly, Rescue Dawn was Herzog’s first critically-acclaimed feature film since his last hurrah with Kinski, Cobra Verde, some 20 years prior. A viewing of Little Dieter Needs to Fly enhances the experience of watching Rescue Dawn, especially given how much of Dengler’s reenacted specificity is dramatically depicted in the latter. From corny military survival videos to elaborate bamboo fire-starting techniques to giant leeches sucking on every fleshy nook during an escape to the Mekong River, Rescue Dawn stays true to the firsthand account of POW hero Dieter Dengler—even as the Rudy-esque celebration aboard an aircraft carrier at the film’s coda feels un-Herzogian.

Sadly, Dengler never lived to see himself played so evocatively by Christian Bale. The bubbly war hero, who after his rescue returned to flying as a civilian test pilot and improbably survived another four plane crashes, was stricken by Lou Gehrig’s disease shortly after the release of Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Confined to a wheelchair, he shot himself in front of a fire station in 2001. Rescue Dawn gives shape and color to an “ecstatic truth” Herzog already revealed in Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Together, the two films create a cumulative survival story that’s intensely powerful, even if Rescue Dawn on its own contains a bit more Hollywood sheen than we’ve come to expect from the director. Herzog would go on to work with Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Willem Dafoe, Chloë Sevigny and Michael Shannon in two films shortly thereafter. These days, he’s no stranger to guest appearances on various sitcoms. If Rescue Dawn is Herzog’s last foray into the obscenity of the jungle, he made a fitting escape.

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