Choosing July 4 as the opening date for Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn was a strange move on MGM's part. It's a clever choice, in that Independence Day was the date that Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) planned to escape from the POW camp in Laos where he was kept after being shot down while flying a secret bombing mission in 1966. But opening this movie on a patriotic holiday was risky: Do Americans really want to spend their nation's birthday watching a German national (Dengler enlisted in the U.S. Navy after surviving a childhood of Allied bombings) eat live worms and pull leeches off his chest?
The box-office figures suggest that most of us preferred to spend that day grilling wieners (although given the movie's limited release, it's not faring too badly). But if you're looking for a weekend movie that's heart-stoppingly suspenseful and inspiring, as well as brainy, funny, and strange, seek out Rescue Dawn. Though at times the film wears the camouflage of a conventional war movie, it's neither patriotic nor anti-patriotic. Instead, it's a celebration of its hero's life force, an awestruck hymn to pure survival.
Herzog has told Dengler's (mostly true) story before, in his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs To Fly, and with typically Herzog-ian obsessiveness, he now circles back to revisit the same tale in fictional form, after the real Dengler's death of ALS in 2001. This time, Herzog cuts quite literally to the chase: Rescue Dawn is spare and economical, keenly focused on its protagonist's need for flight.
The isolated Laotian camp where Dengler is taken after refusing to sign an anti-American statement is already home to two American prisoners, Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), and three Southeast Asian ones: Y.C. (Galen Yuen), Procet (Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat), and Phisit (Abhulati Jusakul). Starving, sick, and in some cases half-crazy, they've been in the camp for years and have either given up all hope of rescue (like the fatalistic Duane) or nourished an even scarier false conviction that help is on the way (like the delusional Gene). Dieter takes a third approach: With infinite resourcefulness and preternatural pluck, he simply refuses to die, or to give up on his plan of escape. He fashions a lock-picking instrument from a stolen nail, devises a method for hoarding rice rations, and sets a date—July 4, of course—for the six men to ambush their Vietcong guards and strike out into the uncharted jungle.
That Dieter survives is evident from the fact that he was around in 1997 to tell his story. What happens to the rest of them I'll leave unspoiled. The portion of the film that takes place in the jungle after the breakout is like an episode of the Discovery Channel series I Shouldn't Be Alive, filmed in hallucinatory style by Herzog's longtime collaborator Peter Zeitlinger (who also shot the original Dengler documentary). For years, Herzog has been embellishing a kind of cinematic meditation on the pitilessness of nature, which he describes in this unforgettable clip from the Les Blank documentary Burden of Dreams. The battle the escapees face in Rescue Dawn is less against the odds of physically surviving (astronomically slim) than against the deterioration of their own minds. Christian Bale's all-or-nothing approach to acting—this is the second time he's starved himself to skin and bones for a role—is a natural match for Herzog's gonzo filmmaking. Steve Zahn, in particular—an actor we're used to seeing as a ruddy, square-jawed comic sidekick—gives a tender and fearless performance as a man slowly releasing his grip on life. And forget about the war-movie stereotype of stoic buddyhood; reduced to a condition of raw need, these men cling to each other like parent and child.
Herzog, who has spent the last half of his 40-plus-year career making idiosyncratic and often brilliant documentaries (was there a better movie in 2005, fiction or otherwise, than Grizzly Man?), returns to the narrative form with such surefooted brio that you'll wish he had another career ahead of him as a maker of adventure yarns. Maybe he does. There's a reason Herzog loved Dieter Dengler's story so much he needed to tell it twice: Like the indestructible German pilot, he has a ferocious appetite for life.