Born in 1938 in the Black Forest region of Germany, Dieter Dengler never wanted to go to war, he just wanted to fly. After emigrating to America at the age of 18 and completing flight training, in 1966 Dengler found himself on board an aircraft carrier headed for Vietnam serving with an attack squadron.
On the morning of 1 February, Lieutenant Dengler launched from the Ranger with three other aircraft on an interdiction mission along the Laotian border. It was a foggy, damp morning, and, upon arrival at the target, Dengler lost sight of the other planes and was hit by anti aircraft fire. He was forced to crash-land his plane in the jungles of Laos where, if captured, he would be at the mercy of Pathet Lao (the Laotian equivalent of the Viet Minh or Viet Cong).
What happened next to the tenacious, ever optimistic Dengler makes for the mainstay of this compelling account of one man’s remarkable resolve as interpreted by the great German filmmaker Werner Herzog. Herzog has been here before: he allowed Dieter to tell him about his extraordinary life for his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Here Herzog attempts to faithfully recreate one of the most dramatic episodes from that life as a sort of homage to Dengler (who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2001).
The success of a film concerned with paying due respect will always ride on the central performance. Luckily for Herzog, Christian Bale, the closest thing we have to a Brando currently working in English language cinema, is more than up to the task. Morphing himself from a chunky pilot to a skeletal POW during the trajectory of this story, Bale captures Dengler’s eccentric and deeply likeable quirks. Herzog as both director and screenwriter wants us to wish that all US military personnel were this physically handy, innovative and resourceful.
Rescue Dawn is a delight, pinned down but Herzog’s meticulous, beautifully modulated filmmaking style that pushes ideas of truth, bravery and obduracy to the fore in another tale of jungle jeopardy that deserves to sit next to his brilliant previous forays into such things – Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972).
Whether Rescue Dawn will take any money at the box office is another question entirely. Do people really want to see a film about soldierly heroism during the early days of the Vietnam War at a time when our cinemas are being flooded by moribund contemplations on the disaster that has been the War on Terror (Lions For Lambs, Rendition, The Kingdom)? In June 2006 US audiences stayed away and now, almost a year and a half later, Rescue Dawn is being pushed quietly pushed through our multiplexes as quickly as possible. But surely a film that celebrates values that were best embodied by Irish poet and storyteller James Stephens when he wrote that ‘Curiosity will conquer fear more than bravery will,’ deserves more than that.
General release from Fri 23 Nov.