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PopGap #26: Rescue Dawn (2006)

PopGap #26: Rescue Dawn (2006)

Written by dorrk
01 April 2017

The jungle is the prison.

I've watched a lot of "Escape Movies" for the first time since starting this project, ranging from the sublime (A Man Escaped) to the bloated (The Great Escape). During that same period, I've been introduced to almost as many movies from German director Werner Herzog. Not only have Herzog's movies been remarkably consistent in quality, a couple have depicted one of the prolific auteur's most notable fixations, placing characters at the mercy of unforgiving jungles, testing the limits of their endurance and sanity. Rescue Dawn marries both of my former blind spots, with Herzog expressing his fixation on nature's indifference to humanity within a now-familiar set of prison escape tropes.

Rescue Dawn tells the true story of U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), who spent five months as a prisoner of war in Laos in the mid-1960s and another month in the jungle after escaping with his six fellow captives. This is Herzog's second pass at this material, with his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly profiling the quirky Dengler, who went on to become a civilian test pilot. Even though Dengler passed away between productions, there's a strong sense of personal point-of-view in the writing of Rescue Dawn, and Bale's performance is effectively intimate, especially in scenes opposite Steve Zahn, whose character Duane Martin accompanied Dengler in a joint struggle for survival. While the movie's aggrandizement of its main character has been somewhat controversial, provoking a rebuttal from the other remaining survivor of the escape as well as from relatives of Gene DeBruin, who were not fond of Jeremy Davies' jittery performance of the POW, it captures the POW experience with a verisimilitude free of both melodrama, and, surprisingly, artistry. Rescue Dawn is easily the most mainstream production that I've seen from Herzog, which pays off as a no-frills drama that relies on its sturdy performances.

Even though I've found Herzog's curiously lax approach to editing a challenge in movies such as Aguirre: the Wrath of God and Nosferatu the Vampyre, I kind of missed it here. Aside from the jungle setting, there's very little of Herzog's personality on display, making this a conspicuously efficient and involving but fairly flavorless and conventional wartime dramatization.

Rescue Dawn was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Nigel Druitt, who can be found on Flickchart under the username johnmason. He ranks it on his chart at #260 / 1651 (84%), where it's his third favorite Escape Movie out of tenRescue Dawn ranked on my Flickchart at #928 / 3781 (75%), where it's my 5th favorite Escape Movie out of 22.

PopGap #26: Rescue Dawn (2006)

Trailer for Rescue Dawn (2006)