There's an amazing moment about a quarter of the way into Rescue Dawn: Captured Navy pilot Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale) lies face down, tied to the ground as one of his captors caresses a Jurassic-sized butterfly that has landed on his arm, and a little boy waves a furiously buzzing, softball-sized beetle on a string, making menacing circles just inches from his head. The otherworldly size of these native bugs points both to the violent, otherworldly nature of the environment, and to the primitive savagery that lurks not just in the underbrush but in the souls of men. It's a moment that screams out the pet theme of German auteur Werner Herzog, who has pitted men against nature on film for decades. He plunges even further downstream in search of the "heart of darkness," but the difference this time isn't the cruelty of the wilderness he dives into but that he emerges with hope.
This Vietnam era POW tale has all the elements of a big-budget action yarn, expect that it's all true, a narrative remake of Herzog's own 1997 documentary called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which you can be excused for not having seen, since no one did. Dieter, it turns out, was a weird dude, a German immigrant inspired to become a flier by the Americans he saw bomb his town as a small boy. This indefatigable passion for flight is what sustains him, after he's shot down on an early secret mission over Laos, and keeps him alive through months of starvation, torture and filth in a ramshackle Viet Cong prison camp.
This eternal optimism is met with confusion by his dispirited fellow captives, a trio of South Vietnamese and two Americans, Gene from Eugene, Ore., (Jeremy Davies) a desiccated husk with a glassy, thousand-eye stare and sensitive Duane (Steve Zahn), who speaks in a gentle death rattle. Withered in body and spirit, these gaunt specters faintly cling to the hope that the war will be over soon.
They can't even conceive of freedom, until crafty Dieter crafts a lock pick from a stray nail, and concocts a plan of escape. The frantic execution of that plan would be the climax of other pictures, but it's only the midway point here, as our heroes have to contend with the even more frightful prison of the jungle itself. Out there, in that lush green nightmare is where Herzog is at home, giving a mystical aura to the indifference of nature, waist deep in the muck and vines and snakes.
The magnificent Bale slithers through this primordial soup with predictable ease; by now we know what a gifted actor he is. The revelation is Zahn. Forever cast as the zany best pal, he gets to shine here, forging around for the humanity still left somewhere inside a body that's become a haunted castle.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.