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Rescue Dawn Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 April 2008
ImageWerner Herzog is one of the most interesting and least predictable directors working today; not everything he does is of top quality, but everything he does is unusual and distinctive.  He has a tendency to focus on people in extreme circumstances, often far from civilization (“Fitzcarraldo,” “Aguirre the Wrath of God”).  And he intersperses fictional features with documentaries.  For German television, he did a documentary, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” about Dieter Dengler, one of the few—perhaps the only—American military enlistee to escape from a Pathet Lao prison camp during the Vietnam War.  “Rescue Dawn” is a fictional film based on the same incident; Herzog may well be the only director to have done a documentary and fictional film on the same subject.

Dengler (1938-2001) was a German national who was so transfixed by the sight of Allied planes bombing his obscure Black Forest village that he was determined to fly.  He was a bright, outgoing and ambitious young man, who came to the United States with only a few coins in his pocket, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy.  He was trained as a pilot, and sent to a carrier off Viet Nam.  On his first mission, he was shot down over Laos and taken prisoner, placed in a camp with two other Americans and a few Asians.  Dengler’s unquenchable never-say-die spirit led to immediately begin planning to escape from the compound.  He told his own story in a book, “Escape from Laos” (1978); he participated in Herzog’s documentary, so impressing the filmmaker that he was determined to do another film about this tough, upbeat survivor. “Rescue Dawn” is a tough, upbeat movie of survival.  Christian Bale plays Dengler (but without Dieter’s German accent); it’s a vivid, full-bodied, lively and ingratiating performance that probably does justice to the real man.  Dengler’s sons judged the film and Bale to be very fair and realistic about their father.  One of them appears in the very good featurettes on this Blu-ray disc. 

There are lots of prison-escape movies; there are lots of war-prison-escape movies, and this is one of the best but least characteristic.  Herzog’s screenplay somewhat condenses the action—Dengler escaped his captors almost immediately, but was recaptured soon; he was forced to tramp through the jungles of Laos for several days, then was moved from the first prison camp to a second.  But the movie and Bale manifest Dengler’s heroic spirit clearly and ingratiatingly—this is an immensely watchable movie, even when the pace slows down (necessarily) during Dengler’s time in the camp.

The camp has only a few guards and only a few prisoners (six in the movie, seven in reality); it’s surrounded by bamboo palisades, and seems to be a good distance from any villages—even the guards here often go hungry.  Dengler’s fellow prisoners include another American airman, Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Air America pilot Eugene McBruin (Jeremy Davies).  Both have been prisoners long enough their minds are starting to unravel a bit around the edges.

The conditions are, to say the least, primitive; they are housed in drafty bamboo huts and linked together every night by handcuffs, their feet imprisoned in wooden stocks.  (“What is this,” a shocked Dieter exclaims, “the Dark Ages?!”)  They’re fed when there’s enough food, usually rice, but when the guards’ supplies get very low, they feed the prisoners live maggots.  (And diligent Christian Bale actually eats them.)  Mostly, though, it’s just one tedious day after another—until Dengler begins putting his escape plans into effect.

The film doesn’t spend much time with the somewhat eccentric bunch of guards; they don’t wear uniforms, they tend to goof off—one has a propensity for martial arts—and only occasionally torment their prisoners.  There’s not much reason to do any more; none of them speak English, so there’s no point in questioning some of their prisoners.  Dengler has already refused to sign a propagandistic “confession” (one of the few American prisoners to be able to resist the torture intended to elicit such signatures), and anyway, he doesn’t have much information.

Finally, he and Duane do make their escape, but find the jungle around them is as much a prison as the Pathet Lao compound.

“Rescue Dawn” is intense but not brutal on the audience; Dengler is run through several tortures soon after his capture—hung upside down with an ant nest tied to his face, dropped feet down in a narrow well—and it’s clear that they’re very painful, but that’s not what the movie is about.  It’s about the undefeatable nature of the human spirit.  Even though Dengler was (and Herzog is) German, the director insists that what drew him to Dengler’s story was the very American nature of its central figure.  Brash, intelligent, friendly, outgoing, buoyant—Dengler seems to embody all we want to think is best about America.

The cast is small, but hand-picked and exceptional.  Bale seems drawn to movies that put him through intense physical hardships, such as “The Mechanic,” for which he lost 65 pounds from an already-lean frame; he also lost a lot of weight for “Rescue Dawn.”  The movie was shot in reverse order, as weight can be put back on much more quickly than it’s dieted off—and the film was shot in only 44 days.

Steve Zahn is known for his comedy roles, as in “Out of Sight” or “Joy Ride,” but Herzog saw something more in him.  There’s something mournful about Zahn’s face, here covered by a beard, with his large, sad eyes and slumping shoulders.  He’s so good here, and as the best thing about the “Comanche Moon” miniseries, maybe he’ll begin to be cast more often in dramas.  He’s capable of it.

Jeremy Davies plays a somewhat inexplicable character, a guy who doesn’t even know there’s a war on out there in the jungles of southeast Asia, who thinks that they’ll be set free any day now.  He’s gaunt, haunted and strange.

Herzog used beautiful locations in Thailand.  The compound is below a majestic rock formation with bright green vines cascading down its face.  High definition is always wonderfully responsive to greens in particular, and a movie set in a jungle will inevitably be a riot of greens of every shade and hue.  High definition by, well, definition is great with details—and jungles are also big collections of details, individual leaves, shoots of grass, foaming rivers, twisting trees, eccentric rock formations.  “Rescue Dawn” is pictorially one of the most visually impressive Blu-ray discs so far; some others have used a lot of CGI to look great, but Herzog and his creative cinematographer, Peter Zeitlinger, used what was there.  The movie does include a little CGI, primarily of the planes seen briefly at the beginning.

The score by Klaus Badelt is inventive, creative and original.  In a featurette, he explains that he didn’t score the movie—that is, he didn’t match music directly to actions on screen, but instead enhanced the tone of the film.  It’s an unusual score; only once, over the stirring end scenes, does Badelt provide pretty much what you’d expect.  The rest of the time, his music is subtle and understated, sometimes just a single stringed instrument, or a piano. 

Herzog’s commentary track is especially rewarding; he explains clearly what was changed from Dengler’s real story, and why.  It was always in the interest of clarity and dramatic focus.  He’s full of praise for all his team, the actors, the composer, cinematographer—everyone.  And well he should be.  “Rescue Dawn” is an outstanding movie; once seen, it won’t easily be forgotten. 

The movie is about Dieter Dengler, but this whole video package is really about Werner Herzog, a director who follows the path he has established for himself.  Not only does he praise his actors, but they praise him, marveling that no matter what Herzog asked them to do, he was always willing, even eager, to do it first.  Zahn and Bale wade across a snake-infested river—and in behind the scenes footage, we see the shirtless Herzog right out there in the river with them, though he was over 60 at the time the film was made.

The featurettes are also particularly interesting, with comments from Herzog, Bale, Zahn, Galen Yuen (who played one of the Asian prisoners), cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, producer Steve Marlton, Jeremy Davies and others.  One feature depicts the Wall, the haunting national memorial to the Vietnam War in Washington D.C.; this allows you to read the brief stories of some of the names on that wall—including that of Duane Martin. There’s occasionally an odd bit of trivia—the Pathet Lao with the sunglasses played one of Bale’s fighting opponents in “Batman Begins.”  This is all exceptionally good stuff, far above what is usually found on DVDs.  But then, so is the movie.  Why this didn’t get more attention is one of the minor mysteries of Hollywood.

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