[previously published in total:spec magazine February 2007]
There’s a moment in Rescue Dawn when it’s hard not to feel like you’re watching I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, with Christian Bale gleefully stuffing live worms into his mouth, grinning manically as one of the creatures wriggles around in his overgrown beard. But otherwise, despite its jungle setting, the latest from acclaimed German director Werner Herzog is about as far as it gets from such ITV reality television fare.
A sort of Touching the Void (it's based on a true story) meets The Great Escape, the film begins on an aircraft carrier where the recruits wisecrack like Top Gun never happened. And actually, it hasn't - it's 1965 and fresh-faced US airforce pilot Dieter Dengler (Bale) is due to head off on his first mission, to bomb secret targets in Laos.
Within the opening ten minutes, tragedy has struck, as Dieter is shot down, crashing his plane in the jungle. Ditching his radio because of the clandestine nature of the mission, he heads into the undergrowth, but it's not long before he's captured by a motley crew of enemy soldiers. He's tortured and sent to a lowly prisoner of war camp in the depths of the jungle, consisting of a few huts surrounded by bamboo fences and a ragtag bunch of guards.
Dieter is incarcerated with five others, including the Crusoe-like Duane (Steve Zahn) and lost-it prisoner Gene (a suitably disturbing Jeremy Davies), whose tattered uniform reads 'quo vadis' (where are you going?). The answer appears to be nowhere - we soon find out that some of the prisoners have been in the camp for around two years. However, Dieter's arrival looks set to shake things up; like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's MacMurphy, he immediately takes his place as the charismatic leader of the oddballs, raising the group's morale and giving them hope. As they wait for the monsoon to hit, the captives plan their escape into the inhospitable jungle.
And inhospitable it is – Herzog gets the jungle's claustrophobic hostility just right. There are no such thing as paths here - you have to hack through greenery with a blunt machete just to move. As Dieter talks about escaping from the camp, their situation is summed up by Duane: "The jungle is the prison, don't you get it?" But Herzog also has a keen eye for the environment's raging beauty. In a memorably unsettling scene, an enormous brightly-coloured butterfly flits on the arm of one of the warlords; as Dieter, tied to the floor, looks across at him, a child dangles a live beetle on a string in front of his face.
It's unusual for Herzog to opt for a big name for the lead, but here it pays off – Bale is excellent and has the kind of star quality needed to keep an audience's attention, giving Dengler an edgy intensity. There's a subtlety here too – instead naïve optimism, which would've been the obvious way to play it, it's Dengler's inability to accept the reality of his situation that drives him. Never quite accepting that the balance of power has shifted against him, he's the kind of dreamer Herzog loves.
The tone of the finale jars a little. The hero's welcome Dieter receives from people who can't grasp what he's been through seems meaningless, but Herzog tries to show it as a glorious return. As the audience, we feel that we understand Dengler better than anyone around him, and that's a testament to how convincing and compulsive Rescue Dawn is. Not something you would say about I'm A Celebrity...
Rescue Dawn is out next Friday