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With: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Marshall Bell, Fran�ois Chau, Craig Gellis, GQ, Zach Grenier, Pat Healy, Toby Huss, Bonnie Z. Hutchinson, Evan Jones, Abhijati 'Meuk' Jusakul, Mr. Tony B. King, Mr. Richard Manning, Mr. Garrett D. Melich, Mr. Kriangsak Ming-olo, Mr. Yuttana Muenwaja, Teerawat Mulvilai, Somkuan 'Kuan' Siroon, Mr. Chorn Solyda, Mr. Saichia Wongwiroj
Written by: Werner Herzog
Directed by: Werner Herzog
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sequences of intense war violence and torture
Running Time: 126
Date: 09/09/2006

Rescue Dawn (2007)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Jungle Believer

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After forty years and more than fifty movies, TV shows, documentaries and short films, the great German-born director Werner Herzog makes his big time Hollywood debut. Fortunately, Rescue Dawn is just as much a Herzog movie as any of his others. To start, it's based on material near and dear to Herzog's heart: the true story of his late friend Dieter Dengler, two German expatriates who wound up living in Marin. Herzog made a documentary about Dengler, Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), in which Dengler told the story of his being shot down over Laos and held prisoner in 1966, followed by his harrowing escape through the jungle.

Herzog has now written a fictional screenplay based on his firsthand knowledge of Dengler and has trudged back into the jungle with Hollywood stars to film it. (Herzog's jungle movies are as famous for their insane, behind-the-scenes stories as for their onscreen genius.) Christian Bale (Batman Begins, The Prestige) stars as Dieter, a man who joined the air force not because he wanted to fight, but because he wanted to fly. Herzog shoots the prologue to Dieter's fateful mission with documentary directness, and includes a curious segment in which the men watch a jungle survival training film, and one joker provides an MST3K-style commentary track.

Those survival techniques will come in handy for Dieter, whose plane crashes in a rice paddy. He dodges some Vietnamese bullets and retreats into the jungle, hoping for a rescue plane to come and spot him. Before long, he's captured, tortured for a while, and then dropped into the camp where he will spend the bulk of the movie. His fellow prisoners are the creepy, half-mad Gene (Jeremy Davies), the soft, hippie-like Duane (Steve Zahn) and three Southeast Asians, Y.C. (Galen Yuen), Phisit (Abhijati Jusakul) and Procet (Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat). The prisoners assign nicknames for their captors, such as Little Hitler and Jumbo.

Rescue Dawn spends a great deal of time in the camp as Dieter begins planning the escape, as well as convincing his more reluctant colleagues to go along. Part of the trouble is that they decide to wait for the rainy season so that their tracks can't be so easily followed. During this period, Herzog delves into the prisoners' lives and routines with his trademark curiosity; he never shies away from anything horrific or disgusting, but rather moves in closer with an unusual fearlessness. Dozens of prison camp movies have been produced over time, but usually the horror is diffused by comedy or dramatic interplay; here, it's hardcore, but not repulsive. Herzog's genuine fascination comes through in his filming.

The same goes for Dieter's escape through the jungle. Dieter and Duane find the sole of a shoe and agree to share it, tying it onto their naked feet with bits of cloth. The wordplay exchange of "sole" and "soul" comes up several times, but Herzog lets it float by without calling attention to it. He's more interested in the literal aspects of the jungle -- with the exception of a brief "dream" sequence that merely illustrates Dieter's exhaustion and fragile state of mind. Overall the film is a curious mixture of intensity and a removed, fixed gaze, which makes it unique. It can be rough going, but remembering Herzog's hopeful title helps. The fact that Dieter made it out alive, as well as the fact that Herzog made a personal film in Hollywood, can provide inspiration for us all.

DVD Details: MGM's new DVD comes with a commentary track by Werner Herzog (Herzog is a great storyteller and his commentary tracks are always fascinating). This one is moderated by interviewer Norman Hill. The DVD also comes with a four-part "making of" featurette (44 minutes), deleted scenes, with optional commentary track (6 minutes), stills and trailers for other Fox/MGM releases. Audio comes in a 5.1 English mix, plus Spanish and French mixes, plus optional English and Spanish subtitles. I was sent a low-quality "check disc," so I can't attest to the quality of the final product. Rescue Dawn

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