Werner Herzog's 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs To Fly, told the story of US Navy pilot Dieter Dengler. Shot down over Laos, Dengler was captured and held by the North Vietnamese Army, from which he eventually escaped. Rescue Dawn is a dramatisation of this same tale. It's a story of one man's survival against overwhelming odds, the sort of thing which hasn't a hope of working without an exceptional lead actor to play that man.

Fortunately, our man in this case is Christian Bale, indisputably one of the finest actors of our time. His physical commitment to the role is nothing short of incredible, as we see him consume live worms, pluck leeches from his flesh, and noticeably wither during the course of his ordeal. He is beaten, dragged behind an ox, suspended upside-down with an ants' nest strapped to his chest, and submerged up to his chin in a shallow well, before being left to slowly starve to death in a POW camp deep in the jungle.

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Rather less fortunately, the focus is held on Dengler to the detriment of the other characters. Even his co-detainees, who get a lot of screen time in the first half of the film, are rather poorly fleshed-out. Dengler's back-story is revealed through some fairly heavy-handed exposition, explaining, amongst other things, his propensity for tool making, which proves invaluable during the planning and execution of the escape. It becomes difficult not to anticipate a cry of "he's modified the van!", followed by the splintering of a makeshift bamboo garage.

Dengler's plan, in the end, completely fails to come together, and he finds himself on the run through forbidding jungle terrain with a single companion, Duane, played ably by Steve Zahn. Here the film takes a welcome turn into more familiar Herzog territory, as the pair battle against encroaching madness and the viciousness of nature.

Beneath the cover of portraying the generalised horrors of war, the film is more subtly critical of America's conduct in both the Vietnam War and the current conflict in Iraq. Much is made of the fact that Dengler's mission over Laos was strictly confidential, that it occurred before the declaration of war, and that American prisoners had been held captive for some years prior to that mission. When Dengler finally finds himself free (which, in an interesting twist, isn't as early as it at first appears), he is asked if it was his love of God and country which saw him through. His response--"I'd love a steak"--neatly sidesteps a possible jingoistic pitfall, as well as being typical of the humour displayed by Dengler throughout.

Worthwhile viewing for Bale's performance alone, though this performance (along with some first-rate cinematography) does have to carry the full weight of the film.

Reviewed on: 18 Feb 2007
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A US fighter pilot shot down in the Vietnamese jungle must go to extraordinary lengths to survive.
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Director: Werner Herzog

Writer: Werner Herzog

Starring: Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Marshall Bell, Brad Carr, François Chau, Craig Gellis, GQ, Zach Grenier, Pat Healy, Toby Huss

Year: 2006

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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