In 1998, Werner Herzog made a superb documentary called Little Dieter Needs to Fly . The film follows an aging Dieter Dengler, a German expatriate who, in 1965, at the beginning of his career in the U.S. Navy, flew a disastrous mission over Laos. His tiny plane was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh trail. He was captured by the Viet Cong, tortured, and detained in a prison camp so forgotten and forlorn, even the guards were starving. And because of his own steel will and resourcefulness, he escaped, traversing countless miles of dense jungle to eventual rescue. When they picked him up, this tall man weighed eighty-five pounds.
That’s the story. As Dieter tells it in the film, you’re not likely to forget it; not because of the horrors he recounts, which he tells as flat facts. It’s that you recognize in Dieter a man who cheated Death, and knows it. How does he cope with the memories? The fact that he can only sleep knowing that thousands of pounds of food nestle under the floorboards of his house gives some clue.
Herzog’s own fascination with Dieter didn’t end with the documentary, or when Death finally came for Dieter in 2001. The director has returned to the story, punctuating it with dramatic fades to black, peopling it with fine actors, and rounding it out with a lush soundtrack, in a film called Rescue Dawn.
That the film happened at all is a credit to actor Christian Bale, who waited years, committed to playing Dieter. When Bale became Batman , Herzog says, raising $10 million became easy. Bale throws himself into the role, dropping serious weight (though less than for The Machinist ), allowing himself to be covered in leaches, drowned by monsoons or by torturers, bearing the sharp thorns of the jungle in bare feet. But, perhaps as coached by the cool intelligence of Herzog, perhaps choosing to keep some of enigmatic Dieter’s emotions private, his performance is more impressive than touching. That Dieter makes a better Dieter Dengler is an unfair criticism.
Bale has zeroed in on the source of Dieter’s crazy enthusiasm: he’s a man in a hurry. As a boy, when his village was bombed senselessly, Dieter became fascinated by the awesome power of the planes. From that moment, nothing would stand in the way of his dream: not to go to war. Just to fly. Bale’s Dieter has an almost childlike optimism that hurtles him forward, cutting a path through the world. He answers snarling faces with a smile, humiliations and excruciations with an indignant "What the hell is this, the middle ages?" He’s ahead of the blows because he’s ahead of himself.
I won’t spoil the details of the thrilling escape from the camp, and I’ll only briefly discuss the film’s third act, which is as riveting as similar passages in The Deer Hunter or The Hunted , or Herzog’s own Aguirre: The Wrath of God . Dieter and Duayne (played by Steve Zahn with eyes like burning coals) support each other through an immense landscape so hostile, it’s like an alien planet. It has become cliché to say that Herzog’s main theme is man versus nature. But nature is only one of the forces Herzog uses, and that reckoning ignores the purpose. What you see happen to Dieter and Duyane, and to a lesser degree to the actors who portray them, is a clarification. All that is not necessary burns off. Or, as Dieter says, "In order to survive, empty what is full. Fill what is empty."
Now that Ingmar Bergman is gone, there is no greater living director than Werner Herzog. Is this one of his best films? No – but with the documentary as the other half of a larger work, yes. That Rescue Dawn is actually playing in my home town of Bloomington is a rare opportunity.
Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.