LEK CHAIYAN CHUNSUTTIWAT
ABHIJATI ‘MEUK’ JUSAKUL
With both Hollywood and independent American cinema stuck in a period of ostentatious self loathing as their country plays the role of aggressor in the Iraq war, it is up to acclaimed German director Werner Herzog to breathe new life into the flagging American war movie with Rescue Dawn, and does so without any iota of a left/right, political/social undercurrent ruining this ultra-realistic tale of survival, which is based on real events.
Rescue Dawn stars Christian Bale as Dieter Dengler, a German born, American fighter pilot who was shot down in Laos during his top secret, maiden mission. Captured, tormented, and tortured, Dengler is taken to a P.O.W. camp where he meets fellow soldiers Duane Martin (Steve Zahn) and Eugene ‘Gene’ McBroom (Jeremy Davies), who have been held captive for several years and have gone through devastating physical and psychological injuries as a result. Dengler plans a daring escape to the amusement and astonishment of the other captives.
This is not the first time that Herzog has focused his attention on Dengler, with his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly drawing critical praise. With this big screen adaptation, Herzog has wisely chosen versatile British actor Christian Bale to portray Dengler, who does a great job portraying the emotional and physical attributes needed to bring Dengler to life (albeit without Dengler’s strong German accent).
In fact, every actor portraying a P.O.W. has gone through serious physical transformations to achieve the impression that their characters have gone through hell. Bale lost 55 pounds (25 kilograms). Steve Zahn (who gives a surprisingly good dramatic performance) lost 40 pounds (18 kilograms). And Jeremy Davies lost 33 pounds (15 kilograms), his skeletal frame, long hair, beard, and whimsical demeanour, has him coming across as a half dead hippie with a serious case of the munchies.
Yet while such weight loss may seem extreme (to say the least), it works very well in the context of the film. The men who these actors are portraying on screen were strangers in a strange land, imprisoned in the most in-humane of conditions by guards straight out of The Deer Hunter. They were fed very little food (maggots were given to them when food rations were down), and were malnourished and suffered bouts of diarrhoea, as well as bouts of insanity. To pass the time they would share fantasies of large meals they would eat when (or if) they would be released.
Because of these elements, Rescue Dawn can be a drawn out and tormenting watch. Yet the exotic Thailand location (captured magnificently by cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger), and Herzog’s no nonsense approach to Dieter’s story assures a fascinating viewing experience.