"Death didn't want me," Dieter Dengler used to say about the incredible ordeal he endured during the early days of our involvement in Vietnam. A German-born U.S. Navy pilot, Dengler was shot down somewhere over Laos on a secret bombing mission in 1966, and the following six months, thanks to Werner Herzog, have become one of our great tales of survival, up there with Robinson Crusoe and Castaway. Refusing to bail out, Dengler somehow survived the plane crash, but he was soon captured by the Pathet Lao, who stuck him in a prison camp deep in the jungle. And escape wasn't an option, since the jungle was the real prison. But escape Dengler did, with a fellow POW under his wing. And thus began a journey to freedom that makes Survivor look like a walk in the park and Fear Factor look like dinner at a four-star restaurant.
We've become so comfy, in our air-conditioned living rooms, that TV reality shows have had to remind us how much worse things could be. But Herzog, who's devoted his entire career to cracking the thin veneer of ice we call civilization, doesn't just remind us, he plops us down in the middle of the jungle, with nothing but our wits to help us find our way back out. It's only later that you realize he's used crane shots and background music, for Rescue Dawn feels like the real thing, thanks in part to the lush terrain, which closes in on you like a python's jaws, and also to Christian Bale's strangely buoyant performance. Indulging in another of his weight-loss routines (in The Machinist, he got down to nothing), Bale may run the risk of confusing acting with dieting, but he totally captures that weird quality that goes by the name of heroism.
Herzog's already made one movie about Dengler, a documentary called Little Dieter Needs to Fly, and if you think Bale is strangely buoyant, try Little Dieter. Recalling what happened to him from the vantage point of three decades later, he makes it all sound like a boy's own adventure, complete with rafts over waterfalls and bonfires to capture the attention of choppers passing overhead. But Dengler's journey to Southeast Asia was so much more torturous than that, including lots of torture. And so it's all the more amazing when he describes those days as if he were talking about someone else - Rambo, perhaps. And even more amazing when Herzog shows a film clip of Dengler meeting with the press, soon after his rescue, and he's all smiles, in his freshly pressed Navy whites. What is it with people like this? Don't they ever say die?
Herzog doesn't try to answer that question, just poses it, as he has done so many times before, most recently in Grizzly Man, his documentary about a guy who thought he could live with bears, only to find out that he could do it only if their lunch was already taken care of. But what combination of idealism and downright stupidity got him to think he could in the first place? Courage is a funny word in the rogue's gallery (both factual and fictional) that Herzog has compiled over the years. Along its edges, it starts to blend into insanity. And even Dengler's fellow POWs, in Rescue Dawn, can't believe it when he tells them he first decided he wanted to fly when the U.S. bomber pilot strafing his house during World War II came so close that Little Dieter could practically give him a high-five. Such childhood innocence belongs in a Spielberg movie.
Empire of the Sun, perhaps, which starred the young Christian Bale as a kid who couldn't get over the romance of fighter planes even as they were firing on him. To its credit, >Rescue Dawn has few reminders of, say, >The Bridge Over the River Kwai. And there's little sentimentality as Bale's Dengler settles in for what he insists won't be a long stay at the Laotian equivalent of the Hanoi Hilton. Ongoing guests include a couple of Americans who are well into their second year of captivity, and one of them (Jeremy Davies, doing Charles Manson) has gone a little mad while the other (Steve Zahn) has gotten that faraway look in his eyes. Dengler wastes no time plotting his escape, a plan that may not have the greatness of Steve McQueen's in The Great Escape but that, with a little luck - okay, an enormous amount of luck - just might work.
Then again, it could all go to hell in a hurry. Herzog has a way of playing down the climactic moments; they always seem to arrive a moment too early or a moment too late. And much of the movie consists of waiting around for something to happen. But that only increases the tension, keeps you on the edge of your seat. Like so many survivor's tales, Rescue Dawn is only about survival. The Vietnam War, which you might expect it to be about, hasn't even started yet. And Dieter, despite an immigrant's commitment to the American Dream (while being held prisoner, he refused to sign a statement denouncing his adopted country), seems almost like a man without a country - an enigmatic hero, a heroic enigma, perhaps immortal. In fact, when he died in 2001, after four more plane crashes as a test pilot, it must have amazed him that death finally expressed an interest.