16 July 2007 | WriterDave
One Flew over the Bamboo Hut
For me, Werner Herzog will always be remembered for his haunting 1979 remake of "Nosferatu." Next to the silent-era original, it's probably the greatest artistic statement ever put to film on the myth of the vampire. Apart from that, he's been one of those fascinatingly enigmatic European infant-terrible directors, brazenly going against the studio system and doing whatever he damn well pleases, be it documentaries or bizarre art films. "Rescue Dawn" comes as a huge surprise, and proving that he still does whatever he pleases, is a dramatized version of the true story of Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler that Herzog previously filmed as a documentary in 1997 entitled "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." Masterfully realized, "Rescue Dawn" emerges as Herzog's most accessible film. After over 30 years of film-making, he's gone "Hollywood" but has done it on his own terms.
"Rescue Dawn" features classical and feverishly transcendent direction from Herzog, breathtaking cinematography of Laos and Vietnam from Peter Zeitlinger, a triumphant and evocative music score from Klaus Bedelt, and Oscar-worthy performances from an amazing cast. In the lead role of Dieter, Christian Bale once again puts his whole body into the character (as he did in "The Machinist"). Bale has become one of those rare actors whose every role seems to be the performance of his career. Also noteworthy are Jeremy Davies ("Saving Private Ryan," and "Ravenous") as Eugene from Eugene, Oregon, who seems to always get cast as the most emotionally unstable soldier, and a shockingly good and sympathetic Steve Zahn as Duane. Herzog puts the cast through the ringer in artistically rendered depictions of torture, horror, and survival in the harshest of conditions. Even in some of the most cringe-worthy scenes, Herzog turns what could've been wallowing on its head--witness the fantastic transition from Bale eating live worms and one crawling in his beard to a beautiful caterpillar leisurely making its way across a leaf in the peaceful jungle.
Essentially what we have here is the war-movie version of Milos Foreman's "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" as Herzog depicts a group of average men who were slightly crazy already becoming increasingly more mad through involuntary imprisonment. While Bale's character refuses to be held down and is constantly trying to keep his brain and skills sharp through plotting an escape, some of his fellow prisoners are rendered hopeless as they have turned their own minds into the most impenetrable walls. Herzog does a great job of depicting tiny bits of humanity and dignity shining through in the most inhumane conditions, and how the will to survive can triumph over death. He's somehow crafted a movie that is both boldly anti-establishment and unapologetically pro-soldier and patriotism. Being based on a true story where the ending is known to the viewer doesn't take away from the white-knuckle suspense and human drama. Unlike Foreman's classic from the 1970's, where Jack Nicholson (mirrored here by Bale) flew over the cuckoo's nest and disappeared into his own insanity, Herzog gives up hope. One flew over the bamboo hut...and he made it.