Rumble in the jungle
Film begs the question: Who’s crazier, Werner Herzog or Dieter Dengler?
Apparently, wildman German director Werner Herzog remains really, really impressed with former Vietnam-era POW Dieter Dengler. One would think that he’d have gotten enough mileage out of the man’s story with the 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, which filled in the background of a little German boy who watched his city “blown to ashes” by Allied bombers and was so impressed that he grew up, joined the American Navy as a flyer.
Of course, that might explain his appeal to Herzog, who remains one of the more perplexing (as in the suspicion that the man is flat-out nuts) filmmakers in cinema. With equally loopy actor Klaus Kinski, Herzog made a handful of films where the process was more intriguing than the films.
Opening in the early days of the Vietnam conflict, Rescue Dawn has little Dieter (Christian Bale) setting off on his first bombing run, laying down a swathe of mayhem before he flies too close to one of his own exploding Easter eggs, promptly shearing off one of his wings. Stubbornly refusing to bail from his damaged plane, Dengler is tossed free from the wreckage and darts off on a brief flight from some very pissed-off villagers. After being quickly captured, he refuses a chance to sign a waiver against his capitalist running-dog oppressors and is processed into a jungle prisoner camp, where he gets tortured for the required amount of running time and then thrown into a hut with a handful of other prisoners. Then comes the plotting of the Great Escape, then the Not-So-Great-But-Effective-Escape, and then the rescue.
I’m not giving anything away by saying that Dengler ends up rescued, but in a nutshell that’s pretty much it. Throughout the proceedings, there’s an underlying wonderment as to why this story needed to be told. Dengler isn’t exactly a character who generates empathy, in that he goes from beginning to end with the air of someone who just doesn’t get it.
Especially telling is an early scene in which Dengler orders up his gear from a Navy supply clerk as if the man is a barista being set off to make him a double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon. The look of blank hostility on the seaman’s face: priceless.
Spending more than half of the movie with a cockeyed grin on his face that makes him look eerily like a much younger Eric Idle, Dengler/Bale cruises through the proceeding with a casual air of privilege. Six months of narrative later, he wanders out of the jungle a hundred pounds lighter with the same goofy smile on his face, leading one to wonder: And?