Survival tale that is worth telling again

Man's battle to survive the unforgiving forces of nature, and to survive the interior forces that lead to obsession and madness - these are themes running through most, if not all, of Werner Herzog's work. And in the gripping true-life saga Rescue Dawn, they are visited again.

Here, the director of Grizzly Man and Fitzcarraldo has recruited the scarily good, and once again scarily emaciated, Christian Bale (see The Machinist) to play Dieter Dengler. A German-born U.S. fighter pilot shot down over Laos during a secret bombing mission in the early days of the Vietnam War, Dengler was captured, tortured and tossed into a compound run by the Viet Cong. Almost immediately, he starts planning his escape. Never mind that the other American POWs there, like Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), say it can't be done.

Wasting away on a diet of water and rice, physically and psychologically brutalized, the prisoners have retreated into crazed, frayed mind-sets. And after months in the camp, Dengler - a starry-eyed flyboy who loves America, and who had wanted to be a pilot since his days as a kid watching the Allied planes shelling his town - shows signs of losing it, too.

But he doesn't. Ultimately, the breakout is pulled off.

What happens next, as Dieter and company slash their way through death-grip jungle foliage, braving the elements, fleeing the enemy, and struggling to find food, is the heart of this astonishingly powerful tale. And it is all the more powerful for the way Herzog tells it: without the usual Hollywood tools of multi-angle camera shots, pumped-up music cues, hackneyed dialogue. This is a lean, mean, expert piece of filmmaking. The adventure is epic, the approach minimalist.

Bale is extraordinary, grinning like a kid, displaying wily intelligence, sinewy resolve and spirit - and a bit of craziness, too. Zahn, an actor customarily relegated to comic sidekick status, brings a raw, quivering intensity to his role: Bearded and gaunt, he looks like some forgotten hermit, a figure from the Old Testament, sent into the wilderness to be tested by God.

Herzog has literally told this story before: 10 years ago, in his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly, the real Dengler recounts his amazing tale of escape and rescue. At one point he says, "I don't think of myself as a hero. No, only dead people are heroes."

If Rescue Dawn isn't about heroism, then it's about something deeper, more primitive: survival instinct.

Rescue Dawn ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Produced by Elton Brand, Harry Knapp and Steve Marlton, written and directed by Werner Herzog, photography by Peter Zeitlinger, music by Klaus Badelt. Distributed by MGM Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 6 mins.

Dieter Dengler. . . Christian Bale

Duane. . . Steve Zahn

Gene. . . Jeremy Davies

Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, physical hardship, adult themes)

Playing at: Ritz Five, AMC Neshaminy and Showcase at Ritz Center/NJ

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@philly Read his recent work at