Reality ‘rescues’ war film

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Fact-based war movies don’t seem to be much of a draw these days. Not that the mass audience has sworn off firefights. It just feels more comfortable with overblown violence in fanciful circumstances.

A gallant episode from World War II was admirably re-enacted in John Dahl’s “The Great Raid,” but it met a negligible response in theatrical release two years ago. So the commercial prospects for “Rescue Dawn,” an escape melodrama starring Christian Bale as a U.S. Navy pilot shot down and captured in Laos in an early stage of the Vietnam War, would appear slight on any given weekend, not to mention one overshadowed by the competition of a new Harry Potter spectacle.

Nevertheless, “Rescue Dawn” possesses some stirring attributes and evocative cinematic distinction, beginning with a curious pedigree. In several respects it’s a fictionalized reprise of a 10-year-old documentary feature, “Little Dieter Needs to Fly.” Both movies were directed by the German-born mythomaniac Werner Herzog, now a Los Angeles resident and a venerable fixture of the independent movie culture. The films celebrate another expatriate countryman, the late Lt. Dieter Dengler, who emigrated to the United States at the age of 18 and eventually became a carrier-based fighter pilot.

Shot down during a clandestine mission over Laos in 1966, Lt. Dengler survived captivity and was rescued about six months later following a successful escape from a prison camp. The subject himself was still very much alive when “Little Dieter” was made. His vivid and sometimes breathless recollections are the center of attention, whether at home in Marin County or retracing his wartime ordeal with Mr. Herzog’s crew and assorted Laotian or Thai extras in tow. Some of the extras were engaged to simulate Lt. Dengler’s bygone captors.

An epilogue to the DVD version of the movie accounts for Lt. Dengler’s death early in 2001 and his burial at Arlington National Cemetery. There are even brief glimpses of a widow and son who aren’t mentioned in the body of the film. Although he remains a fascinating and eloquent camera subject, Lt. Dengler is also a hostage to the propensities of Mr. Herzog, a quixotic documentarian at best. Seldom constrained by a strict regard for factual truth, the filmmaker prefers to exaggerate selected elements of whatever story attracts his curiosity, sympathy and intrusive vanity.

As a rule, Mr. Herzog acknowledges embellishments or fabrications when interviewed. For example, he took credit for the eccentric behavior attributed to Lt. Dengler when filmed entering a fog-shrouded house near Mount Tamalpais. Ostensibly, it’s the Dengler residence, but we watch him unlocking and opening his front door repeatedly upon arrival. He explains that this ritual grew out of a special appreciation for freedom.

On the contrary, it was a superfluous poetic or human-interest “touch” added at the director’s suggestion. The proliferation of such touches have the potential for undermining a reasonable assurance of authenticity. Should we also doubt the moment when the lieutenant reveals his stash of food staples hidden beneath the floorboards? Maybe this diverting carryover from captivity is also too eccentric to be credible.

I also have doubts about a hallucinatory image Lt. Dengler ascribes to the final hours of his escape — the sudden appearance of his father, a Wehrmacht soldier whom he barely knew and who didn’t survive World War II. This ghostly figure points the fugitive in a particular direction while he’s exhausted and lost in the forest. There’s a variant in “Rescue Dawn” that seems more plausible and effective: Christian Bale’s Dengler imagines the phantom reappearance of his ill-fated comrade Duane Martin, played by Steve Zahn, who has been recently hacked to death in an encounter with hostile villagers.

I’d rest easier if the account in “Little Dieter Needs to Fly” incorporated a visit to the surviving parents or loved ones of Mr. Martin, a captive Air Force pilot when Lt. Dengler became a fellow POW. It helps that a reunion is arranged with Gene Dietrick, the retired Navy pilot who spotted Lt. Dengler from an observation plane and orchestrated his subsequent rescue by helicopter. On the other hand, would Mr. Herzog find it unthinkable to fabricate such a reunion? Probably not.

The title appears to be coined by the subject himself, when recalling a boyhood epiphany — the astonishing and thrilling appearance of an American pilot streaking by his bedroom window in a P-51 with the canopy of the cockpit rolled back. From that moment, according to Lt. Dengler, he wanted to be a military pilot — an occupation foreclosed to West Germans when he was in his teens. It took some perseverance to get his wings as a naturalized American — he spent one hitch in the Air Force and needed a college education before he qualified as a naval aviation candidate.

Evidently, both Mr. Herzog and Lt. Dengler envisioned the Dieter story as the subject for a fictionalized biopic. When that project stalled, the documentary profile became a practical Plan B. It’s difficult to detect a lessening of emotional commitment in “Rescue Dawn,” and the casting of Mr. Bale gives Mr. Herzog an exceptionally evocative highlight when the star re-enacts the “little Dieter” reverie. It echoes the indelible impression left by his own debut role as Jim Ballard in “Empire of the Sun” — a flight-infatuated British boy who idolizes Japanese pilots at the time of the capture of Shanghai in 1941.

Years later, as a resourceful teenage inmate at a prison camp, Jim’s frenzied ardor shifts to the Mustang pilots who strafe a nearby airfield as a preamble to the end of the war. In an expressive sense, “Rescue Dawn” justifies itself by arranging for Christian Bale to embody the affinities between Jim Ballard and Dieter Dengler. It’s a movie that also makes it easier for me to think kindly of Mr. Herzog in what appears to be a mellowing phase of his checkered and sometimes maddening career. He’s become some kind of incorrigible and slippery eminence. It probably helped to meet face-to-face, on the occasion of “Grizzly Man,” and to watch him parody his own reputation as a troublemaking nut case in Zak Penn’s “Incident at Loch Ness,” perhaps the jolliest bogus documentary of recent years.

TITLE: “Little Dieter Needs to Fly”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Adult subject matter, involving recollections of military combat and captivity in a prison camp)

CREDITS: Produced, directed and narrated by Werner Herzog. Cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger.

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