Reality bites

Directors today are reluctant to rough it - so we need Herzog more than never

<strong>Rescue Dawn

Werner Herzog has already made a documentary about the courageous German-born pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down over the Laotian jungle in 1966 while on a top-secret US mission and captured by Pathet Lao soldiers. Now he tells a dramatised version of the same yarn in Rescue Dawn.

The earlier film, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, had the more evocative title, but this is still a highly successful attempt to bring some cool, anthropological distance to a tale that beggars belief. Frankly, I think we need Herzog more than ever right now. In an age when any cinematic spectacle can be simulated with the right computer program, there is something defiant about his process. Directors such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis make synthetic "GM" cinema, dispensing altogether with locations and sets, and inserting the backgrounds later, but Herzog is doggedly organic. If you find yourself asking "Is that for real?" while watching his films, the answer is probably "yes". (I would draw the line at the decapitation scene in Rescue Dawn - but only just.) When the script calls for a hazardous journey to be undertaken, or for a character to undergo some wretched discomfort, you know Herzog and his collaborators have really put themselves through the mill.

In Rescue Dawn, the victim - I mean lead actor - is Christian Bale, and a pluckier performer it would be hard to imagine. He plays Dengler as upstanding and ever so slightly mad, but still able to keep his head while those around him are, literally, losing theirs. There is ample opportunity for Bale to prove how game he is when Dengler is tortured by the Pathet Lao; he is, among other things, dragged through the dirt by a caribou and submerged in a waterlogged hole, which should earn him a special Jackass merit badge. And, after first starving himself for The Machinist and then bulking up for Batman Begins, Bale loses so much weight in the course of Rescue Dawn that he risks disappearing whenever he is in profile.

When Dengler's tormentors run out of new ways to cause him agony, he is consigned to a prison camp, and Bale makes you feel this is the worst punishment of all. He seems to welcome each fresh torture as a challenge (led through a village at gunpoint, he smiles winningly at onlookers), but regards imprisonment as demonstrating an unforgivable lack of imagination. His fellow inmates have already languished there for two years, but soon he is hatching an escape plan.

The film renders Dengler's story of mind-boggling perseverance with a level-headedness bordering on the blasé - and I mean that as a compliment. Herzog doesn't approach narrative cinema any differently from documentary, and in Rescue Dawn he shares with Dengler an ability to meet life's extremes with bluntness, even fascination, rather than the conventional hysteria.

There aren't many artists today who are willing to rough it like he does - in recent times, only Rolf de Heer has done "the full Herzog", living and collaborating with a settlement of Aborigines for last year's delightful Ten Canoes. But when a film-maker is given by nature to introspection and navel-gazing, no amount of travelling is likely to dislodge that tendency. Take the whimsical aesthete Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums), who prepared for his comedy The Darjeeling Limited by travelling across India, mapping out the route that his trio of squabbling brothers (Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman) would take as they search for their estranged mother (Anjelica Huston).

If Anderson had any revelatory experiences on that trip, they are not reflected in this film, which indulges its protagonists' cultural myopia, rather than challenging it. (It is also irritatingly zany and not very funny.) I propose an apprenticeship with Werner Herzog for Anderson and any other directors with creative cabin fever. Think of it as a kind of cinematic National Service to knock the youth of today into shape.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, China