Christian Bale stars as Lt. Dieter Dengler in director Werner (Aguirre, the Wrath of God) Herzog’s true to life account of his capture, escape and rescue from a Laotian prisoner of war camp during the infancy of the Vietnam War. Ever since he was a young boy, Dengler wanted nothing more than to fly airplanes and jumps at the chance to join the American Air Force. During a top secret bombing mission, he is shot down and is captured by Viet Cong soldiers. He is tied up, dragged behind a bull, hung upside down with an ant’s nest tied to his head, and nearly drowned before being thrown into a POW camp. Dengler thinks escape will be easy since the prison is made from nothing more than bamboo, but his cellmate (Steve Zahn) tells him, “The jungle is the real prison.” That doesn’t discourage him though and after he successfully escapes into the jungle, he must contend with such perils as mudslides, waterfalls and leeches before eventually being rescued by US troops.
Bale is excellent in the lead and yet again lost a ton of weight for the role of the malnourished Dengler. His scenes with Zahn in the jungle are quite good and they have quite a rapport with one another (even AFTER Zahn dies). Jeremy (Saving Private Ryan) Davies doesn’t fare nearly as well as the wild eyed prisoner who tries to sabotage their escape. With his long stringy hair and dingy beard, it seems like he’s still playing Charles Manson from that Helter Skelter remake and his character is fairly annoying.
Although it moves at a deliberate pace (like most of Herzog’s work), once Bale escapes, it really starts to cook. My favorite scenes though happen early in the film when the naive army pilots play Mystery Science Theater while watching poorly produced training films. It isn’t perfect, but any fans of Bale or Herzog owe it to themselves to check this one out. Herzog covered this same material ten years earlier with the documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly.