In the movies of Werner Herzog , there is man and there's the jungle, and the jungle almost always wins. The great German director's filmography is full of images of civilization's uphill fight against chaos -- the boat going over the mountain in "Fitzcarraldo " -- and of nature's calm, violent regaining of the upper hand. Somedays you eat the bear; in "Grizzly Man " the bear eats you. The rain-forest foliage swallows Dona Inez in "Aguirre: The Wrath of God " like an amoeba reclaiming a part of itself.
In the grueling and brilliant "Rescue Dawn ," Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale ) is nearly eaten by that same Herzogian jungle, this time in the wartime mountains of Laos. A US Navy pilot downed in 1966, Dengler endures six months of POW torture and a brutal barefoot trek to freedom before emerging from the wilderness. But is it Dengler who emerges, or somebody altered beyond recognition?
The movie drops us in the middle of the tale without setup. We learn that Dieter escaped a childhood in post-World War II Germany to come to America and fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot, that he was part of LBJ's secret bombing of Viet Cong outposts in Laos. Herzog isn't interested in politics, though, but in man's misguided belief in his own omnipotence. Dengler crashes during his first mission, and thereafter the movie remains at a distance, recording what amounts to a test-case in survival.
Captured by the enemy, he's gruesomely toyed with for a few days -- hung upside down with an ant nest tied to his head, dragged behind a water buffalo for several miles -- and then tossed in a bamboo prison enclosure with others. Duane (Steve Zahn ) and Gene (Jeremy Davies ) are American GIs who've been POWs for several years; they're human ragdolls made of flesh, bone, and pinwheeling eyes. Dieter takes one look at them and starts plotting his escape.
Indeed, Bale plays the role with startling brio. It's the latest weirdly vivid performance by this shape-shifter of an actor, and while his weight-loss in "Rescue" is almost a match for "The Machinist ," that's beside the point. (Anyway, next to the skeletal Davies, everyone looks well-fed.) Bale's Dengler is arrogant by nature -- an easygoing jock whose swagger announces he's invincible. Herzog wants to know exactly what it takes to grind this kind of man back to zero.
The director has literally been here before. Herzog's fine 1997 documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly " let the real Dengler (who died of Lou Gehrig's disease in 2001 ) take audiences through his horrific memories firsthand. His descriptions of hallucinations he suffered during the final phases of his ordeal have a surreal visual majesty that would attract any other filmmaker, but Herzog surprisingly doesn't take the bait.
Instead, "Rescue Dawn" concerns itself with strength and companionship in the face of the void. Zahn effectively restarts his career here, exchanging his indie-film party-dude persona for that of a gentle, childlike wraith. Duane is everything Dieter is afraid will happen to him, and yet the bond between the two men becomes painfully touching the closer they stumble to freedom. (Davies' Gene has effectively opted out by this point.) Toward the end, they're fused: two hearts, four feet, one rubber sole, one soul. We've moved beyond camaraderie, beyond love, into the elemental.
The question remains: Why would Herzog want to dramatize what he has already captured as nonfiction? To better control the material, I think, and to bring it in line with his own obsessions. The results have a strange double-focus: Those coming to "Rescue Dawn" cold will probably accept it as a straightforward, even predictable account of POW suffering, and they'll hang on Bale's muscular portrayal of a man who refuses to say die.
Herzog fans, by contrast, stand to find an unexpected career summary: an overpowering man-vs . -nature story in which both sides fight each other to a deceptive standstill. In the end, Dieter is absorbed by the relentless greenery of Laos -- there's a shot of his face in the foliage that could come straight from "Aguirre" -- only to find his way back to civilization and the cheers of his fellow pilots.
He stands on the deck of his aircraft carrier and is asked to say a few words, but the speech comes out strange and oblique: a Zen koan baffling to anyone who hasn't experienced what he has. We get it, though. Dieter Dengler came out of the jungle, but the jungle never came out of him.