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August 8-14, 2007

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Cult Leader

Herzog vs. Herzog: 'Rescue Dawn,' 'Little Dieter' and the trouble with remakes

By Steve Palopoli

THERE'S SOMETHING just plain wrong with the way we think about remakes. I include myself in this because like most people I go into them with a chip on my shoulder. They are guilty, we have collectively agreed, until proven innocent.

But of what? The most common complaint when people hear about a remake is, "Don't they have any new ideas?" But perhaps a better question is, "Are there any new ideas?" The flaw in our thinking about remakes is that it's predicated on the idea that the nature of storytelling is linear, when we all know that it's circular.

No one resents a theater troupe staging the 15 zillionth production of Hamlet. Writers get the kinder word "retelling," which doesn't have the same stigma attached to it. And in music, cover songs are practically enforced. But in movies, remakes are not OK.

It doesn't have to be like that. Martin Scorsese's The Departed was an epic reimagining of Infernal Affairs, a 2002 Hong Kong film that was only a year old when the remake went into development. A director with a unique vision and something interesting to add to the story doesn't assure a good remake, but David Cronenberg's The Fly and Jonathan Demme's Manchurian Candidate are solid evidence that it helps.

But what if that unique director is also the one who did the original version of the story? That's the case with Rescue Dawn, Werner Herzog's new film based on his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Herzog, one would assume, has a leg up on any other director who'd want to come in and remake his documentay about Dieter Dengler, an American pilot originally from Germany who was shot down over Laos in 1966 during the secret bombing of that country. Indeed, he is much more faithful to Dieter's real story than a Hollywood director would have been.

Herzog doesn't seem to see Rescue Dawn as a remake, but as a companion piece. He says that after Little Dieter, he felt that his work on the story was incomplete, and also that Dengler revealed certain details about his imprisonment only after the first film was completed.

And yet, it's impossible not to compare the two films. Rescue Dawn is gripping in its depiction of jungle imprisonment and escape, but it provides almost no context for the character of Dengler as portrayed by Christian Bale. It reuses stock footage from the documentary, but it doesn't give us any of the insight Dengler provided in the first film about why he was able to endure his ordeal. This is a guy who, as revealed in Little Dieter, had to eat wallpaper as a kid to survive. As a teenager, he was beaten regularly by his blacksmith boss, who he actually shows appreciation for in the documentary, saying he couldn't have survived in Laos without having steeled himself through that abuse. And yet the only background story we get in Rescue Dawn is the one about why and when he knew he needed to fly.

As a result, Bale's Dieter is a cipher. Rescue Dawn, Herzog's first American film, feels bizarrely ... well, American, as it plays out like an action flick. It doesn't have the complex feel of other films in which he's tried to capture what he calls the "ecstatic truth." In fact, it comes perilously close to settling for what he has previously derided as "the accountant's truth."

The ending, too, is shockingly abrupt. Never mind the grating "Mission Accomplished" overtones of the rousing finale, it's the lack of follow-through that seems so out of place in a Herzog film. In the documentary, Dengler says he had a dream while in captivity of a wasteland of junked planes that he believed would reassemble themselves to fly him away. They let him down. But near the end, he reveals that after his rescue he would crawl into airplane cockpits in order to feel safe while he slept. That's just one example of the kind of arc that's missing in Rescue Dawn. It's strange to see a filmmaker who can so easily connect the smallest details to the bigger picture tell such a superficial version of the story.

Whether or not you liked Rescue Dawn, do yourself a favor and see Little Dieter Needs to Fly. It tells the whole ecstatic truth, and nothing but the ecstatic truth.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite weight for Christian Bale here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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