In the atypical war movies Ten Canoes and Rescue Dawn, nature is ever-present as witness, as accessory, as enemy. The ostensibly primitive people in Ten Canoes, a marvelous Aboriginal fable directed by Rolf de Heer and set a millennium ago, connect their existence and their spirituality to the land. The hero of Werner Herzog's gripping P.O.W. escape movie Rescue Dawn, set 40 years ago in southeast Asia, finds it a tougher challenge surviving the jungle than surmounting his captors.
As I watched both films, I couldn't get Terence Malick's vision of man's impact on the environment out of my head. That surprised me, frankly, for I'm not a fan of his World War II flick, The Thin Red Line, or his John Smith-Pocahontas epic, The New World. Malick gives us a lot of shots of flora and fauna in those movies, not as eye candy but to show us what will soon become "collateral damage" in the battle for democracy or the march of progress. Nature is not a remote concept in those films but a vital life force, with full and equal claim to the planet.
In Ten Canoes, nature functions as balance itself. The film casts itself as a story within a story within a story, gently pulling us back through time to a world without machines. An elder of the tribe, aware that a young buck covets one of his wives, relates a long cautionary tale about the adverse effects of jealousy on a previous Aborigine. That otherwise fine fellow mistakenly blamed a mysterious stranger for his wife's disappearance; he then committed an unprovoked and unnecessary act of violence that, in accordance with the laws of society, boomeranged on him.
One could read Ten Canoes as a metaphor for George W. Bush's rash invasion of Iraq, and the pointless loss of life it precipitated. But the film is so steeped in Aboriginal culture, so authentic to its place and its period, that I don't think that's what the filmmakers intended. Its lessons are universal, and are intended for anyone who would let ego, self-righteousness and anger coalesce into violence. If that's not you, Ten Canoes is still well worth seeing for its gracefulness, patience and enveloping cinematography of swamps and grasslands.
Werner Herzog has never been a political filmmaker; he favors the dreams and will of the individual over the compromise and consensus of institutions and groups. That's a problem with Rescue Dawn, which is otherwise of a piece with his enormous oeuvre. Based on actual events, the film recounts the nightmare adventure of Dieter Dengler, a German-born, American-trained Navy pilot who was shot down on his very first mission -- the secret bombing of Laos. (Herzog originally told the story in the 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly.)
Dengler (Christian Bale) is captured and tortured, then thrown in a rudimentary outdoor prison with a handful of other American and Vietnamese prisoners. (They are played by, among others, the reliably deranged Jeremy Davies and Steve Zahn.) Dengler is the only one obsessed with escaping, and at the end of the movie he is apparently the only one who survives. Once free in the uncaring and unending jungle, Dengler is hopelessly out of place and overmatched, and yet somehow he perseveres.
Herzog clearly admires Dengler, and aims to impress us with the man's extraordinary determination and good humor. But the director never addresses the broader context -- Dengler was participating in a covert, illegal mission -- nor does he acknowledge the climate in which Rescue Dawn now opens, namely the ongoing occupation of Iraq.
Rescue Dawn ends with a big 'ol soppy reunion on the deck of Dengler's ship, capped by a smiling freeze-frame that would have been considered over-the-top in a '60s John Wayne picture. It's a jarring, jingoistic finale that left a bad taste in my mouth. Is Herzog that oblivious? Or does the contrarian in him refuse to make an unambiguous anti-war picture at the precise moment we expect one? Or is it simple tunnel vision, whereby he invites us to celebrate one man's determination, express our support for the brave, order-following soldiers and pay no mind to the presidents and the advisors and the generals who treat them as pawns?
Or perhaps, in this one respect, the unsentimental Herzog is mimicking nature. Nature doesn't care about presidents and generals, global strategies and political contexts. As Jefferson Airplane sang on one of the lesser-known cuts on Volunteers, "Say it plainly/The human name/Doesn't mean shit to a tree."
Ten Canoes and Rescue Dawn open Friday, July 13, 2007.