Rescue Dawn Nearly Landed Christian Bale In A Thailand Jail

Werner Herzog's 2006 survival film "Rescue Dawn" was the Hollywood version of his own 1997 documentary film "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." Both films tell the story of Dieter Dengler, a German pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War, captured and imprisoned (and starved and tortured), only to eventually escape. In the documentary film, Herzog brought Dengler back to the very Laotian and Thai jungles where he was held captive in order to retrace his steps. "Rescue Dawn," in which Christian Bale played Dengler, shot in jungles as well (also in Thailand), and large portions of the film are devoted to Bale and his co-stars trekking through the real jungles. 

"Rescue Dawn" is one of the "bigger" movies in Herzog's canon. Bale was one of the biggest movie stars at the time having just appeared in the hit film "Batman Begins," and the authenticity-forward filmmaker actually employed CGI special effects for the first time in his career; in order to capture a plane in flight, Herzog had one animated. Perhaps to ensure a sense of danger, the film's plane crash was 100% authentic. Also to add to the authenticity, Herzog asked his cast to lose weight to look as if they had been starved. Herzog shot the starvation scenes first and the cast would slowly gain their weight back over the course of the shoot, with Herzog shooting as they bulked back up to normal. 

Herzog, thanks to his work with the notorious Klaus Kinski, had something of a reputation for having a temper on set (although, if you know anything about Kinski, Herzog is the model of patience). But in a 2012 interview with GQ, Bale expressed no trepidation. His mind, he says, was plenty occupied with other risks, including running afoul of the local authorities. Indeed, Herzog, he said, was something of a kindred spirit. 

'The mind has enough to chew over'

"Rescue Dawn" was not a relaxing, comfortable shoot, by design, and Bale didn't need to distract himself on set: "When you're sitting in the [Thai] jungle surrounded by snakes and armed guards, the mind has enough to chew over."

When asked if he was hesitant about shooting with Herzog in the jungles — a reasonable question, given the notoriety of the production of Herzog's 1983 film "Fitzcarraldo" — Bale says he was not afraid of the jungles, nor of Herzog's grumpiness. In fact, Bale tried to outdo a lot of Herzog's requests: 

"Not at all. In fact, I relished the opportunity. If anything, I wanted to see more of that legendary temper: Bring on the crazy. I do think of Werner as a kindred spirit and I love so much of what he strives for. He can be the kindest of souls and then the most cantankerous man you've ever come across. There was never a dull moment. The thing with Werner is that he won't be outdone by anyone else, especially not his lead actor. On set he would be diving into rock pools, crawling headfirst over rapids; all entirely unnecessary. But we enjoyed trying to outdo one another."

Herzog once notoriously said that the world is starved for new images, alluding to the steady media diet first started by the popularity of television (and certainly now exacerbated by phones and the internet), and he's further stressed that visual media desperately lacks originality and authenticity. If one is going to use a camera, try to make something new. As such, Herzog would push and push and push. Himself, his crew, his actors, the very medium.

'I loved the toxicity'

When asked if working with that constant pushing created a "toxic" working environment, Bale pointed out that, even if it did, it was something he enjoyed. Even when the shoot was interrupted by Thai cops with machine guns, Bale was exhilarated: 

"It depends who you talk to. Some people might have thought of it that way, but personally I loved it. If it was toxic, then I loved the toxicity, it didn't affect me in any way. I was laughing my ass off most of the time. We had half the crew quit at one point. One day we had these heavies with machine guns turn up, dragging people off to court and threatening crew members with jail time ... In the middle of all this chaos we were trying to make this wonderful movie. Walking barefoot through the jungle for hours on end, people cutting themselves, covered in band aids or cuts held together with Sellotape — I had a terrific time."

Just as Herzog is a wholly committed director, Bale is a wholly committed actor, and he has starved himself for roles (both "Rescue Dawn" and "The Machinist" required he be whip thin), and bulked up (he gained a lot of muscle mass for both "American Psycho" and "Batman Begins"). 

Perhaps surprisingly, the two haven't worked together since. Herzog has continued to make challenging movies firmly outside the mainstream, while Bale, still an enormous movie star who will appear in blockbusters, will still occasionally act in intimate dramas and soulful indies. 

Bale's last film was "Ford vs. Ferrari." His next film will be "Thor: Love and Thunder." Herzog's last fictional film was "Family Romance, LLC" from 2019. His next film will be whatever he wants.