It is not often that an actor, even one as accomplished as Steve Zahn, gets an opportunity to work with a legendary filmmaker like Werner Herzog. But that was hardly the only factor that made “Rescue Dawn,” Herzog’s harrowing account of Navy airman Dieter Dengler’s experiences as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, such an appealing prospect for the 39-year-old Minnesota native.
“I’m a nonfiction, military history fan, so I’d seen ‘Little Dieter Needs to Fly’ numerous times before,” says Zahn. “It’s a movie that I’d give to friends as a gift and take on planes. It’s a comfort film for me. So when I heard it was going to be made into a feature, I really jumped at it.”
“Little Dieter,” Herzog’s 1997 documentary about Dengler, his crash landing in the Laotian jungle and his daring escape from a barbaric prison camp, was the director’s first attempt at chronicling the life of a man who, though born and raised in Germany, became a highly decorated American war hero. Yet Herzog wasn’t content to stop there.
Always envisioning Dengler’s story as an epic adventure involving a genuine flesh-and-blood superman, he tirelessly pushed his script for “Rescue Dawn,” searching for a studio willing to finance the movie.
But even with a talent-heavy cast featuring Zahn (“Sahara,” “Saving Silverman”) as a POW and “Batman Begins” star Christian Bale as Dengler, it was a long uphill battle that almost ended in surrender — until MGM bought the film’s distribution rights and decided, after months of deliberation, to release it, perhaps as an antidote of sorts to summertime flash like “Transformers.”
“After ‘Sahara,’ I did seven movies, and six of them haven’t come out,” says Zahn. “One ofthem wasn’t that good, but that’s really the only one. When a movie like ‘Rescue Dawn’ has been on the shelf for two years, people just assume it sucks. It was this low-budget indie movie shot in Thailand, and once the studio bought it, who knew what was going to happen? I sat on my farm and I just wigged out, thinking it was never going to be released.”
Although Zahn understands that independent films are rarely treated as priorities by major studios, he feels relieved and vindicated by the warm reception “Rescue Dawn” has received from critics. It’s further proof, he believes, that his faith in the project, and in Herzog, was never misplaced.
“I went after this movie wholeheartedly,” he says. “I’ve gone after things before that I really wanted, and that’s always the kiss of death — if you love something, you’re not going to get it. But I had to.”