I’m not sure which film of the two is most accessible to audiences not used to Herzog. I think Bad Lieutenant might just edge it, that film stars Nic Cage, and we’re used to seeing him go crazy on film – in Bad Lieutenant – the film joins Cage in with craziness, but it’s still a cop film of sorts, with an investigation and pretty straight forward plot, if you can sidestep the break dancing corpses and singing iguanas (don’t sidestep them, embrace them is my advice, go ahead, embrace them…) Bad Lieutenant is actually one of my favourite Herzog films in an odd way.
Rescue Dawn, on the surface also looks pretty straightforward. It’s a Vietnam prisoner of war film, and it stars Christian Bale, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. Bale is method, and he played crazy pretty well in American Psycho, but he’s not Cage crazy, is he?
The film concerns the true story of a pilot, shot down and captured by the Vietcong. He ends up in a prison camp and an escape of sorts is organised. The majority of the film is spent in the camp where the men bicker, worry and starve slowly.
The Great Escape this isn’t. This is prisoners driven insane by hunger, torture and each other. The performances and script are excellent; this is a realistic treatment of men kept in brutal captivity. In many ways it’s a cross between ‘The Killing Fields’, ‘Midnight Express’ and ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoos’ Nest’ but watch carefully, the tone is off from the start, in a ‘normal Hollywood film’ we’d love and admire Bale’s character before he was captured, we don’t, we’re not bothered much, we just observe.
It’s a Hollywood film, but told in Herzog’s own way – he’d already done a documentary on the true story, he knew the actual truth was interesting enough without glamorising or over dramatising.
This may trouble some of the audience, used to having characters easily defined (especially in war films). Herzog, doesn’t romanticize, it can set some people on the wrong foot. But I like it. Being wrong footed is good (even if you’re a dead man break dancing).
The nougties were a good period for Herzog, his most famous film from that decade being the hit documentary Grizzly Man, which is probably one of the most successful documentary films of all time.
I’ve only seen Grizzly Man once, and once was enough. Is it more affecting than say Rescue Dawn and Bad Lieutenant? It depends if the only affect you want is shock and horror? Grizzly Man is a self made and self videotaped tragedy and Herzog bears witness alongside the audience. It’s madness of course, but I prefer the odd dramas, the slightly off key warmth of the made up madness of say, Rescue Dawn and Bad Lieutenant, Grizzly Man is too real, too fucking mental and colder than the other side of the pillow.
Of course, you should watch all three films, but maybe over a few sittings.
Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire, UK Script editor and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer. His UK script coverage service and script development service are highly sought after.
His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller Markham will be released in 2020.