August 01, 2007
Rescue Down: Bale's Tale to Tell
With 2005's Batman Begins, actor Christian Bale established a future benchmark for cinematic superheroes.
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Dark, brooding and dazzling, the Caped Crusader transcended the comic book shenanigans of earlier movie and TV adaptations. As a fully flushed-out protagonist he fought, not only villains, but his own personal demons, fears and conflicts.
His most recent character, Dieter Dengler, in writer/director Werner Herzog's prisoner of war drama Rescue Dawn shares certain similarities to Batman's alter ego Bruce Wayne. Inspired by real life, Dengler was an American Navy pilot captured by the notoriously dangerous Pathet Lao soldiers after his plane crashed over Laos in 1965.
Since the Vietnam War hadn't officially started, bombings in the area were considered "black ops" or top secret. This made the prospect of Dengler and his ragtag buddies – fellow Americans Duane (Steve Zahn), and barely sane "Gene from Eugene" (Jeremy Davies), being rescued virtually non-existent.
Geographically, Dengler hadn't a clue where the camp was located, but he had no intention of sticking around to find out. Instead he hatched an escape plan, the audacity of which shocked fellow prisoners. Making his way into the jungle with Duane, his journey takes him from the bonds of fraternity to the brink of despair. On the shoulders of Bale, it's a journey that won't be forgotten when the Oscars roll around next year.
Herzog had a vested interest in the project. He knew the real Dieter and immortalized his image and story in an acclaimed documentary a decade ago titled Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Despite extensive time and research, Bale didn't have the same luxury. Dengler succumbed to Lou Gehrigs' disease in 2001.
"When playing an actual person, other actors don't like to look at other references of their character, but I actually think it's a good thing. I recorded the documentary and listened to it again and again, but I never got caught up in the notion that I was doing an imitation," the 33-year-old Wales-born, American-reared actor explained.
Although Dengler is probably little more than a footnote in military archives, Bale found the story irresistible. "Dieter came out looking like a hero, but didn't go in looking like that. He was your typical image of a tough guy who was able to endure. His lighthearted attitude, this sort of dorkiness and naiveté ended up being the finest tool in his fiber," he added.
Heralded as one of the "Top Eight Most Powerful Cult Figures of the Past Decade" by Entertainment Weekly, Bale has a propensity to play characters that are tormented. Think American Psycho and The Machinist. His characters also find themselves in stressful situations. Think Reign of Fire and Harsh Times.
So what is the appeal? "It's always fascinating to watch people pushed to the brink. It gets you thinking, how would you fare dealing with that? Each character is a separate choice, but I find myself naturally drawn to people that have done extraordinary things," said the actor, who is married to Sandra "Sibi" Blazic, and the father of a two-year-old daughter.
Filming Rescue Dawn, Bale had to contend with bloody feet from walking barefoot through the brush, a 40-pound weight loss, leeches which he labels "funny little playthings," and hanging upside down with an ant nest strapped to his chest.
"During the torture scenes we were in this fantastic Lao village. When the people saw me dragged behind the oxen some of them tried to save me," the dark-haired, handsome Bale laughed.
"The villagers said through a translator that I should stand up more for myself and not let the crew abuse me. I had to assure them that I was just pretending and it was OK."
Knowing Bale was set to reprise his Caped Crusader role, Herzog agreed to shoot Rescue Dawn in reverse order. Bale had to be ready to properly fill out the Batman costume constructed from 200 individual pieces of rubber, fiberglass, metallic mesh, and nylon, with a new cowl fashioned after a motorcycle helmet. From the prop department came a new toy for The Dark Knight – the Batpod, a motorcycle armed with grappling hooks, cannons and machine guns.
Attempting to diplomatically sidestep specifics, Bale admitted, "We got some new cast members as well as Heath Ledger, who plays the Joker, with Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes, plus the usual suspects behind the camera.
"Plot-wise, we'll have a natural progression continuing where Batman Begins left off. Things are going to get worse for Bruce before they get better."
The Dark Knight is slated for release on July 18, 2008. In the interim Bale can be seen in two upcoming films. The first, director Todd Haynes' I'm Not There finds Bale embodying one aspect of musician Bob Dylan's life.
The other, a western titled 3:10 to Yuma, from director James Mangold, forces Bale to battle wits with Russell Crowe as a small town rancher who holds an outlaw captive until the train arrives to haul him to court.
Pinpointing one characteristic that has enabled Bale to be successful, he cites "optimism." "What's the likelihood of ever succeeding as an actor? It's crazy, and you have to be prepared for ridicule. Dignity can't be high on your list of forces."