Confirming his status as one of the most gifted young actors of his generation, Welsh wonder Christian Bale delivers another sterling performance as the lead actor in this real-life prisoner-of-war drama from acclaimed German director Werner Herzog.

Re-telling the remarkable story of Vietnam POW Dieter Dengler, Herzog's film covers the German-American US fighter pilot's capture and his death-defying escape from a remote prison camp.

The crux of the story is as follows: Dengler, a US fighter pilot born in Germany, is shot down while on a covert mission in Laos on the eve of the Vietnam War.

Captured and tortured, he is given the chance of mercy if he signs a document condemning his adopted country. He refuses and is sent to a remote POW camp in the jungle where he meets four other captives. Two of those prisoners are Duane Martin (Zahn) and Gene DeBruin (Davies).

Driven and with a spirit that seemingly can't be dampened, he immediately plans his escape, much to the initial disbelief of his fellow inmates who have been psychologically and physically downtrodden. 

The subject matter is one which Herzog is keenly familiar with having first brought Dengler to the screen in his 1997 documentary, 'Little Dieter Needs to Fly'.

Herzog's long-time obsession with insanity and the way it plays upon its subjects is also as evident here as it is in his previous works, notably 'Fitzcarraldo'.

Like his 1982 award-winning film, Herzog delicately demonstrates how his subjects begin to stray across the line of insanity, with Bale, Zahn and Davies superb in conveying that subtle switch as their time in captivity progresses.

Bale is particularly believable, playing the now deceased Dengler as a positive and upbeat figure whose face constantly bares a mischievous grin.

Such a portrayal prompts the audience to question weather this is part of Dengler's personality or if he is descending to madness – a query which often arises in amateur diagnoses of the mildly insane.

As the film progresses, Herzog's movie bares a flavour of previous war movies such as 'Papillion' and 'The Great Escape'. Though the eventual outcome is known, the film is excellently paced and - critically - is hallmarked by the aforementioned exemplary performances from Zahn and Bale.

Bale's acting ability is, by this stage, no secret, and so it is Zahn who proves the real find. Previously best known as a goofy comic actor with bit-parts in 'Suburbia' and 'Reality Bites', the 40-year-old was a surprise choice for such a gritty and dramatic role. Herzog's decision to cast him as Duane Martin has, however, proved inspired, with Zahn bringing great depth to the character and, along with Bale, extracting a real sense of platonic love between men trapped in the most debilitating circumstances.

The film comes in for criticism, however, on two levels. Firstly, its 'All-American' conclusion belies the subtlety that Herzog weaves prior to its concluding 10 minutes and secondly, Herzog tends to portray the natives of Laos and Vietnam with little sympathy. Rather they serve mostly as background to Dengler's story.

Herzog too has come in for much condemnation from the family of Gene DeBruin - who is portrayed in the film as untrustworthy and deranged.

This, needless to say, is a depiction his relatives are dismissive of. In support of DeBruin's memory they have set up a website pointing out a number of other inaccuracies in Herzog's work, many of which are backed by the real-life accounts of Dengler and his fellow escapee, Pisidhi Indradat.

One would assume however that, given his knowledge of Dengler's life, Herzog was all too aware of such inaccuracies and merely took such liberties on behalf of constructing an engaging and entering movie.

In all 'Rescue Dawn' is a well-crafted, well-acted and well-directed movie, backed by an emotive soundtrack from Klaus Badelt and a remarkable true-life story. Certainly it's one of the better films to be released in 2008, and undoubtedly one of the better war movies of recent years.

Steve Cummins