We Were Soldiers

| March 20, 2002

After September 11, war movies appear to have several added dimensions. We Were Soldiers is the second of two major war movies released this year, (Black Hawk Down was released several weeks earlier). Both of these films are based on best-selling non-fiction books about specific battles involving American soldiers in foreign lands. Both of these films are grounded in technical realism married to an accurate portrayal of historical events. Another cinematic message seems to be a purposeful desire to impart the character of the American serviceman to an U.S. audience that is increasingly disconnected from their all-volunteer military. We Were Soldiers succeeds eminently in making all of these statements.
We Were Soldiers is based on the book, We Were Soldiers Once and Young: Ia Drang, The Battle that changed the War in Vietnam. The on-scene commander, Lieutenant General Harold Moore and the lone journalist present, Joseph Galloway, penned this renowned account in 1993. The film details their eyewitness story of the three day battle when 400 troops from the U.S. Army airborne 1st Division of the 7th cavalry engaged over 1200 North Vietnam Army regulars in the central highlands of Vietnam. The savage battle that raged for three days was the first clash of arms between the U.S. Army and N.V.A. regulars. As history recorded, what should have been a seminal lesson for the United States about the true nature of the Vietnam War was subsequently ignored by the national leadership structure with tragic consequences.
The screenplay adaptation is faithful to the book and eschews most of the stereotypical wartime characters and situations. Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore is presented as a professional Army officer who works at his craft through the application of lessons learned from past battles by the French in Indochina and Custer at the Little Big Horn. His obsession for leadership by example and caring for his men–“I will be the first on the ground and the last to leave”–would seem trite if it were not so credible. Moore is a religious, honorable family man who is a pure warrior nonetheless.
The film uniquely presents the battle from the strategic perspective of the North Vietnamese as well as the U.S. Army. As the battle rages for three days, the NVA Commander and Moore are shown pitting tactical wits against one another in a titanic battle of wills. Men from both sides are thrown into the van and they strive mightily to perform the tasks that they were trained to do while adjusting to an ever-changing situation. The film’s awesome special effects of death on the battlefield, napalm air strikes, helicopters under fire, etc. are both stunning and horrifying. While the violence is not gratuitous, this is a film concerning lethal combat and is not appropriate for viewing by young kids. One minor quibble I had was with the Georgia locations that do not look anything like the Vietnam highlands; patches of weeds and poplar trees are a mediocre substitute for Southeast Asian canopy and elephant grass.
The abject failure of the U.S. political and military leaders in prosecuting the Vietnam War is addressed, but not belabored. In one instance, Moore complains to his Commanding General that LBJ did not declare a national emergency to extend draftee service. This militarily obtuse decision caused Moore to lose a third of his trained soldiers just before deploying to Vietnam. Another scene shows Moore refusing to leave his men on the battlefield when ordered during the middle of a firefight to fly to Saigon and personally brief General Westmoreland! These true-life instances underscore the repeated tactical and strategic failures by the U.S in Vietnam during the next decade.
Mel Gibson is omnipresent in this film as Lieutenant Colonel Harold Moore. Gibson came across as caring, tough-minded, heroic, religious and genuine. He is an experienced actor who can effectively project these attributes without too many cliches. His face, seemingly forever young, is now etched with character This performance was a stretch beyond the typical starring role for Gibson and he manages to pull it off rather nicely.
Madeline Stowe does not quite keep pace with Gibson as Moore’s wife. With straight hair extending to mid back amid striking glamour, Stowe simply does not look or project the part of a career Army officer’s wife with five children. She is an earnest, accomplished actress who manages to bring off her important scenes with credibility. The incredibly insensitive 1965 U.S. Army death notification procedure for the wives of the dead soldiers, using a taxi driver to drop off “we regret to inform you” telegrams were as shocking as it was accurate. Stowe, displaying exceptional grace under pressure, takes on the grim task of personally notifying the next of kin, giving this sequence the underplaying that it deserves.
The supporting actors meld seamless into the unfolding drama. Sam Elliott is near perfect as Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, Moore’s senior enlisted counterpart. Elliott’s grizzled visage and guttural one-liners exude the ultimate combat grunt’s perspective. Greg Kinnear does a nice turn as the ace helicopter pilot, Major “Snakeshit” Crandall. After his notable performance in The Gift Kinnear continues to build credibility as a serious actor. Barry Pepper is an earnest Joe Galloway with Chris Klein and Keri Russell turning in stellar bookend performances as a young officer and his wife that bond with the older Moore’s.
Producer/Director Randall Wallace, fresh from last year’s Pearl Harbor, wrote the screenplay adapted from Moore and Galloway’s book. Some of the inspirational dialogue starts to wear thin near the end, but the film is so powerful that is doesn’t matter. Nick Glennie-Smith’s haunting theme accentuates many of the setpiece scenes: I noticed several people in the audience removing and wiping their glasses several times. This is an emotional film.
War generally and the Vietnam War especially remains a visceral wound for some and is fraught with great emotion and debate for many. This film will settle none of those arguments. We Were Soldiers is a well-made film about some particular men in a particular battle that took place 37 years ago. The men who died should never be forgotten and this movie lends credit to their sacrifice.

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