Even though it has been more than 25 years since the last U.S. troops left Vietnam, the scars of that conflict remain. Akin to the War Between the States, the undeclared war in Southeast Asia divided America. The men and women who went into battle, who were essentially doing their duty, returned to find a land in upheaval. They were heroes who did not receive a welcome. Unlike during the Second World War, Hollywood was slow to react to the Vietnam War and when it did the results ranged from John Wayne leading The Green Berets in 1968 to the fervent anti-war documentary Hearts and Minds in 1974. After the American involvement ended, film makers were willing to tackle the subject, often by attempting to politicize aspects. The late 1970s saw a flurry of well-received works (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Coming Home) and the 80s brought efforts by Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July), Stanley Kubrick (Full Metal Jacket) and Brian De Palma (Casualties of War). Most of those films took a slightly cynical view toward the soldiers; the characters portrayed were arguably more anti-heroic than heroic.
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Randall Wallace (Braveheart) first read the book We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young while on a plane trip and, struck by its tribute to the heroism of men on the battlefield, was determined to adapt it as a movie. While the books authors, Lt. General Hal Moore (ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway were reluctant, Wallace persevered and won them over. The resultant movie, We Were Soldiers, arrived in theaters at a time when Americans were once again coming to grips with how to define a hero and watching as sons and daughters, fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters were heading off to fight in a foreign land. Just as Black Hawk Down did, this film taps into the Zeitgeist and presents a fictionalized (albeit fact-based) presentation of the carnage of the battlefield and the bravery of men in combat.
Wallace opens with a prologue set in 1954 as French troops are massacred. It is one of the screenwriter's numerous uses of foreshadowing. While some might argue it bogs down the story, in fact, the opening sequence brilliantly sets the stage for the action to come. As a director, Wallace doesn't shy away from using graphic, sometimes unwatchable violence. The action then skips about a decade later and focuses on Lt. Col. Harold 'Hal' Moore (Mel Gibson), family man and career militarist. Gibson infuses the character with a streak of decency and humanity. Moore is not like other military leaders; he is the first on and the last off the battlefield. He respects the men serving with him and as such commands the loyalty of his men. Gibson does a nice job of showing the various facets of the man, from loving parent to playful spouse to battle strategist. Once the audience has met Moore and some of his men, the film shifts to the confrontation in the Ia Drang Valley that served as the first major skirmish between U.S. and North Vietnamese soldiers.
There's perhaps some irony to the fact that Moore was placed in charge of the First Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry, which as noted in the film, was the regiment commanded by General George Armstrong Custer. Indeed, Moore found himself greatly outnumbered, leading just under 400 men into a battle with over 2000 North Vietnamese. The brutal and bloody battle is portrayed for the remainder of the film. Although Wallace clearly intends for the audience to develop respect for the men who fought in Vietnam, there is a contemporary resonance that is unavoidable since September 11, 2001 and the deployment of troops to Afghanistan. And to that end, he succeeds.
By their nature, war films don't really allow for detailed character development of the supporting players and just as in Black Hawk Down, there are innumerable young actors working hard who will go unheralded since they don't have a great deal of screen time. The few characters on whom Wallace has chosen to focus are a mixed bunch. There's the grizzled veteran (Sam Elliott), the cocksure helicopter pilot (Greg Kinnear) and the earnest recruit (Chris Klein). Barry Pepper shows up about half-way through as UPI reporter Joe Galloway, who ends up becoming a part of the battle he was there to cover.
What is somewhat less effective is Wallace's use of a device he employed in his script for Pearl Harbor, that is, showing the North Vietnamese leader (Don Duong) studying maps and issuing commands. Whether it was an attempt to humanize the faceless enemy or not, it doesn't quite work, particularly as Wallace uses the same device more effectively to depict the effects of the battle on those at home. In a very moving sequence (whose chronology one might quibble over), Moore's wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe) takes charge of delivering the telegrams to her neighbors at the Army base who have been left widows.
We Were Soldiers has much to admire (including Dean Semler's cinematography, William Hoy's fine editing, and the percussive score by Nick Glennie-Smith), but it also feels a bit padded and overlong, particularly in some of the battle scenes. Still, the film does manage to make its point about heroism and bravery and achieves it in a respectful manner
Rating: B Running time: 137 mins. MPAA Rating: R for sustained sequences of graphic war violence, and for language