We Were Soldiers
© 2002-2010 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.

      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
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
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

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