For a simple-minded film, which is what it is, "We Were Soldiers" manages to evoke a complex series of reactions. It both frustrates with its unrelenting sentimentality and impresses with the overwhelming physicality of its combat sequences. These in turn are so powerful they take on a life of their own, sending a message that is probably quite opposite to the one the filmmakers intended.
"We Were Soldiers" is the first Vietnam War film with amnesia. It stars Mel Gibson as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who in 1965 took on 2,000 of the enemy with but 400 of his own men in the first major battle between North Vietnamese regulars and American troops. It's the first film to pretend that the national soul-searching the war caused--not to mention the conflict-laden films from "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now" through "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July" it inspired--simply never happened. Intent on celebrating the undeniable heroism of American fighting men and taking advantage of the fact that the battle in the Ia Drang Valley took place before the war was on most Americans' radars, "We Were Soldiers" deftly sidesteps the messy question of why we were in Vietnam in the first place in favor of giving deserving soldiers the old-fashioned heroic warrior treatment. This is a film where men next door to death say, "Tell my wife I love her" and "I'm glad I could die for my country." Irony may not be dead nationwide, but it certainly is here.
In this, "Soldiers," written and directed by Randall Wallace from the book Moore wrote with journalist Joseph L. Galloway, is smarter than the Vietnam film it most resembles, John Wayne's 1968 "The Green Berets." While that film is crippled by its determination to showcase the plight of the plucky South Vietnamese and demonize the evil North, "Soldiers" goes out of its way to paint the North Vietnamese officers and men as equally heroic individuals who just happened to be on the wrong side of the fence.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating genuine heroism and it's hard to argue with Moore and Galloway's point, made in their book, that not enough people were "sensitive enough to differentiate between the war and the soldiers who were ordered to fight it." But this film's sincere brand of retro revisionism and depoliticization is going too far in the opposite direction, and Wallace's wholehearted embracing of the extremes of corniness in the film's noncombat sequences are certainly nothing to applaud.
After a prologue showing French troops having their own troubles in the Ia Drang Valley in 1954, "Soldiers" shifts forward a decade to Ft. Benning, Ga., where Moore, assisted by leathery Sgt. Major Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott) is a central figure in preparing junior officers for the new air cavalry style of warfare that makes extensive use of helicopters.
It's unfortunate that Wallace, who wrote Gibson's "Braveheart" as well as the recent "Pearl Harbor," has such an irrepressible passion for sappy situations and dialogue. The gee-whiz soldierly camaraderie he fondly depicts gets rapidly tiresome, as do the scenes of Moore's idealized family life with wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe) and five of just the cutest kids, including a little girl who winsomely asks, "Daddy, what's a war?"
Even in these situations, star Gibson is very much a strength, bringing the requisite air of quiet command to one of the most effective of his recent roles. Tough, brainy, charismatic, someone who's as much a father to younger officers like Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear) and Jack Geoghegan and his wife (Chris Klein and Keri Russell) as to his own children, Gibson's Moore is a kind of John Wayne for the new century, a man so indomitable it makes you wonder how the North Vietnamese managed to win the war.
Except for an unhappy sequence of wives back home dealing with death announcement telegrams, "We Were Soldiers" becomes a very different film once the men go into combat and find themselves trapped and outnumbered like another 7th Cavalry, George Armstrong Custer's, a century earlier. If not for the eventual presence of reporter-photographer Galloway ("Saving Private Ryan's" Barry Pepper), this story would probably have been even more unknown than it is.
The film's sentiments may be retrograde, but "Soldiers'" savage action sequences, most impressively shot by Dean Semler using anywhere from four to 11 cameras, are indelible, even as part of us is saying, "Oh no, not another state-of-the-art battle film." There has been a lot of memorable combat footage over the last several years, from "Private Ryan" to the current "Black Hawk Down," but the way Wallace and Semler have shot the multi-day battle that takes up most of "We Were Soldiers'" screen time makes it stand out.
Wallace's idea was not necessarily to be as brilliantly artistic as, for instance, Ridley Scott and cinematographer Slawomir Idziak were in "Black Hawk" but rather to create, as he told American Cinematographer, "a document of the battle taking place before us." As a result, the combat in "We Were Soldiers" has a brutal, savage, unrelenting quality, with enough of the blood, the screaming and the life-and-death chaos of hand-to-hand combat to make the terror on the soldiers' faces more than believable. A sequence of one soldier trying to cut the burning parts off a comrade's face that's been seared by a white phosphorous round is exactly as harrowing as it sounds.
As the battle goes on and more and more innocent young men are cut down without a prayer, "We Were Soldiers" undercuts its avowed aims and becomes, paradoxically, less and less the "tribute to the nobility and uncommon valor of those men under fire" the press notes say it wants to be and more like the classic antiwar films "Paths of Glory" and "All Quiet on the Western Front."
Heroism and courage are not the words that come to mind after witnessing what we see here but rather slaughter and terrible waste. We feel the pointlessness of these deaths, the awful devastation on both sides. Especially because we cannot forget what this film prefers to avoid knowing, that bravery and self-sacrifice without a reason are not cause for celebration but rather one of the saddest, one of the most regrettable of human activities.
MPAA rating: R, for sustained sequences of graphic war violence and language. Times guidelines: The level of blood and savagery is extremely difficult to watch.
'We Were Soldiers'
Mel Gibson...Lt. Col. Hal Moore
Madeleine Stowe...Julie Moore
Greg Kinnear...Maj. Bruce Crandall
Sam Elliott...Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley
Chris Klein...2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan
Keri Russell...Barbara Geoghegan
Barry Pepper...Joe Galloway
Paramount Pictures and Icon Productions present an Icon/Wheelhouse Entertainment production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Randall Wallace. Producers Bruce Davey, Stephen McEveety, Randall Wallace. Executive producers Jim Lemley, Arne L. Schmidt. Screenplay Randall Wallace, based on the book "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young" by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway. Cinematographer Dean Semler. Editor William Hoy. Costumes Michael T. Boyd. Music Nick Glennie-Smith. Production design Tom Sanders. Art director Kevin Kavanaugh. Set decorator Gary Fettis. Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times