We Were Soldiers
"We Were Soldiers" is the story of one of the first sizable battles in the Vietnam war, as told by the leader of the American troops, Lt. Col. Hal Moore and adapted from his book, "We Were Soldiers Once, and Young." The battle was emblematic of all that was wrong with the American intervention: it violated Von Clausewitz's dictum that one should never start a war "without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to achieve it."
In November of 1965 Moore and his three battalions - about 450 men - were sent into the Central Highlands, into what Moore recognized as a trap but his superiors did not. The film details the three-day battle in which he held off superior numbers of NVA troops, fought them to a standoff, and finally escaped after the loss of 42 of his men - and, with the support of helicopter gunships and a good deal of napalm, almost two thousand North Vietnamese. At the end nothing changed, and nothing was helped or hurt, except that all those soldiers had died. What a war.
The film was written and directed by Randall Wallace, who on the evidence of his other screenplays - "Pearl Harbor," "The Man in the Iron Mask," and "Braveheart" - has never written a believable character in his life; or at least one who exhibits real human traits. And "We Were Soldiers" is no exception. Everyone in the film is either saintly or terminally naïve, and we can start with the saintly Col. Moore, as played by Mel Gibson. This man prays with his children, prays with a young lieutenant, and prays on the field with the wounded and dying around him. You wish he had prayed for a better script, but since his other prayers didn't work out it's unlikely that one more would have helped. As far as Moore's military expertise we're shown him studying the French disaster in Vietnam just ten years before and understanding, as the American military brass did not, just why the French were destroyed.
Gibson delivers his lines with a straight face, but they are nothing but exhortative clichés, and they come close to undermining the very powerful visuals Wallace has staged of the battle itself. Moreover, the film spends an inordinate amount of time in Fort Benning, Georgia, where Moore and his troops trained and where their wives and children stayed. The intention obviously was to show us the impact of death on the families - and the army was evidently criminally callous in notifyng them of those deaths: according to the film, the telegrams were delivered by taxi to each house, with the driver presenting the news. Unfortunately the women are as stereotyped as the men; and so the impact is greatly weakened.
However, the filming of the battle itself shows how the bar has been raised just in the last few years for verismo in war movies. Starting with "Saving Private Ryan" and continuing with "Pearl Harbor," "Black Hawk Down," and now "We Were Soldiers," directors now get up close and very personal with their firepower. Men are shot and blood spurts onto the camera lens. Faces are shot off. We see bullets enter the front and then we see the exit wound in the back. Napalm burns feet off. And so on. As a director Wallace does have a good feel for this kind of action, and uses it effectively.
There is one interesting relationship in the film, and it is between Moore and young Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), a journalist who hitches a ride into the battle site on the second day and records it all. Need we say that he is also the co-author of Moore's autobiography. In the film he tells Moore a wonderful story. Moore has asked him why he's a journalist and not a soldier. Galloway says that he comes from a long line of soldiers, including two great-grandfathers, who each lost a leg fighting on opposite sides in the Civil War. One lost his right leg and the other the left. They met by accident, after the war, in a shoe store in Galveston, Texas, and then by design met each year afterward, in the shoe store, to buy a pair of shoes and take home one shoe each.
It's at moments like that that "We Were Soldiers" comes alive. It also has the decency to acknowledge the validity, the equality, of courage and logic for both sides in the war - rare enough in a Hollywood film - though it neglects to set the war in any kind of context other than military. One other quibble: the Central Highlands look suspiciously like the pine forests of Georgia, where in fact the film was shot. Maybe today's Vietnamese aren't quite that interested in helping make a film about an American-instituted battle that killed so many of their countrymen.