We Were Soldiers

Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) knew from the beginning that his mission in Vietnam was next to impossible. First one-third of his men are taken away from him. Then his Calvary unit is renamed the 7th, the same unit that General Custer led into battle and to slaughter.


Moore knew his men would be strangers in a strange land, and vowed that he would be the first one in and the last one out, and that no man, living or dead, would be left behind.

Noble sentiments, played for every wave of the flag possible by writer-director Randall Wallace, whose attempt to mix history and Hollywood turns “We Were Soldiers” into an old-fashioned war film with modern sensibilities. It’s not always the perfect blend, but for the most part Wallace gets it right.

“We Were Soldiers” wasn’t the film that I was expecting. I found myself contemplating about what was left in and taken out, and why. Is it wrong to diss a movie because it didn’t live up to my expectations, especially if the story being told is as close to the truth as the filmmakers could make it?

Told with the utmost resolve, “We Were Soldiers” is also the victim of bad timing. It’s graphic battle scenes, filled with crimson pools of blood and sinew, seem overly familiar after “Saving Private Ryan” and “Black Hawn Down.”

That’s a shame, because no one should ever be able to look at the horrors of war without flinching. Wallace makes an earnest attempt at mixing chaos and civility, but every time “We Were Soldiers” leaves the battlefield, it steps on an emotional landmine.

What Randall is trying to do, and at times he succeeds, is put a human face on the Vietnam War. He has assembled a terrific cast to tell the story of the men of the 7th Airborne Calvary, whose first mission in Vietnam was to take Ia Drang, nicknamed the Valley of Death. Outnumbered 10-to-1, Moore and his men face insurmountable odds to defeat an enemy who not only has the home court advantage, but is virtually invisible.

That sentiment is raised over and again, especially when Moore realizes that due to the lack of helicopters and distance to the landing zone, the first wave of soldiers will be virtually stranded. Indeed, the moment they land, the barrage of bullets and blood is constant, and occasionally Wallace and his screen magicians show us some horrible images were have never seen before.

On the home front, Moore’s wife Julie (an exceptional Madeline Stowe) rallies the wives, and even volunteers to deliver the dreaded “we regret to inform you” telegrams to the widows. “We Were Soldiers” isn’t so much a history lesson as a lesson on how defiant the human spirit can be. On both fronts we get to watch characters rise to the occasion.

After “Gallipoli,” “The Patriot” and “Braveheart,” Gibson is no stranger to the battlefield. His performance as Moore is one of his best. Gibson commands the screen, playing a hard working, honest, decent and loving soldier, husband and father with complete conviction. Even when he’s forced to say some of the film’s worst dialogue, we hang on his every word. Gibson’s Moore is the kind of person you would want to lead you into battle.

Sam Elliott is outstanding as Sgt. Major Basil Plumley, whose no-nonsense demeanor both on and off the battlefield make him a force to be reckoned with. We laugh as Plumley coarsely dismisses a friendly greeting, but there’s nothing remotely funny about him. Elliott plays Plumley by the book, a real soldier with real concerns for his men. He’s tough because that’s his job.

Chris Klein perfectly embodies the wholesome, almost angelic spirit of Lt. Jack Geoghegan, whose wife Barbara (Keri Russell of “Felicity”) has just given birth to their first child. “We Were Soldiers” takes place in 1964, and Klein looks like someone who just stepped out of a more innocent time.

There’s also great spirit in Greg Kinnear’s Maj. Bruce Campbell, a helicopter pilot who undergoes a radical transformation during the course of the three-day battle, and Barry Pepper’s Joe Galloway, a photojournalist who is forced to drop his camera and pick up a weapon when the battle escalates. Simbi Khali is heartbreaking as one of the wives who receives a telegram. Khali leaves you in tears as she valiantly tries to deny the news.

Wallace has a tendency to stack the cards against certain characters, leaving no doubt as to their fates. There’s very little subtlety in his script, which works both for and against the film. His attempt to put a human face on all sides of the war he spreads the film thin. You appreciate the effort, but it makes no sense to humanize an enemy like the Vietcong. They were far from fighting a noble war.

“We Were Soldiers” isn’t a great film, but it is an honorable attempt. With some minor trimming (Moore’s homecoming stops the film dead in its tracks) “We Were Soldiers” could have been the film I was hoping for.

SECOND OPINION I.M.D.B.

INTO THE VOID We Were Soldiers captures horrors and clich├ęs of war

WE WERE SOLDIERS

Mel Gibson, Madeline Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Chris Klein, Sam Elliott, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper. Directed by Randall Wallace. Rated R. 138 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $5.00



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