We Were Soldiers

Black Hawk Down recently offered a violent and realistic look at the horrors of war and a tribute to the bravery displayed by those who wage it, using images painted with compelling style by director Ridley Scott. Now another film also attempts to depict heroic acts during a brutal military engagement in America’s recent past. In We Were Soldiers writer/director Randall Wallace makes much the same points as Scott, but in sledgehammer-simplistic fashion, piling on the Technicolor carnage and employing just about every stock war film cliche imaginable. The comparison is unavoidable and We Were Soldiers proves inferior on virtually every count.

On November 14th 1965, 400 soldiers of the U.S. 7th Cavalry under the command of Lt. Col. Hal Moore were airlifted by helicopter into a small clearing in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley, known locally as "The Valley of Death." They were immediately surrounded by more than 2,000 North Vietnamese troops, and over four days of intense combat 234 Americans died, more than were killed in any regiment at the Battle of Gettysburg and far more than the total casualties suffered during the entire Persian Gulf War. The first major encounter between the U.S. and North Vietnam, Ia Drang was a dress rehearsal of new strategies and tactics and a prelude of even greater carnage to come.

In adapting Moore’s 1993 account (We Were Soldiers Once…and Young) of the Ia Drang campaign to the screen, Wallace made several choices, and botched each of them. He focused on individual personalities rather than presenting (as Scott did in BHD) the 7th cavalry as a collection of Everymen. But the characters are written and performed as a rote roster of war movie stereotypes – ranging from a baby-faced lieutenant (Chris Klein) with a young wife and newborn daughter, to a brash hotshot chopper pilot (Greg Kinnear), to a craggy old Sgt. Major (Sam Elliot) continually barking venom and kicking ass. Moore (Mel Gibson, spouting a generic aw shucks Southin’ drawl) is painted as near-perfect, shown as a devoted father, loving husband and ultimate field commander, vowing to be the first man to set foot on the battlefield and the last one to leave it. But since all the characters are drawn as either standards or saints they’re difficult to identify with, and the time spent on introducing them only slows the film’s already too leisurely pace.

Wallace attempts to place the Ia Drang campaign in a larger context but manages only to sketchily introduce several potentially interesting issues before hastily discarding them. Moore tells his troops that they’re going to Vietnam to fight "a new kind of war" – but never explains (beyond the 7th Calvary using helicopters instead of horses) what that might mean. Moore studies the 1954 French Indochina campaign and notes the numerous reasons why it failed – but then does little to avoid the same pitfalls himself. These are glaring flaws, either in Moore’s leadership or the film’s narrative structure. If the former, they deserved to be examined further; if the latter, they should have been excised. During the heat of battle, Wallace tries to bring some order to the chaos by occasionally superimposing timestamps and location names onscreen, but since a map or diagram that might supply an overall perspective is never shown, cryptic notations like "The Knoll" and "Dry Creek Bed" offer no enlightenment.

Most of the time Wallace directs as if he personally got paid for every special effects squib used, showing literally hundreds of bullet/human impacts, each with a slow-motion spatter of blood. Cinematographer Dean Semler intermittently supplies some striking images, such as a chilling nighttime sequence where overhead flares suddenly reveal North Vietnamese troops stealthily encroaching on the US lines. But all too many scenes appear to have been lifted whole from classic war films or Saturday afternoon westerns, where the good guys are the only ones that can shoot straight and the bad guys always die flailing and screaming. And whenever the action slows, Wallace just segues to another barrage of bullets thudding into bodies. This is not likely what Sam Peckinpah had in mind.

The most effective scenes are the simplest, depicting the quiet moments between battlefield skirmishes, and those on the home front, where Moore’s wife (Madeline Stowe) takes on the painful duty of personally delivering casualty telegrams to newly-minted widows. The film concludes with a short coda containing a Political Science primer outlining the eventual ramifications of the Ia Drang action and some pious platitudes about Honor and Service and Valor intoned over stirring martial music. Ia Drang was a significant event in American history, where U.S. military policy was changed and real people died real deaths. Wallace somehow manages to trivialize these events, and allotting five final minutes for sentiment and contemplation doesn’t compensate for the excesses of the previous ninety, where We Were Soldiers portrays the gore of war more than a little too lovingly and repetitively.

– Bob Aulert