***/**** Image A- Sound A+ Extras B
starring Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Sam Elliott, Greg Kinnear
screenplay by Randall Wallace, based on the memoir We Were Soldiers Once...and Young : Ia Drang--The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam by Harold G. Moore, Joseph L. Galloway
directed by Randall Wallace
by Walter Chaw We Were Soldiers is a rousing war epic presented as the world's most gruesome underdog sports intrigue, its carnage--fuelled by a brilliant attention to the decisions made in the heat of battle by a genius-level military mind--at once exploitive and orgasmic in its cathartic effectiveness. Concerning the bloodiest confrontation between the United States and North Vietnam, which took place in the infancy (November 14, 1965) of the doomed police action at LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley, the memoir of the battle We Were Soldiers Once...and Young (by battlefield commander Lt. Col. Hal Moore with war journalist Joseph Galloway) finds its way to the screen with Mel Gibson as Moore and his Braveheart scribe Randall Wallace at the typewriter and behind the camera.
Wallace's strength is his ability to present sentimental macho fairytales in which the men acquire that peculiarly resigned glaze of valour stemming from unimaginable hardship and the women cultivate stiff upper lips. But he has a bad habit of romanticizing moments until they begin to resemble Rosie the Riveter propaganda--heroic wives, for example, stifling tears while clumsily decrying racism in heavily-scored montages, or a shell-shocked war photographer (Barry Pepper as Galloway) fading in and out behind a series of grainy B&W images like a naïf visiting Hell in some Vincente Minnelli musical.
This is not to say that We Were Soldiers is a dishonest film, merely that Wallace's grandiloquent yen to romanticize too often trivializes the very heroism it seeks to memorialize. Emerging unscathed from Wallace's soft touch is Gibson's brutally physical presence, Greg Kinnear's turn as pilot Maj. Bruce Crandall, Sam Elliot's comically virile second-in-command Sgt. Maj. Plumley, and the film's ferocious fighting. We Were Soldiers is very simply the best battlefield-tactic film I've ever seen, save perhaps Gettysburg: Cinematographer Dean Semler's by-turns gruesome and awe-inspiring combat footage has an amazing visceral clarity, comprising battle sequences so expertly choreographed and edited that the strategy that defines the outcome of this conflict comes to focus even in the midst of chaos.
Comparisons of We Were Soldiers to Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down are thus inevitable. Both films are about mistakes of the worst kind: American servicemen killed because of their government's poor planning and over-confidence. Each details surprise missions in wars never defined as wars, ending with the needless massacre of hundreds-into-thousands of the enemy and dozens of our highly trained foot soldiers. And neither--in my mind and despite the ardent desire of publicists and Wallace to make them so--are particularly patriotic in the strict sense of the word. The United States government is as much an enemy to the individual warrior in these movies as the enemy itself; in our prelapsarian naïveté (if I can be so bold as to describe the period prior to the attacks on the United States on September 11th as a kind of paradise), the idea of patriotism was one embodied in the individual who loves his country despite his government's carelessness with his life.
These films suggest that a new, truer patriotism arises from the embrace of the ideals represented by the founding principles of one's nation while dismissing the imperfect execution of them. Their very explicitness (and We Were Soldiers pushes the boundaries of movie gore) might be an indicator not of a simplistic Spielbergian "war is hell," but of a far more complicated "no atrocity will stay the execution of our duty to our ideals." As Moore eulogizes at one point over a fallen youngster: "He died defending my promise." Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers are, above all things, about the inviolate sanctity of a word on paper, in thought, and in deed--the mantric repetition of "leave no man behind" in the former, and the slow-motion demonstration of Moore's vow to be first in and last out eloquently convey that thought.
What are essentially films examining the courage and sacrifice of individuals forced to rely upon one another's word when betrayed by their government are now discussed in terms of invincible military might and unassailable aggressive right. The great irony and the great danger of all of this revisionism (even if, or especially if, it is only perpetuated in the mind of the viewer) is that this attitude represents the hubris that instigated the boondoggles of Mogadishu and Ia Drang in the first place. The road to hell is paved with the abandonment of our best ideals to the intoxicating call of manifest bloodlust. Once you wade through the grandiloquent postures and misguided advertising, that's exactly the kind of cautionary tale the heroism of the men remembered in Black Hawk Down and We Were Soldiers represents. Originally published: March 1, 2002.
by Bill Chambers The war film has to have upended the sci-fi by now as the genre most likely to sound great on DVD. In a Paramount menu first, the We Were Soldiers disc actually lists its audio as being in "Dolby Digital 5.1 EX," and though I don't currently have EX capabilities, I can tell you that this mix inspires awe in standard DD 5.1. The film plays its cards close to its vest in the French-massacre prologue, but once the Americans land in 'Nam, you the listener are treated to a rather harrowing, rafters-threatening approximation of the average battlefield, the best since Saving Private Ryan. (To go right for the gusto, check out chapter 15, "Broken Arrow"--but be warned that it's a difficult scene to watch, as are the majority of We Were Soldiers' combat sequences.) The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen video transfer starts out on the grainy side but even at that features superior saturation and shadow detail; the grittiness of the image actually lightens up after the men are unleashed onto the Vietnamese Highlands, a point at which one would expect the roughness to intensify.
Paramount appears to have abandoned trailers altogether but the disc does contain bonus material. In the marginally satisfying "We Were Soldiers: Getting it Right" (26 mins.), produced by Icon (Gibson's company), every key member of the production is interviewed about their devotion and individual attention to historical accuracy, with proud remarks from the alive-and-well Hal Moore bookending the piece. (Moore ends by saying, "Hate war, but love the American warrior. [Hollywood] finally got it right.") A selection of ten deleted scenes with optional commentary from writer-director Randall Wallace includes more footage of the wives back home and a semi-chilling coda in which Moore warns presidential aide Robert McNamara that the victory at Ia Drang will only redouble the efforts of the Vietnamese. (Wallace cut it because the movie is not overtly political.) Finally, Wallace contributes a strong full-length commentary track for We Were Soldiers itself that finds him addressing critics of the film's hackneyed dialogue ("Too bad the [real-life] dying soldiers couldn't come up with something clever and dramatic") and revealing which of the doomed extras is his own son. Originally published: August 18, 2002.