WAR!♫ HURRHH!♫ GOOD GOD!♫ WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR? Making movies for one thing. We Were Soldiers is the latest in the resurgence in war movies resulting from the success of Saving Private Ryan. The new wave of war films always seem to have audiences slap bang in the middle of the violent action but allow for honour and acts of heroism to shine through from the carnage. We Were Soldiers is no exception. It is also the directorial debut for Randall Wallace, the screenwriter of Braveheart, and like Braveheart he manages to keep the human aspects key to We Were Soldiers while still throwing blood and carnage at us.
Based on events that took place in Southeast Asia in 1965, We Were Soldiers tells the true story of Lieutenant Colonel Harold G. Moore as he led his 400 troops against the 2000 strong force of the North Vietnamese Army during the Ia Drang Valley conflict, one of the first and most bloody conflicts of the Vietnam war.
The film starts with a massacre of French troops in the Ia Drang Valley (known also as the Valley of Death ironically) around 1957. We then move Stateside to 1965 where Moore is assigned command of the First Battalion of the Seventh Air Cavalry unit. His right hand man, Sergeant Major Basil Plumley (ever dependable Sam Elliot - minus his normally huge moustache) is one grumpy fellow, but the kind of guy you want with you in battle. Others under his command are Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan (Chris Kline) and chopper pilot Major Bruce 'Snake Shit' Crandall (Greg Kinnear).
After spending time with his men it is clear that Moore has the respect of his men and that his discipline in the ranks outweighs everything else except for the tenderness he shows at home. His wife, Julie (Madeldine Stowe) and his children are the centre of his world. However, before long we are whisked away to the horrors that await Moore and his men in Vietnam. Once in the Ia Drang Valley and under attack from all side by the North Vietnamese Army, the landing zone is too hot for Crandall to bring in reinforcements so it left to Moore and Plumley to keep their men alive for 24 hours. Unfortunately with some men split from the main group and being pinned down it's a task that is easier said than done. Bullets and blood fly and bodies (from both sides) litter the battlefield, while back in the USA the women are left, dreading each day might bring them a telegram telling them about their husbands death.
In all honesty, We Were Soldiers has no real defined plot to show, i.e. Saving Private Ryan had a definite goal that everyone was trying to achieve; save Ryan. We Were Soldiers shows us the events but it basically has men going to Vietnam, fighting and then coming back (well, some of them). Moore had his instructions, which were to investigate the NVA activity in the Ia Drang Valley, that's about it. It doesn't really matter though because the primary purpose of the film is to show what really happened in both Vietnam and to the wives back in the States.
The individual acts of heroism are evident and the action is superb, yet much more horrifying than seen before. This is definitely not for the squeamish; with a misdirected napalm strike being some of the most gruesome injuries ever filmed. We Were Soldiers doesn't have the slow-shutter photography of Saving Private Ryan, or the ultra fast paced cutting techniques of Black Hawk Down, but this leads to a much clearer film. Sometimes it gets confusing, not the who's shooting who confusion of other war films but things like, locations. The men separated from the main group seem as if they are just a few hundred feet away.
Tension is cranked up to the maximum when the battles lull during the night, especially one night-time encounter for the stranded men. Also another good aspect of the film is that they portray the Vietnamese troops as humans and not the faceless enemy, for example one Vietnamese soldier carries his girlfriends picture in his diary and the Vietnamese Commander Lt Gen Nguyen Hau Ahn (Don Duong) silently contemplates as he stares at the moon is vastly more effective than any 'preachy' type message of all soldiers are men and have the same feelings regardless of which side their on.
Performance wise, Gibson is in a relatively low profile role, not regaling his troops with inspirational speeches and posturing (ala Braveheart), but with a kind word and a decisive command to individuals instead. He seems to be everywhere. Sam Elliot is great and has some of the best lines. Chris Kline is unfortunately awful and very miscast (too softly spoken) and as a result is totally forgettable - he was good in American Pie because the role suited him, here he is totally unconvincing as a soldier let alone a Lieutenant in command of others. Barry Pepper who plays Joseph Galloway, a war journalist, who appears halfway through the film, is excellent. He shows us the insanity and horror of war through his camera. In fact the book which the film is based on 'We Were Soldiers Once....And Young' was penned by Galloway and Moore together after the war.
Director Randall Wallace has really done a great job showing us the story with little dialogue and shows us the horrors that faced the men in Vietnam and a very different horror that faced the women back in the USA. There are times when the film is gruelling to watch and times when it is exciting. It has another parallel with Braveheart, a classic sign of a good film - it's a lot longer than it seems!
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