We Were Soldiers

We Were Soldiers
Director: Randall Wallace
Screenplay: Randall Wallace (based on the book We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway)
Stars: Mel Gibson (Lt. Col. Hal Moore), Madeleine Stowe (Julie Moore), Sam Elliott (Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley), Greg Kinnear (Maj. Bruce "Snakeshit" Crandall), Chris Klein (Lt. Jack Geoghegan), Josh Daugherty (Ouelette), Barry Pepper (Joe Galloway), Keri Russell (Barbara Geoghegan), Edwin Morrow (Pvt. Willie Godboldt), Mike White (Sgt. First Class Haffner), Jsu Garcia (Captain Nadal)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2002
Country: USA
We Were Soldiers DVD Cover

If there's one kind of military story American audiences love to see over and over again, it is the tale of the small group of diligent soldiers trapped and outnumbered by the enemy. It's the perfect war narrative because it focuses on the cherished Western conception of the power of the individual while simultaneously allowing for the easy demonization of the enemy because their sheer numbers preclude any sense of differentiating among them. From the numerous retellings of the battle of Alamo, in which 180 Texas fighters were besieged by thousands of Mexican soldiers, to the recent film Black Hawk Down (2001), in which an elite group of American rangers found themselves trapped in the civil-war-torn city of Mogadishu surrounded by thousands of militia fighters, it is a story we have heard again and again, yet it still speaks to our collective unconscious—war is hell, especially when the odds are against you.

Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers tells a similar story with all the violence and fury we have come to expect from modern war movies. However, Wallace's film is set in Vietnam—that most unpopular and incomprehensible of wars—which immediately sets the film on edge. In the last 15 years we have grown accustomed to Vietnam war films as being about skirmishes and booby traps, small platoons moving through muddy jungles and dealing with an unseen enemy that constantly disappears into the civilian population. Wallace takes a different approach in telling the story of the first major military conflict between U.S. soldiers and the Viet Cong, which took place in the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. It lasted three days and resulted in the deaths of dozens of U.S. soldiers and enemy casualties that numbered over 1,000.

Unlike Black Hawk Down, the comparisons to which are inescapable, Wallace is interested in more than the deafening verisimilitude of warfare, which is both his film's strength and its weakness. He centers the story on Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), a veteran of the Korean War and a model soldier in every way. In real life, Moore is probably a great man, but as portrayed in the film, he is a virtual superhero. Upstanding, noble, intelligent, well-read, historically aware, and deeply paternal, Moore stands by his men in the thick of battle and insists on being the first man on the field of battle and the last man off. When the political suits in Saigon try to bring him back in the middle of the fighting for a "debriefing," which is really just an excuse to get him out of the firefight lest they risk losing a senior officer and having to withstand the bad press that would generate, he refuses to leave.

Of course, the fact that he is played by Mel Gibson, who already has an aura of leadership, courage, and savvy battle tactics from his previous roles as 14th-century Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace in Braveheart (1995) and a Revolutionary War guerilla leader in The Patriot (2000), elevates Moore's character that much higher. Wallace wants the film to be about teamwork and camaraderie among a group of young and largely inexperienced soldiers sent to their deaths by an oxymornonic military intelligence, but much of the film turns into a one-man Mel Gibson show. It's not so much Gibson's fault—his performance is solid in just about every respect, even when his character melts into paternal tears for his dead soldier-sons—but his mere presence on the screen tends to detract from all that is around him.

The battle scenes in We Were Soliders are intense and well-directed by Wallace, best known for scripting Braveheart and Pearl Harbor (2001). Wallace based his screenplay on the nonfictional account by Moore and journalist Joe Galloway (played in the film by Barry Pepper), who was right in the thick of things with him. The three-day battle encompasses just about every form of warfare imaginable, from World War II-style rushing the enemy lines, to planes dropping napalm, to tense moments in the night where isolated soldiers lie still in the grass while the enemy hunts for them. Wallace keeps the tension racheted up tight, and he never shies away from the gore of war, which includes not only the endless blood squibs, but also the ghastly horrors of burning napalm (the most sickening moment is when two soldiers try to move a burn victim whose charred skin literally slides off his legs).

When not centering on the battle itself, We Were Soldiers shifts to two other locations. The first is the Army base back home, where Moore's dedicated wife, Julie (Madeleine Stowe), holds down the fort and comforts the other wives, including Barbara Geoghegan (Felicity's Keri Russell), a recent mother and wife of an eager young officer (Chris Klein) to whom Moore feels a particularly paternal urge. It becomes Julie's task to deliver the awful telegrams to new widows whose husbands have been killed in the battle because the military is so unorganized that they were not prepared to deliver such notices, and attempt to do so by using cab drivers rather than chaplains or officers.

There is one particularly awful moment when Julie sees a cab arrive at her house, only to find that the poor driver is looking for directions to another woman's house. We can't blame Julie when she explodes at the man, calling him a "jackass" and berating him for what he has just done to her emotionally. "I don't like my job much," the cab driver says quietly, and in that moment we feel more than any other moment in the film just how devastating war is. The blood and guts of the battle field is horrible—and portrayed horribly with all the best special effects around—but here we see how the fingers of death reach out across the world and affect so many in so many ways. Death is only the beginning of the pain.

In addition to the home front, Wallace also turns his camera's eye to the enemy, giving us scenes inside the military headquarters of the Viet Cong. Partially, this is to allow us to see their commander plotting military strategies in order to foreshadow things to come for the American soldiers. However, it is impossible not to notice that Wallace is making a noble, but utterly clumsy, attempt to humanize the Viet Cong, to remind us that they were human beings, too, fighting for something they believed in. Wallace isolates this in one particular Viet Cong soldier (we can pick him out from the crowds because he's wearing glasses), whose journal and photograph of his wife are taxed into signifying the whole of the enemy's personal and emotional lives. It's too little—so little, in fact, that one begins to wonder why it was even included. The scenes with this soldier are touching and humane, but then the battle scenes erupt, all of which are told strictly from the U.S. point of view, and any sympathy is lost as the Viet Cong become, once again, just a faceless mob of enemy to be killed.

We Were Soldiers DVD

Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
LanguagesEnglish, French
Subtitles English
DistributorParamount Home Video
Release DateAugust 23, 2002

2.35:1 (Anamorphic)
In the making-of featurette included on this disc, several of the filmmakers stress how they didn't want We Were Soldiers to look like a slick, polished Hollywood product, but were rather going after a more straightforward, documentary look with plenty of "dirty frames." The anamorphic transfer replicates the look of the film very well, with a well-detailed image that picks up all the nuances of dirt and smoke and blood, but retains a slight, film-like softness throughout. Colors are outstanding, from the strong greens of the valley foliage to the intense yellows and reds of napalm fire.

English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX, 2.0 Surround
French Dolby 2.0 Surround

The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX soundtrack is simply outstanding. According to the film's sound designer, there are some scenes in which the sound mix features up to 1,000 separate tracks, and you'll believe it after watching this disc. The battle scenes are completely enveloping, with imaging and directionality among the five main speakers giving the palpable sensation of having bullets whizzing by your head and helicopters flying above, while the LFE channel produces a solid level of thundering bass that is enough to shake the floor, but not so much that it drowns out the details in the higher range.

Audio commentary by writer/director Randall Wallace
Writer/director Randall Wallace clearly feels very strongly about We Were Soldiers and isn't afraid to take on his critics in this screen-specific audio commentary. He admits that some may find aspects of the movie sentimental, but he always defends them by going back to Lt. Gen. Moore's book and noting that these were things that "actually happened." The drive for verisimilitude seems to have been what fueled Wallace throughout the film, and he points out numerous details in the commentary and their connection to history that you may not have otherwise known.

"Getting it Right" making-of featurette
As far as making-of featurettes go, this 25-minute look behind the scenes of We Were Soldiers is excellent, if a bit too brief. I wish it had been longer because less than half an hour simply isn't enough time to get a really good look at all the aspects of the filmmaking process. The featurette opens with actual circa-1965 footage of Lt. Gen. Moore and the troops in the Ia Drang Valley and features interview with numerous real-life characters, including Moore and his wife Julie, Maj. Bruce Crandall, and Joe Galloway. There are also interviews with actors Mel Gibson and Greg Kinnear, writer/director Randall Wallace, special effects supervisor Paul Lombardi, military technical advisor Jason Powell, production designer Tom Sanders, make-up supervisor Michael Mills, and composer Nick Glennie-Smith, among many others. The featurette includes plenty of behind-the-scenes footage during principal photography, auditions, the boot camp the actors went through, and make-up and special effects tests. It also shows pictures of the actual Sgt. Maj. Plumley, which shows what a dead ringer Sam Elliott is for him. Presented in 1.33:1.

10 deleted scenes with optional commentary
Included here are 10 deleted scenes, some of which are fairly lengthy, with optional audio commentary by Wallace. Some of the scenes are quite good, and Wallace not surprisingly laments having to cut each one. Presented in nonanamorphic widescreen (2.35:1).

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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