"We are moving into the Valley of the Shadow of death where you will
watch the back of the man next to you, as he will watch yours, and you
won't care what color he is, or by what name he calls God. We are going
into battle against a tough and determined enemy. I can't promise you
that I will bring you all home alive. But this I swear. when we go into
battle, I will be the first to step on the field and I will be the last
to step off. And I will leave no one behind. dead or alive. We will all
come home together." Lt. Col. Hal Moore to his men and their families,
"We Were Soldiers" offers a take on the Vietnam War different that any
previously seen in theaters. Based on the book "We Were Soldiers Once.
And Young" by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway,
the film is set in that hazy period before we became a nation of cynics,
when words like "honor" and "duty" were used without anyone snickering
from the back of the room.
The production dares to be sincere, which will most definitely provoke
some eye rolling, despite all the post Sept. 11 flag waving. The mere
mention of the Vietnam War still angers many citizens, and the notion of
attaching anything noble to the conflict will surely enrage some people.
But "We Were Soldiers" is not about the politics of the Vietnam War;
it's about the tactics and values of a group of soldiers going into the
first major battle between America and North Vietnam.
The film opens by showing the defeat of the French at the hands of the
North Vietnamese. When a N.V. soldier asks an officer if they should
take captives, he is told to kill the men, because "if their government
sees that we take no prisoners, perhaps they will go away."
They do go away, and when America prepares to enter the fray, military
leaders must come up with tactics to avoid suffering the same fate as
the French. The plan they cook up is to use helicopters to drop large
groups of soldiers at a designated point, where they can strike and then
be carried away by the helicopters before the North Vietnam army can
descend from the hills and overwhelm them. The first test of the plan
will come in the Ia Drang Valley, known to the Vietnamese as "The Valley
The first 40 minutes of "We Were Soldiers" sets up the coming battle so
specifically that it is relatively easy to remain oriented during the
mayhem. The first 40 minutes also introduces the military leaders, along
with a few representative soldiers and their spouses.
Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) is the loving husband of Julie (Madeleine Stowe)
and father of a handful of kids. His friend and right-hand man is
Sgt-Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott), a tough-as-nails sort with a
sandpaper voice that spits out some of the few funny lines in the movie.
Under their command are devoted men such as helicopter ace Maj. Bruce
Crandall (Greg Kinnear) and all-American kid Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris
Klein), whose wife Barbara (Keri Russell) is carrying their first child.
Later in the film, we meet Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), a war
photographer forced by circumstance to take up arms.
When the First Battalion of the Seventh Calvary (the same regiment as
Gen. George Armstrong Custer) hit the Ia Drang Valley, a horrific
three-day battle begins, with 400 Americans surrounded by 2,000 enemy
soldiers. Continuing in the tradition of "Saving Private Ryan," the
fighting is depicted in extremely gruesome detail, as it should be.
Periodically, director Randall Wallace cuts to the wives back in the
States, waiting at their enclave near the base. So disorganized was the
government in those early days of war that wives were notified of the
deaths of their husbands not by a military officer or chaplain, but by
the arrival of cabbies bearing Western Union telegrams. Appalled by the
practice, Julie Moore and Barbara Geoghegan arrange for all future
telegrams to be delivered to them, so that they can more appropriately
present the grim news to the other wives.
Wallace also cuts several times to the North Vietnamese army, who are
depicted not as savages or sadists, but merely as other soldiers focused
on doing their jobs. In their book, after honoring their men, Moore and
Galloway state, "This story stands as tribute to the hundreds of young
men of the 320th, 33rd and 66th Regiments of the People's Army of
(North) Vietnam who died by our hand in that place. They, too, fought
and died bravely. They were a worthy enemy. We who killed them pray that
their bones were recovered from that wild, desolate place where we left
them, and taken home for a decent and honorable burial." The film also
affords them the proper respect.
"We Were Soldiers" displays an evenhandedness unlike anything I've ever
seen in a war movie. Well acted across the board, it is both informative
and thoughtful, presenting a pivotal battle with clarity and all of the
people in the middle of it with reverence.
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott