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We Were Soldiers

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: We Were Soldiers

Starring: Mel Gibson, Sam Elliott
Director: Randall Wallace
Rated: R
RunTime: 138 Minutes
Release Date: March 2002
Genres: Action, War

*Also starring: Clark Gregg, Greg Kinnear, Chris Klein, Barry Pepper, Madeleine Stowe, Keri Russell, Dylan Walsh

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

"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, November 1965

"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 of Death."

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

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