WE WERE SOLDIERS, written and directed by Randall Wallace, the writer of
BRAVEHEART, is the movie that the overpraised BLACK HAWK DOWN should have
been. Both tell true stories of a battle, but, whereas BLACK HAWK DOWN
de-emphasized the human element in favor of Jerry Bruckheimer's favorite
pyrotechnic sizzle, WE WERE SOLDIERS is filled with flesh-and-blood soldiers
whose deaths will break your heart. Although it is set during the Vietnam
War, the movie has a power and a realism that calls to mind SAVING PRIVATE
RYAN. From the "telegram" scenes back home to its simple but extremely
effective ending, WE WERE SOLDIERS can easily reduce you to tears, as it did
me. Relying on realism and never manipulation to makes its devastating
emotional impact, the movie rings as true as the death of a loved one.
The story concerns the first major battle of the Vietnam War between the
regular North Vietnam Army (NVA) and the American army. Outgunned 4,000 to
395, our soldiers fought and died like flies, as did the soldiers of the
NVA, which the director is careful to show as being just as human as our
side. Most long, complex battles are hard to follow, but Wallace works hard
to make it as comprehensible as possible and succeeds handsomely.
For forty-five minutes before the movie shifts to Vietnam, we get to meet
and know the soldiers of the 7th Air Cavalry, which will use helicopters
instead of horses to get to the battle. The Lt. Colonel in charge of the
unit, Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), is troubled by the number. The army has
assigned him the same number as General Custer's ill-fated unit. He thinks
frequently of how Custer was massacred and worries that the number is a bad
Gibson, who is generally much better as an explosive, lone wolf, turns in an
impressive performance as a brave commander whose first loyalty is to his
troops. Even better is Sam Elliott, who steals the show as the Colonel's
right-hand man, Sgt-Maj. Basil Plumley. It's too bad that the Academy's
memory rarely lasts back to the beginning of the year since Elliott clearly
deserves a supporting Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a funny but
tougher-than-nails career soldier. Even commenting on the weather to the
Sgt-Maj. can get a man in serious trouble.
No sooner has the Air Cav gotten to Vietnam than they are thrown into the
fires of hell -- a mountain headquarters with the aforementioned 4,000 North
Vietnamese troops. The body of the movie concerns the multi-day battle
between the two forces with the Air Cav trapped on the ground, surrounded
and vastly outnumbered by the NVA.
Other members of the good cast include Greg Kinnear as Maj. Bruce
'Snakeshit' Crandall, the brave, lead helicopter pilot, and Chris Klein as
Lt. Jack Geoghegan, a green recruit who looks certain to die and leave a
young, grieving family behind. Madeleine Stowe is quite good as Julie, Lt.
Col. Moore's compassionate and supportive wife. The heavy responsibility of
delivering the infamous telegrams falls on her shoulders. A UPI reporter
named Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper) bravely stays in the thick of the battle.
The script is based on the book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young" by
Galloway and Moore.
Unlike the Gulf War or the War against Terrorism, the Vietnam War was
controversial back home. Those who fought or died came home without much
fanfare. But for those of us who lived through that era, it will not be
forgotten. And nor will this film.
I dedicate this review to James Francis "Bugsy" Bean from Garland, Texas.
"Bugsy," was my next-door neighbor, best friend and constant playmate
throughout elementary school. When my family moved across town, Bugsy and I
lost touch with each other. We were never able to reconnect since he was a
grunt who died in Vietnam. Only when I go to the Vietnam Memorial wall am I
ever able to be close to him again. You will be with me forever, Bugsy.
WE WERE SOLDIERS runs 2:18. It is rated R for "sustained sequences of
graphic war violence, and for language" and would be acceptable for
teenagers with strong stomachs.
Copyright © 2002 Steve Rhodes