The commencement of the United States’ direct combat role in Vietnam is painted in a mixture of brutal, personal, heroic, tragic and, at times, corny and cliched terms in “We Were Soldiers.” As the tough and charismatic officer who leads his men into the shadow of the valley of death, Mel Gibson has the closest thing to a John Wayne part that anyone’s played since the Duke himself rode into the sunset, and he plays it damn well. Due to the heartfelt sincerity with which it embraces military duty and the centrality of nation, family and religion, as well as its outright refusal to assume a latter-day political stance toward the fateful events of November, 1965, this bloodily rendered true-life actioner will no doubt be scorned by a good portion of the intelligentsia and critical community. But it could well hit Middle Americans where they live and, as a sort of “Black Hawk Down” with vividly rendered characters, this Paramount release looks poised to score strongly with general audiences.
Based on a 1992 book by the men who are played here by Gibson and Barry Pepper, the commanding officer and a civilian journalist, respectively, pic will provoke reactions that will depend heavily upon the particular prism through which people choose to view it. Those who insist that a film about Vietnam a priori must declare its condemnation for U.S. actions will detest it; cinephiles inclined to placing it in the context of Vietnam War movies will note comparisons to, if not similarities with, such early cycle efforts as Wayne’s ludicrous “The Green Berets” and the outstanding, little-seen “Go Tell the Spartans,” as well as to “Hamburger Hill,” another picture devoted to detailing a single devastating encounter; others will see it in the context of the current political climate as a coincidental but nonetheless remarkable symbol of we’ve-got-a-job-to-do-style patriotism.
Then there are the “Black Hawk Down” parallels, which are unavoidable: Both films are extremely violent and graphic in their presentation of what modern weapons can do to human flesh, both pivot on prolonged moment-by-moment presentations of tense battle predicaments in which well-armed Americans find themselves vastly outnumbered and surrounded by highly motivated enemies in hostile environments under questionable circumstances, and the wrenching results of both real-life incidents had haunting political consequences, albeit diametrically opposed ones: The unanticipated loss of American lives in Somalia reportedly made the U.S. shy away from further such independent involvements in Third World hot spots through the ’90s, while the “victory” at Ia Drang, while costly in terms of Yank casualties, resulted comparatively in so many more North Vietnamese deaths that the American brass was misled into thinking that the ratios would work in their favor in the long run, thus making escalation of the war effort seem eminently justified.
Delineating the cost in human terms was an overriding motivation for Moore and Galloway in writing their involving tome, which describes the minutia of battle with very much the same attention to detail as Mark Bowden did in his book “Black Hawk Down.” Writer-director Randall Wallace, who penned “Braveheart” for Gibson and whose sole previous directorial outing was the innocuous “The Man in the Iron Mask,” has amplified this element by emphasizing the effects of the men’s deaths on their loved ones back home. In these scenes, the driver of a yellow taxi cab assumes the persona of the Grim Reaper as he slowly creeps through the residential streets of Fort Benning with the dreaded “The Secretary of the Army Regrets to Inform You…” telegrams for young wives and children.
At the same time, Wallace has drained some of the subtle political subtext from the book. While a professional soldier first, Moore is also so steeped in military history and philosophy that he readily embraces the sorrowful absurdity of the long view along with the immediate needs of any present situation. The book is not anti-war, exactly, but it remains cognizant of heroism and loss in equal measure, as well as of irony and a sadness that history needs constantly to repeat itself. While responsive to the themes of bravery, innocence and its loss, the film has an inherited, second-hand feel when it comes to the profound ramifications of the actions it shows.
After a useful prologue reminding of the French colonialists’ defeat by the Vietminh in 1954, pic jumps ahead a decade to devote its first 40 minutes to presenting a bunch of American soldiers who rep the embodiment of the Right Stuff. First and foremost is Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Gibson), a Korean War vet and Harvard grad who is preparing to lead the First Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry into Vietnam, where American involvement is about to take the giant leap from “advisory” status to active combat. A student of war who is reading an account of Gallic misfortunes in Indochina in French, Moore is acutely aware that his regiment is the same as that of the doomed General George Custer.
The Army at this moment is just introducing such key guerrilla fighting equipment as the M-16 rifle and the Huey helicopter, and helping Moore train the enthusiastic young men in the new type of warfare they’ll be facing is a grizzled WWII vet, Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott); this is one of the best screen roles this old cowboy has ever had and he makes the most of it, creating rib-tickling humor out of the man’s reflexive cantankerousness. Greg Kinnear turns up as Maj. Bruce Crandall, the best chopper pilot in the Army, while among the eager officers, Moore is particularly impressed with 2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), who cuts just the sort of figure any commander would want in a soldier.
Unlike most modern war films, this one plays up the family life of its principle figures. Moore will be leaving behind his wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe) and five young children at Fort Benning, and it isn’t often these days that you see an actor like Gibson get down on his knees and pray with his kids or, even moreso, bond with a fellow soldier in a chapel; latter in this case is Geoghegan, whose wife Barbara (Keri Russell) has just had a baby girl. Attention is given to the mutually supportive relationships of the wives, as well as to the societal racial divides that Moore insists will not exist under his command. In all, you’re made to feel that there could not be better prepared soldiers than these guys, and that they could not hope to have a better leader.
Suddenly, they find themselves in the scrubby Central Highlands of Vietnam. So thoroughly have politics and strategic issues been stripped away that the film never discusses why the Yanks are in Nam in general or in this particular valley where they seem especially vulnerable to attack from the surrounding mountains. But since it’s not Moore’s job to question orders, only to “find the enemy and kill him,” he does the best he can, and the film’s final 90 minutes documents the hellish three days, beginning on Nov. 14, 1965, that 395 Americans fought off about 2,000 People’s Army regulars in the first major firefight between opponents that would keep battling each other for a decade.
Wallace presents the fighting realistically, violently and relatively coherently given the chaotic circumstances; men are killed at an alarming rate, choppers keep buzzing in to deliver more ammo and remove the wounded, one platoon gets cut off from the main group, and the Vietcong just keep on coming and coming. And while they’re not exactly given equal time, nor are the North Vietnamese given short shrift; numerous scenes take place in the native army’s underground h.q. to present its side of the battle and, as they are in the book, the communist opponent is accorded nothing but respect for being smart, resilient, organized, well-trained and, crucially, more motivated.
When all is said and done, the clash at Ia Drang was the equivalent of the first round of a prizefight, in which the adversaries test each other to see what they’re made of. (Film drops the more sobering second half of the source book, devoted to a subsequent bloodbath called “Albany.”) And while the focus of the drama remains on the Americans and the skill, resourcefulness and courage with which they fight against terrible odds and conditions, the last word is left to the North Vietnamese commander, who surveys his own dreadful losses and instantly recognizes that the tragedy of this battle is that it means the start of an “American war,” one that will have the same inevitable conclusion but only with a much greater loss of life.
Dramatically and visually, pic is well made in a conventional fashion. Central California locations effectively fill in for a Southeast Asian setting that’s not the usual jungle but a more sun-baked area marked by giant termite mounds, and Dean Semler’s lushly colored verite camerawork follows the action so intently that blood ends up on the lens more than once. Most of the action looks eye-poppingly real, notably the napalm drops and their aftermaths, with only a handful of digital effects added in.
Gibson’s performance anchors the film with commanding star power to burn. This officer truly loves his men, and the credibility with which the actor is able to express Moore’s leadership qualities as well as his sensitive side is genuinely impressive. Aside from Elliott, Klein, Kinnear and Pepper, as the journo who suddenly finds himself with a rifle in his hands, emerge most prominently from the pack. Stowe, unfortunately, stands out in the wrong way among the other wives back home by looking too glamorized and movie starish.