Writer-director Randall Wallace, whose script for “Braveheart” was turned into an Oscar-winning epic by Mel Gibson, has collaborated with the actor again on a new film, “We Were Soldiers,” a graphic account of the battle of Ia Dray Valley in November, 1965–the first firefight in which American troops faced off against the North Vietnamese in a war that would ultimately claim more than 50,000 US lives. Based on the best-selling book by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore, who commanded the American forces against the numerically superior enemy, and Joe Galloway, a journalist who was on the scene, the film recounts the battle in great detail, taking time to portray the reactions of wives back home to their husbands’ fates and the Vietnamese perspective as well as the specifics of the hand-to-hand conflict.
In a recent Dallas interview, Wallace described how passionately he was affected when he first encountered Moore’s book. “I was born in Tennessee, the Volunteer State,” he explained. “Here’s a war, and it’s up to us to fight it. It’s that whole sense that a person’s life is not really worth living unless you find something in your life that you feel is worth dying for. And I saw that in these people, and it stirred me.” The narrative was especially moving because of the treatment that Vietnam veterans had gotten from the American public at the time and since. “What they did was as dedicated and as patriotic as the soldiers who went to Afghanistan,” Wallace said. “But we treated these guys like they didn’t exist.” That’s why he set out to make the movie.
But he wanted to do it right, and that meant taking a contrarian route, one that in its own way showed considerable commitment to a cause. “I didn’t go to the studios,” Wallace explained. “I took a strategy that everyone in Hollywood says is crazy. And part of the reason it works is that everybody says it’s crazy. Everyone says you should never spend your own money. I figured that to get anyone else to believe in anything, I had to believe in it. Courage is like a muscle you exercise, and you have to face your own doubts and purify yourself of your doubts–you have to embrace them and understand them and go through them. And I felt that by stepping forward myself on this story that stirred me, I would be more likely to get other people to step forward, too. So I put my own money into it; I wrote the screenplay without a studio connection. I then went to Fort Benning and went through the Rangers school–or the two weeks that they’d let me go through–and got to know Gen. Moore and Joe Galloway–did all the things that I knew that I could do first to really prepare myself to be ready to say to an actor that I admire enormously like Mel Gibson, ‘I want to do this movie. This is the story I want to do.'”
Gibson was immediately drawn to the story, too–something that didn’t surprise Wallace. “In doing ‘Braveheart,'” he explained, “the guy that grew up in Australia and the guy who grew up in Tennessee found that they had something really in common. And what we have in common is the belief that human beings are basically, or at their essence, spiritual beings. As physical a movie as ‘Braveheart’ was, as big and bold and physically dramatic as the movie was, in its essence it was about values like courage and love and sacrifice. And that is the same as this movie. As powerful as the drama is, of men going into a battle in such a desperate situation, what makes it worth watching is that out of that tragedy of war, they are affirming something that’s lasting and noble. These guys truly, truly loved each other. When the shooting starts, they’re down with each other, and they’d die for each other. Anybody that doesn’t believe that hasn’t been there with them.”
Wallace added: “When Mel came aboard and said, ‘Yes, this is the movie I want to make with you,’ we said, ‘We can make the movie we want to make in the way we want to make it.’ And that’s what we went and did. The whole movie was made by people who were utterly committed to get this movie right, because the people the movie was about had never been recognized for what they really experienced. The truth about what they did has never been told, and we hope that this will do that. We just could not Hollywoodize the thing. The guys [the surviving participants] wouldn’t let us, and we wouldn’t let ourselves. I just wanted to make sure that the film was as honest as [Gen. Moore] had been with me.”
“We Were Soldiers” contains some implicit criticism of the governmental and military bureaucracy that put Moore’s men in so difficult a position and deceived the American people in the process, but Wallace insisted that it wasn’t basically a political film. “I was just determined, as was everyone else involved in making the film, that politics would be completely out of this. No matter what you believed about why America was in the war, it was not relevant to the fact that this is what these people experienced.” And despite the graphic depiction of the combat, the goal was to personalize the event. “I didn’t want to be preoccupied with the issue of what happens to a soldier when he’s hit,” Wallace said, “as much as ‘Who is that soldier?'”
He went on: “That’s what so uplifting about it, that ordinary people found in each other something that every one of us can take pride in, not because we did it, but because these people are our brothers and fathers and husbands, and they represent something that was noble. And whether they were sent to Vietnam for wrong reasons or right reasons, the fact was they went, and what they did there was important. I’m not trying to argue with previous movies about Vietnam–they are what they are, and there are as many stories about Vietnam as there are people who went to Vietnam. But this story of such leadership and courage and sacrifice I think has not been told, and that’s why it was so important to tell.”
Wallace sat back in his chair and added emphatically: “I am not afraid to be sincere. I’m not afraid to be earnest. I refuse to be cynical. When people say to me, ‘This is the least cynical movie possible,’ I say, ‘Thank you. Amen.'”