If you bemoan the lack of old-fashioned westerns on today’s screens, you should certainly check out Randall Wallace’s film about first major battle in which US soldiers fought during the Vietnam War. It may not exactly be “Fort Apache” or “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” but it’s very much a modern military equivalent of that sort of John Ford oater. Indeed, at one point Mel Gibson, playing Lt. Col. Harold Moore, the highly-decorated CO of the American forces, remarks to his men that the helicopters that will be taking them to the front are the contemporary equivalent of the cavalry. It’s almost as though writer-director Wallace, who previously worked with Gibson on “Braveheart,” was, through the line, blithely informing us of his picture’s ultimate ancestry.
“We Were Soldiers” is actually based on a book by Moore (retired at the rank of Lt. Gen.) and journalist Joseph L. Galloway, who participated in the combat first-hand (and is portrayed in the film by Barry Pepper). But it shares, along with its Fordian elements, a good deal with the makers’ former epic about William Wallace, too. Basically its theme is one it has in common with Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down”–the refusal to submit to numerically superior forces and, in particular, the close comradeship that exists among men-in-arms, coupled with an absolute determination “to leave no man behind.” That kind of esprit de corps is the same motive that drove the thirteenth-century Scottish rebels of “Braveheart,” too. But in this case, unlike in “Black Hawk” or their earlier film, Wallace and Gibson are portraying a battle which ultimately became a victory against almost impossible odds; while there’s undoubtedly a mood of deep regret at the close over the loss of life–including those of a few young characters we’ve come to know reasonably well over the course of the running-time–there’s also a sense of uplift in the honor being paid to the courage and self-sacrifice of soldiers who paid the ultimate price in the service of their country. It’s the decidedly uncynical, unabashedly patriotic character of “We Were Soldiers” (despite its efforts periodically to portray the commitment and idealism of the Vietnamese fighters, too) that stands out in the picture–and, in an ironic way, is both its strength and its weakness. “Soldiers” is very crisply and efficiently made in the style of Hollywood movies of the past–one of the most notable things about it, in this age of special effects, is that the carnage seems to have been depicted with little or no computer-generated trickery–but ultimately its very old-fashioned earnestness makes it seem a little creaky, more like a cinematic nostalgic trip than a serious examination of war.
“Soldiers” depicts at great length and in excruciating detail a single engagement–the assault made by the First Battalion of the Second Cavalry (the same outfit that General Custer once commanded) on the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam, a place known to locals as “The Valley of Death,” in November, 1965. Prior to the landing of the initial troopers, we watch them being trained for their mission, and have been introduced to some of them, notably Maj. Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear), one of the hot-shot pilots, and 2d Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), a morose but dedicated young man whose wife has just given birth to their first child. Another important character is Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott), a tough old bird with lots of battles under his belt (it’s a role that, with its grumpily macho quality, would once have gone to Ward Bond). When the first men hit the ground, however, the film leaves behind its lighter elements and becomes, like “Black Hawk,” a non-stop depiction of the brutal combat that ensues. The only relief from the battle and bloodshed–and it’s hardly relief at all— are periodic returns to the home front, where we see the spouses left behind–including Julie Moore, played by Madeleine Stowe, and Barbara Geoghegan, played by Keri Russell–reacting to news of their husbands’ fate. Very occasionally the perspective switches to the Vietnamese side, but these moments are few and far between. For the most part we watch as the American soldiers fend off wave after wave of attackers, rather like the cavalry regiment cut off from the fort and surrounded by Indians in westerns of the ‘forties.
If one’s willing to accept the picture’s formulaic feel, however, it’s reasonably well done. Gibson is a satisfactory stand-in for the heroic figures in the movies of sixty years ago, avuncular with his men and sternly loving as a family man. Kinnear swaggers and smirks in the caricature role of the cocky flying ace, Pepper limns the reporter who learns the true meaning of courage adequately, and Klein tones down his usual exuberance–and banishes his customary smile–to make Geoghegan the serious, staid guy he’s supposed to be. Elliott predictably steals all his scenes as the greying, gruff old veteran who’s never at a loss for a sharp remark and can stand ramrod straight in a hail of gunfire while never getting hit. (You know the convention.) The sequences with Stowe, Russell and the other home-bound wives are so grossly manipulative and weepy that the women can do little but fill their period dresses and sniffle on cue. Though “Soldiers,” at nearly two and a half hours, could stand some editing, Wallace stages the battle episodes skillfully, even if he never manages to clarify the strategic realities of the field. (The cavalry-riding-to-the-rescue finale, moreover, comes out of the blue, and remains totally unexplained.)
“We Were Soldiers” does implicitly question the wisdom of American involvement in Vietnam. It offhandedly criticizes the army leadership by highlighting Moore’s refusal to leave his men when ordered to do so by the Saigon command, and some final comments by the weary northern commander suggest that the US forces took entirely the wrong lesson from their hard-won victory, thereby needlessly prolonging the conflict. (The army’s insensitivity in informing the families with any sensitivity about the men’s fate is also emphasized.) For the most part, however, the picture just tries to combine a portrayal of the horrors of war with an exaltation of the beauty of the camaraderie existing among the front-line troops, carefully eschewing every trace of cynicism. As such, it seems positively quaint after such classics about the war as “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Casualties of War.” Well-intentioned but obvious, it can’t help but feel rather simplistic and jingoistic in this day and age. It’s a decent enough throwback, but a throwback nonetheless.