(director/writer: Randall Wallace; screenwriter: book by Joseph Galloway & Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore; cinematographer: Dean Semler; editor: William Hoy; music: Nick Glennie-Smith; cast: Barry Pepper (Joseph Galloway), Sam Elliot (Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley), Chris Klein (2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan), Greg Kinnear (Maj. Bruce ‘Snake’ Crandall ), Madeleine Stowe (Mrs. Julie Moore), Mel Gibson (Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore), Keri Russell (Barbara Geoghegan), Don Duang (Ahn), Ryan Hurst (Sgt. Ernie Savage); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Bruce Davey/Stephen McEveety; Paramount Pictures; 2002)

“This is a soldier’s action-war film, that eulogizes them as noble heroes in a questionable war that has turned into a nightmare.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“We Were Soldiers” is based on the true hellish Vietnam War experiences of Lt. Colonel Harold Moore (Mel Gibson) and his 7th Calvary troops who fought a bloody battle for three- days in November 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley against regular Viet Cong forces. This was the first major land battle between the opposing sides of the Vietnam War. The film goes out of its way to be fair to both sides of fighting men, showing them to be courageous and just and equally concerned about their own causalities. This is a soldier’s action-war film, that eulogizes them as noble heroes in a questionable war that has turned into a nightmare. It does not question the war, or look into the politics of it, or say anything about those who opposed it, as that is not its aim. The media is briefly shown in a food-frenzy mood to get the battle story except for one photo-journalist, Joe Galloway (Pepper). Joe went into battle with the men and was accepted by them, and he got the honor of writing their story along with the now retired Lt. General Moore (reaching that rank after the narrative), so that the American people could realize what the soldiers did.

The film either depicted the on-going battle, showing both sides planning their strategy, or it switched back to Fort Benning, Georgia, where the men were stationed. At the fort it copiously showed how the wives handled the news when they found out their husbands died in combat. Julie Moore (Stowe) is the perfect wife of the perfect Harvard-educated colonel, while Barbara Geoghegan (Keri Russell) is the innocent wife with a newborn child of a young former missionary, Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein). Colonel Moore is shown as a sincere patriot, a compassionate and intelligent and physically brave soldier, and also as an equally good father of five, who instills family values and religious beliefs for his youngsters. They are seen praying together. The two ladies keep busy taking care of their families and manning the homefront by teaming up to deliver the dreaded Western Union telegrams to the families of those killed, so that they can comfort them in a warmer way than the Yellow Cab service whose job it is to make such deliveries. The film makes a big deal of the soldiers looking out for every other soldier and operating without racial or religious prejudice. The soldiers don’t come any purer than the ones seen in this film, as directed and written by Randall Wallace (he was the screenwriter for Pearl Harbor and Braveheart).

The colonel is a military history buff, who when trapped by the enemy after his men have received severe causalities, asks his crusty, battle-scarred, unsentimental, loyal hard-nosed right-hand man, Sgt. Maj. Plumley (Sam Elliott): “I wonder what Custer was thinking, when he realized he’d moved his men into a slaughter.” Plumley replies, “Sir, Custer was a pussy.”

The reason behind studying about Custer’s failure, is that the 7th Calvary was Custer’s old regiment and Moore is determined not to get his men slaughtered in the same way. Moore says “We will ride into battle and this will be our horse,” as alongside him are the helicopters which will be his modern-day horses. There will be 385 of his men who ride into battle in the Ia Drang Valley, known as the “Valley of Death,” and they are surrounded by over 2,000 North Vietnamese troops. The colonel realizes they are being setup for an ambush, but his mission is to engage the enemy and so he proceeds. Moore is astute enough to have read that the Vietnamese tried the same battle tactic against the French in 1954 and succeeded. That was the beginning of the Vietnam War, as far as he is concerned.

The film at times feels bogged down as the battle scenes are long and confusing. Wallace cuts between the heavy battle scenes and the soldiers’ wives back at Fort Benning, and to a tunnel bunker and command post where Ahn (Don Duang), the Viet Cong commander, plans his strategy. The point that is arduously made is that both leaders are capable soldiers who care about their men, and each has a mutual respect for his enemy. The other point is that the wives of the soldiers also acted heroically.

For the film’s limited aims to give the men who served their country during the Vietnam War their due recognition, the film accomplishes its mission by showing the fierce battle the men had to endure. It also indicates that it is time to heal those angers and hurts that divided the country and move on. Moore seems to be pleased to just let the public know how well his men served their country, and that sounds fair enough to me. For all it left out, or made flat on the screen, or otherwise failed to talk about, this film is less than satisfying. But it is, nevertheless, a decent film even if it is corny. Its entertainment value comes from the solid performance of Mel Gibson, who grounds the film in a quiet reality. Also Sam Elliott’s performance had some spunk to it. The film is much better than the phony Pearl Harbor film. But the action sequences were not as engaging, for various reasons, as those in Black Hawk Down. The film will be thought of as another way to look at the Vietnam War, as it differs from the more critical way most other films have presented the war. This was a patriotic film, but it clearly shows the men fought to protect their brother fighting next to him more than for any other reason.

We Were Soldiers