We Were Soldiers

Poster for 'We Were Soldiers'. Photo © Paramount Pictures

A compelling, competent, and ultra-violent film about the Battle of Ia Drang, where 400 cavalry soldiers faced off a 4,000 strong division of North Vietnamese soldiers. Though someone needs to tell Mel Gibson that in real life when you die, there's no sweeping instrumental musical score.

We Were Soldiers Once...and Young

 

We Were Soldiers is a 2002 film directed by Randall Wallace and starring Mel Gibson.

Based on the book We Were Soldiers Once...And Young, it tells the story of Lieutenant General (Ret.) Hal Moore during the Vietnam War.

As a viewer and fan of war films, I always appreciate it when a film is able to serve as a history lesson, recounting some little known battle or military skirmish, and then accurately and believably recreate the experience for the viewer. To that end, We Were Soldiers does a competent job in telling the story of the Battle of Ia Drang, a conflict in 1965 that I had personally never heard of until viewing this film. And thankfully, by all accounts, this film is a largely accurate re-telling of what occurred during that particular battle.

And this battle is something that has to be seen to believed. The film opens with a brief training interlude at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and then quickly moves to Vietnam where Gibson's Hal Moore and the 400 men under his command fly into Ia Drang to investigate and fight an enemy of unknown size.

As it turns out, Ia Drang isn't simply the location of a small military force, but rather an entire division of North Vietnamese regulars. The mathematical breakdown is the most effective framing to understand what was at stake: There were 400 Americans and some 4,000 North Vietnamese. Very quickly, the American forces are surrounded, with one platoon stuck behind enemy lines.

The entirety of the rest of the film is largely the recreation of one large horrific battle that, just as it did in real life, ends up taking place over a number of days.

Occasionally, the film takes a break from the action to cut back to Ft. Benning, Georgia, where the wives of the 7th cavalry unit begin receiving their telegrams notifying them of their husband's deaths. (As in real life, the film depicts that these notifications were made with a taxi driver simply dropping off a letter, a command choice that has to be one of the worst the military has ever made.)

We Were Soldiers has a full cast of familiar faces. Madeline Stowe plays Gibson's dutiful wife. Greg Kinnear plays a helicopter pilot willing to fly into the combat zone to rescue wounded soldiers. Sam Elliot plays Gibson's batallion sergeant. And Chris Klein plays a young lieutenant under Gibson's command. (If you look quickly, you can see a very young Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame, as one of the officers led by Gibson.)

 

Realistic Warfare

 

Whether or not you will appreciate this film, has entirely to do with one's propensity for being able to handle sickening scenes of violence, and one's ability to obtain some value in watching the battle unfold on the screen.

(This film is exceedingly bloody, keeping in line with Gibson's career penchant for extreme violence.) It's my own belief that war films should necessarily be ultra-violent simply so that they can be true to the nature of war; war is horrific and filled with violence, and films that try to mute this violence to appeal to a larger audience are being dishonest with their own subject matter. Towards this end, We Were Soldiers is brutally honest. (Honest depictions of violence are one of my "rules" for war films.)

The film is mostly two hours of North Vietnamese soldiers charging at American troops, mortar rounds decimating the American lines, and American jets mowing down fields of North Vietnamese soldiers.

One of the things the film does most effectively is to stage all of this action in a way that is comprehensible and understandable.

As the viewer, you always have a sense of where the different platoons are at in relation to each other, and to Gibson's character, Hal Moore. This is no easy task, as war by its nature is inherently chaotic, with many moving pieces that are in constant motion. It's the equivalent of staging a football game on-screen. Most films would simply settle for a shot of the quarterback catching the ball and making a run on the end zone, and then explaining through narrative that his team won; it's the rare film that actually attempts to explain the movements of the players and where these players are in proximity to one another.

As an infantry soldier myself who has served in Afghanistan, I can only marvel at what the men in Hal Moore's unit most have gone through. My own experience seems to pale in comparison. Going on a lot of long movements in the desert and getting in a few modest engagements with enemy forces over the course of a year doesn't even begin to measure against what amounted to days of perpetual high-intensity combat, without sleep or rest.

 

Gibson Mostly Just Plays Mel Gibson

 

As Moore, Gibson is the quintesential hard charging military leader, moving back and forth between his units, issuing commands to the leiutenants under his command, and surveying the battlefield. In the film, as in real life, Hal Moore's role was to lead his officers, not to engage the enemy in combat himself, and this is one the first films in my memory, at least, that cares to communicate that distinction to its viewers.

How much of a hard case is Gibson's Hal Moore? At one point in the film, Gibson's radio operator calls in for close air support from American helicopters and jets that are in the area, requesting that they come in to drop bombs and munitions on the advancing enemy forces. Due to the chaos of the battlefield, and troop positions which are ever changing, one of the jets ends up firing on some nearby American soldiers who slowly burn to death as they scream. While all the other soldiers are shocked and stunned, Gibson's Hal Moore simply shakes it off, telling his radio man to ignore the mistake.

But how is Mel Gibson as an actor in his portrayal of Hal Moore? It's impossible to know. Gibson is mostly just playing Mel Gibson. But at the point in his career where he filmed this movie, Mel Gibson had become so effective at playing Mel Gibson, that it did and does to this day, continue to be an effective performance. Gibson is intense and snarling and dramatic. If that is simply a substitution for the actual character of Hal Moore or an accurate representation, I have no way of knowing. It is though, a typically effective performance of Mel playing Mel.

 

No Swelling Musical Score

 

Unfortunately, the film does have its flaws. One of which is its cloying sentimentality. Many war films become a form of political propaganda in that they fetishize the act of sacrifice made by the soldiers who die on screen. It's all for dramatic purposes, I suppose. You want to tug at the audience's heart strings so you add a double dollop of crashing crescendo on the instrumental soundtrack, and you slow down another soldier's death to make it occur in slow motion. The problem with this sort of visual enhancement of the act of dying is that in real life, when you die, there's no swelling instrumental score. This film would seem to suggest that when the Americans die, it was a worthy sacrifice. I, for one, would be curious whether the real life soldiers who likely died scared and very much alone, would agree. (In a recent article about veterans choosing their favorite and least favorite war films, We Were Soldiers did not fare well with the veterans that I spoke to.)

 

Bottom Line:

The film is technically effective, and engaging as a recreation of combat, but a bit hollow in its sentimentality. (It is however, a great last stand war movie!)