We Were Soldiers (15)

Review by Jack Foley

HOLLYWOOD'S current fascination for war movies - or, to be more specific, heroic but failed campaigns - gains momentum with Mel Gibson's We Were Soldiers, the true story of an American military battalion which found itself hopelessly ambushed in the early days of Vietnam.

The battle of LZ X-Ray, as it became known, began on Sunday, November 14, 1965, when the 400-strong First Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry, led by Lt Col Hal Moore, touched down in the Ia Drang Valley to find themselves surrounded by roughly 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers.

The ensuing fight lasted several days and marked the first major encounter between Vietnamese and American troops. The Ia Drang Valley became known as 'The Valley of Death'.

Based on the book, 'We Were Soldiers Once... And Young', Gibson's movie - which has been written for the screen and directed by Randall 'Braveheart' Wallace - faithfully and bloodily recreates the ensuing events, taking a look at the conflict from both sides while never losing sight of the effects it has on those at home.

Its poster states: 'Father, husband, brother. No Man Is Just A Soldier'. So it will come as little surprise to reveal that it wears its patriotism on its sleeve, littering proceedings with gutsy do-or-die speeches, last gasp acts of heroism and gratuitous shots of the American flag.

Yet it is this insistence on over-playing 'America the brave' that mars what would otherwise have been a great war movie; for while its depiction of battle is as unflinching as Saving Private Ryan (for example), its tendency to tip-toe around the politics, opting for sentiment where a little cynicism may have been warranted, renders it flawed.

There are times when Gibson's Lt Col Moore expresses disdain for the military tactics which bring him to the point of massacre, but they are under-played; while attempts at portraying the battle from the Vietnamese point of view occasionally feel like token gestures designed to appease the critics.

The use of Madeline Stowe, as Gibson's wife back home who undertakes the grim task of delivering telegrams to new widows, is also heavy-handed, failing to accomplish anywhere near the level of emotion Spielberg drew from just one, brief scene in the aforementioned Ryan.

Indeed, there are several occasions when We Were Soldiers borrows from or evokes memories of other war films, such as Coppola's Apocalypse Now and the more recent Black Hawk Down. In fact, it is Scott's Somalia-based epic which is likely to draw the biggest comparison, as both attempt to glorify US involvement in conflicts in which the nation was ultimately humiliated.

Both also rely heavily on the role played by helicopters in battle, while both feature central characters spouting lines such as 'no one gets left behind' or 'in the end, we were not fighting for a country or a flag, but for each other'.

If anything, We Were Soldiers succeeds more on a human level, while Scott's picture concentrated more on the combat element. Yet, ironically, this human angle becomes its achilles heel.

Gibson is terrific as the paternal Lt Col Moore, while Barry Pepper (on Ryan form) is also notable as United Press International photographer Joe Galloway, who was awarded a belated Bronze Star with V for rescuing a badly wounded soldier under heavy fire during the campaign.

But too many other actors are used to manipulate audience emotion, with Chris Klein's new father a prime example. The events of Ia Drang were devastating enough without the need to overplay them.

Sam Elliott's grizzled veteran is also laughably bad, spewing out throwaway lines such as 'Custer was a pussy' when a little more depth would have been welcome.

Where We Were Soldiers really comes into its own, however, is during the battle sequences which are devastating in the extreme. Like Scott before him, Wallace manages to convey the confusion, fear and sheer wastefulness of war while never losing sight of the bravery of the young men who must fight it.

The 'Broken Arrow' sequence, in particular, deserves its place among the best combat sequences for the way in which it refuses to shy away from the mayhem which led to an American fighter bomber dropping two napalm bombs on the Battalion Command Post and Aid Station area, gravely wounding two soldiers. If only Wallace had refrained from the sentiment...

Really useful links...

Rick Rescorla's story, as told by the Washington Post following his death at the World Trade Centre (Sept 2001).
Joe Galloway recalls life in the Valley of Death
Buy We Were Soldiers Once... and Young