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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 1, 2002

'We Were Soldiers' brutally captures horrors of Vietnam War

By Jack Garner
Gannett News Service

WE WERE SOLDIERS (Rated R for intense, gory violence) Three Stars (Good)

A bloody true-life story of Americans' first major confrontation in North Vietnam, a 1965 battle that saw 400 Americans heroically hold out against 2,000 Vietnamese for three days. Mel Gibson and Sam Elliott co-star for writer-director Randall Wallace. Paramount, 138 mins.

Hollywood continues to go to war in "We Were Soldiers," with Mel Gibson leading men against overwhelming odds in Vietnam.

As in the other current military movies, "We Were Soldiers" depicts U.S. soldiers as decent young men, and courageous, patriotic fighters.

They struggle against impossible odds or ill-conceived circumstances, battling with great resourcefulness, pride and unity, regardless of how they may be perceived back home.

As in the superior "Black Hawk Down," "We Were Soldiers" spotlights the specific challenges and heroism of the soldiers, with only scant attention paid to the broader picture of the war's purposes or justification.

"Black Hawk Down" and the similar "We Were Soldiers" both depict men who fight valiantly for their units, and both films revolve around the military pledge to "leave no man behind."

"We Were Soldiers" tells the story of America's first major confrontation with the North Vietnamese in 1965, the battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam's Central Highlands. It's adapted from a memoir, written by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, the American commander of the battle (played by Gibson) and Joseph L. Galloway, the only reporter at the firefight (played by Barry Pepper).

A student of history, Moore knew Ia Drang Valley was the same site — 12 years earlier — of a massacre of French soldiers during that nation's disastrous run in Indochina.

As Moore formed his unit at Fort Benning, Ga., which is depicted in the film's first 45 minutes, he did everything possible to prepare his men to avoid a similar massacre.

In the film's remaining 90 minutes, the results of the intense training are shown. Moore's 400 soldiers fight bravely, while surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers for three terrifying, bloody days. During the battle, 79 U.S. soldiers died and more than 100 were wounded.

As writer-director Randall Wallace details the story, he provides superbly staged battle sequences, though several are excruciatingly gory. Wallace makes complex circumstances and battle strategy relatively clear, and the saga staggeringly realistic.

As he displayed as writer of the Oscar-nominated script "Braveheart," Wallace understands the visceral power of violence.

And in one particularly potent passage, Wallace counters the fighting scenes with depictions of the soldiers' wives at home in Georgia, getting the horrible news by way of condolence telegrams, which are delivered by taxi drivers. (The Vietnam War was so new, the military had not yet developed a proper way to bring tragic news to families.)

Wallace, though, lays the emotion on thick in other overly earnest dramatic sequences, especially depicting the decency of the men on the Army base before they leave for Vietnam. (Remember, his script for "Pearl Harbor" contained similarly over-ripe moments.)

For nearly an hour, we are privy to all sorts of husband-and-wife romances, playtime with children, bedtime prayers, worried counseling in the base chapel, the wives' kaffee-klatsch and more. A few scenes help establish distinctive characters, but others simply reinforce war-movie stereotypes.

Gibson makes a charismatic, conscientious military leader, though the script leaves little room for the playfulness that sometimes colors his portrayals. Sam Elliott generates the film's few moments of sarcastic humor as Moore's stern second-in-command.

"We Were Soldiers" is the latest of a handful of battleground epics to hit the big screen in the wake of Sept. 11.

And like "Black Hawk Down" and "Hart's War," it'll probably find box office success, which will continue to surprise industry observers who imagined that today's viewers might want to escape images of war, rather than embrace them in theaters.

However, "We Were Soldiers" is set in Vietnam, the most unpopular war our nation ever fought. Thus, it offers a welcome attitude adjustment to the indiscriminate flag-waving that has dominated our movies and other culture in this winter of national discontent.

As we watch the soldiers — brave and noble as they are — fight and die in "We Were Soldiers," we are reminded that while all wars are hell, some are less justified than others. That somehow makes the bloody sacrifice even more horrific.

Rated R, with much intense, gory violence.