Mark Reviews Movies

WE WERE SOLDIERS

3 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Randall Wallace

Cast: Mel Gibson, Madeline Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper

MPAA Rating:  (for sustained sequences of graphic war violence, and for language)

Running Time: 2:18

Release Date: 3/1/02


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Considering the current political climate, you would expect an overflow of war films with vaulting strokes of blind patriotism, and there certainly have been some released recently and more to come in the future, I’m sure. That’s why Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers, an account of the first major battle of the Vietnam War, is so surprising. This is a thoughtful, mournful look into the lives of people in and affected by war. It has its patriotic moments and they constitute the film’s weak points, but unlike the majority of war pictures, We Were Soldiers has the intelligence to move beyond Americans in battle. On a stylistic level, the film feels like a hybrid of a number of modern war films. The film takes time in establishing the home front in its opening act, which allows us to understand the climate of the time, and once the battle starts, it simply expands or explores what it’s presented. There is such a broad scope to the film that it seems ready to topple over on itself, but it very rarely misses a beat.

The year is 1965, and the United States is quickly preparing to become involved in the conflict in Vietnam. Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) is assigned to prepare troops of about 400 men to harsh the unknown in the Ia Drang Valley. Moore is a thinking man—an academic. He studies on past strategy and learns of group of French soldiers who were massacred in the same place years ago. He teaches his men to look out for and teach one another and most importantly to leave no man behind. Soon they step onto the battlefield, where some 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers quickly surround them. Under Moore’s command Sgt. Major Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott), a hard-nosed veteran, Major Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear), lovingly nicknamed after snake droppings because that’s how low he can fly, Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), who has just left his young wife and newborn daughter, and Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), a man from a military family who would rather study war than fight in it.

The film’s focus is on the battle that ensues, and the scenes of war are chaotic while still allowing us to understand exactly what went wrong and give a sense of the strategy both sides used. The scenes are also quite brutal, which has now become almost mandatory for modern war films. Blood splatters the camera and the results of bullets and bombs are shown in gory detail. On this level, the film is certainly effective of displaying the horrors of war. But brutality and chaos alone do not give a true sense of combat, and the film takes brief moments of time examining the leaders’ orders and strategies. We see Moore preparing for battle and studying past failures to try and learn from their mistakes. Once on the battlefield, the American soldiers give and receive orders, and we see the leader of the Vietnamese counterparts giving orders. There’s an understanding of how both strategies will collide and cause problems for either side.

This objectivity of observation leads to a rare circumstance for a war film in which we begin to identify with the "enemy." Not only do the scenes with the commander of the Vietnamese soldier allow us to understand their plans, one segment in particular follows a particular Vietnamese soldier, whose diary and photograph of a loved one serve as a parallel to the scenes at home with the American soldiers. The opening act becomes all the more important once this element is introduced; it allows us a glimpse into the lives of the men in battle and in turn relate to all of the soldiers on the battlefield. The opening act also sets up the social and political climate of the time. The country is plagued by the open racism of segregation. For most of the people going into the war, no one knows why they are going. Once in battle, the film occasionally intercuts with scenes of Moore’s wife Julie (Madeline Stowe) delivering death notices to the wives on the base. It all adds together to give us a prevailing sense of humanity and the pointlessness of war.

Much of this strength comes from the Moore character himself. He is an intellectual—a man who sees the senselessness of war and knows that it shouldn’t exist. He is also a realist; he knows war is a reality, and he is a part of it. Throughout the film, there is an internal conflict between what he knows is right and what he must do. There’s a scene in a chapel where he and a fellow soldier pray. He prays not only for his own men but also for the men they will be fighting. Once he has done this, he prays that God will not listen to the enemy. In another scene, Moore learns that his battalion will be the same regiment as Custer’s. This fact worries him immensely, and history begins to haunt him. Moore is also a man conflicted between reason and superstition. We see him examining how past soldiers have failed in similar situations, but then he comes back to Custer. Moore is a surprisingly accessible and sympathetic character for these reasons, and Gibson is more than effective in playing him. The conflict is always present, and his presence is stronger for it.

And there is a definite change in Moore’s character by the time the end of the film comes around. What he’s seen and done have had an obvious impact on him, and even though the film itself bypasses such a conclusion for a final few minutes that seem to try to turn it into something that it’s not, Moore’s internal conflict reaches a more expansive level and becomes the conflict of human interest in the individual versus the universal. We Were Soldiers starts off looking at the individual and slowly grows to concentrating on the universal, and that is something important to remember in times like these.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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