General Harold Moore, a scholar and soldier, wears his devotion to the military on his sleeve. There is no sloppy sentimentality about it, nor is there a cynicism that someone who has spent his life under fire might harbor. Instead there is a quiet pride in the institution, his men, and their heroism that only serves to underscore the heroism of Harold Moore himself. WE WERE SOLDIERS, based on his memoirs of commanding the first major encounter of the Vietnam War, is suffused with the same sensibility.
The film opens in the 1950s, with a French patrol in the I Drang valley of Vietnam being ambushed by a guerilla band of Vietnamese. After winning the scuffle, a young Vietnamese officer asks if they should take prisoners. No, answers the commander, a man we will meet later, if we kill them all, they will stop coming. That, of course, was true of the French. Unfortunately, the Americans failed to learn any lessons from them. Fast forward to 1964. Vietnam hasnt exploded yet into a full-fledged war, but it looms as an area of conflict, though no one is sure exactly how that will manifest itself. Then Lt. Col. Moore, played by Mel Gibson, is whipping a new regiment into shape in preparation for shipping out. This is the films weakest part. There is not much you can do with the preparing green soldiers for battle scenario, but writer/ director Randall Wallace never quite devolves into the cliché while allowing us to get to know the men we will be following into battle. And this is key. Wince though we might at the saccharine when Moore is explaining to his tiny daughter what war is When the bullets begin to fly, we have an emotional investment in these people.
The battle of I Drang should have served as a warning for the war that was to follow. Moore and his men, the unfortunately monikered 7th Cavalry, Custers old command, were sent to root out a guerilla band who were making raids on the American troops. Military intelligence had no idea how many Vietnamese there were, it was in the thousands compared to the 600 or so under Moores command, they also did not know, and would not know for many years, that the area, like the country as a whole, was honeycombed with underground tunnels, allowing the Viet Cong to move freely and to spring unexpectedly on the Americans. The battle that followed, as Moore suspected, turned into an ambush by the Vietnamese and a Pyrrich victory for the Americans.
Wallace captures the grit and the terror of war. The tiny mistakes that escalate into disaster and the terrible not knowing from moment to moment of what is happening. He uses spectacular, seemingly impossible 360 degree plus shots that, with dizzying accuracy, shows the mayhem from all angles. Yet there are also quiet moments, just as dazzling in their tragedy, such as a close-up of a soldiers eyes, the pupils dilating and fixing as death takes him.
On the home front, more wrenching scenes as the telegrams start arriving for the new widows, sent by a military caught so off guard by the battles ferocity that they are sent by cab without the benefit of chaplains.
Mel Gibson is suitably gruff and tender as necessary, both with his family and his men. But there is still a soupcon of LETHAL WEAPONs Riggs about him, the flexing of the eyes and the ever so tiny bob and weave. He nails Moores raspy voice, but the accompanying resonance, perhaps because of Gibsons slighter build, never quite happens. Madeleine Stowe, as Moores stalwart wife, acquits herself admirably in the role of brave wife. It doesnt hurt that she also does the courage thing with a tear threatening to spill out of her eye better than any other actress working today. Also good, if not ground-breaking are Chris Klein and Kerri Russell as the young couple torn apart by war and Barry Pepper as the war correspondent who ends up in the middle of the battle. Sam Elliot, as the war-hardened veteran Sgt. Major Plum is a delight, as he casts a jaundiced eye on the new guys. The hidden gem of a performance here is Simbi Khali, as half of a black military couple. Full of strength and dignity, she exudes a fierce pride for the ideals of the country her husband is fighting for, even if that country falls short in delivering on its promises. If this film were to have been released closer to Oscar nomination time, I dont doubt that she would have been remembered with a supporting actress nod. Alas, Oscars memory is short.
Randalls greatest achievement in WE WERE SOLDIERS is that without detracting from the courage of the Americans, he is sympathetic in his portrayal of the Vietnamese, their courage in the face of a better-equipped enemy that has state-of-the-art weapons. Ultimately, and rightly, Randall makes this film an expression of the real tragedy of war, that the flower of both sides youth should be forced to slaughter each other, for whatever reason. When that hits home is when the tears really do start to flow.