We Were Soldiers

Movie Information

Genre: War Drama
Director: Randall Wallace
Starring: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Greg Kinnear
Rated: R

Dealing from an incredibly stacked deck, writer/director Randall Wallace brings us what is, in essence, the first pro-Vietnam War movie since the days of The Green Berets — only he doesn’t. Well, not exactly. By setting the film in the earlier days of the conflict — before anyone had had much chance to question things — his film all but ignores the controversy surrounding the war, thereby allowing We Were Soldiers to honor the characters it depicts without any messy concerns about politics or the issues raised by Vietnam. That wouldn’t be unreasonable if the movie existed in a vacuum, but it doesn’t, since we all know where this will ultimately lead. Presumably, Wallace doesn’t care — something borne out even more alarmingly by the fact that We Were Soldiers never gets close to explaining America’s involvement in Vietnam in the first place. (This seems to be a trend, since Black Hawk Down similarly avoided the issue of the U.S. involvement in Somalia, while the witless Behind Enemy Lines did the same thing with Bosnia.) Perhaps none of this is too surprising, since Wallace was the screenwriter for Pearl Harbor, indicating a writer (and, in this case, director) far more concerned with a manipulative story line about his characters than historical perspective. What results from this approach is troubling in that it rewrites history by omission. Admittedly, the characters in We Were Soldiers seem a bit more real (even if we’re handed such groaners as a small daughter asking, “What’s a war, Daddy?”) because they’re drawn from real life, rather than the recesses of Wallace’s apparently gung-ho propaganda imagination where the good guys are oh-so-good and everyone is self-sacrificing to a fault. Even so, Wallace manages to largely perform the same feat with real characters in this “true life” story of Col. Hal Moore (a stoic Mel Gibson with a Southern accent) and the first major battle in the Vietnam War. The problem is — and it’s evidenced in everything Wallace has touched — the man obviously swallows hero worship without question and greedily asks for more. He’s the writer equivalent of the young kid from Iowa in a World War II propaganda picture. What’s really unfortunate here is that parts of We Were Soldiers are actually good. It may be the first war film to ever convey the actual strategies of the opposing officers in any effective manner, and, unlike Black Hawk Down, it manages to create characters — albeit two-dimensional ones — whose fates at least appear to matter. The battle scenes are technically astonishing, even though the ultra-gory legacy of Saving Private Ryan is starting to wear thin and threatens to finally numb the viewer into insensitivity. In We Were Soldiers, this approach becomes disconcerting in another way. For fully three-fourths of the film, the horrific deaths depicted are nearly all suffered by the Americans, while the Vietnamese merely fall over like the dress extras they are, and it’s hard not to conclude that this makes a statement about the relative values of the lives being lost. Wallace tries to make up for this late in the film, and, in some measure, succeeds — especially in a beautifully cross-cut sequence involving an American and a Vietnamese widow receiving word of their husbands’ deaths. But there’s a sense of lip-service around the edges, particularly in a movie that includes Mel Gibson praying to God not to listen to the prayers of the “heathen” enemy. The fact that the prayer scene is largely played for comedy and the film includes little outbursts about tolerance doesn’t really change anything. All in all, We Were Soldiers isn’t a bad movie, but it’s a movie that ought to be approached with a healthy degree of skepticism.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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