“Behind Enemy Lines.” “Black Hawk Down.” “Hart’s War.” And now “We Were Soldiers.” Soon we’ll be watching a spoof called “We Were Soldiers Behind Enemy Lines When Hart’s War Took Black Hawk Down.”
Teeny-bopper flicks may be the genre du jour, but war movies aren’t far behind. The latest, “We Were Soldiers,” starring Mel Gibson who’s always du jour, opens tomorrow.
The movie is based on the book, We Were Soldiers Once … And Young, by retired Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and former journalist Joseph Galloway.
Gibson portrays Moore, who led the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry in the first major battle between the Americans and North Vietnamese. The majority of the movie recounts their savage encounter in the Ia Drang Valley, aka the Valley of Death, on Nov. 14, 1965.
“We Were Soldiers” begins and ends with a slaughter. So if anyone doubts that war is hell, let him or her go from lights down to lights up on this one and have doubts dispelled.
Randall Wallace, the movie’s writer and director, has told epic war movies before, having scripted “Braveheart” and “Pearl Harbor.” But here, he deals with more than war. He also deals with family. And it’s in the juxtaposition of Moore’s military life and home life—and the dual lives of all his men—that the picture really succeeds.
At several points, Wallace propels the audience away from Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley to Fort Benning, Ga., where the soldiers’ families variously wait, worry, mourn and move on with life. So the movie’s tag line is appropriate: “Fathers, Brothers, Husbands & Sons.”
Of course, that grouping implies mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. And to Wallace’s everlasting credit, this group garners significant attention in the movie as well. Scenes of wives receiving telegrams notifying them of a husband’s death are among the most poignant, mainly because of the way Moore’s wife, Julie, deals with this part of her existence.
Moore is portrayed as a religious man, one who prays with his family, and even with his troops, whether they’re dead or alive. (In fact, Wallace, who holds a religion degree from Duke University, organized a chapel service at Fort Benning prior to production. “I don’t know how many movies have started with memorial services in chapels, but I felt that it was exactly what we needed to do for this one,” he said in the film’s press packet.)
In one particularly memorable scene, 2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein) prays in the base chapel after his wife gives birth to a daughter. Moore appears, and Geoghegan—in a contemplative mood—asks Moore how he handles being both soldier and father. Moore says he hopes being good at the one makes him better at the other. Well said.
But Moore’s verbal prowess is only beginning. After he prays sincerely, with Geoghegan, for the battalion’s security in the inevitable conflict, he tacks on this gem: “And God, ignore their heathen prayers and help us blow those little bastards straight to hell.” Audiences will remember that zinger when they get to the lobby.
Andy they’ll remember Sam Elliott who, as Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley, burns the screen up. He doesn’t need a gun to kill; his eyes alone can do it. When he finds journalist Galloway (Barry Pepper) lying on the ground for cover with his camera, he quips, “Can’t take no pictures lying down there, sonny.”
As the hard-line military man, profanity rolls easily off Plumley’s tongue. But if you care about these fathers, brothers, husband and sons—and odds are you will—you’re glad he’s there.
Not all the dialogue is as punchy as Plumley’s. Some first-act scenes lay the exposition out like a neat picnic blanket. Other exchanges come neatly packaged as military words of wisdom.
But when Moore’s men are dropped in hostile territory thousands of miles from home, the exposition ceases and the real conflict begins, and everyone is bombarded with sounds and images of war.
Subtitles help keep troop locations in the valley straight: some soldiers are on “the knoll,” some “the creekbed,” some “the ridge.”
And though Wallace focuses mainly on the Americans, he also takes pains to show the humanity of “the enemy.” For example, we see one soldier writing in his journal, looking at a picture of his wife or girlfriend. This journal reappears at movie’s end, leading audiences to draw important conclusions about Moore’s character.
In the middle of this horrendous battle, one fact becomes painfully evident: that the shooting—on both sides—is both ferociously important and totally pointless. It’s important because lives are at stake. And it’s pointless because lives are lost.
“We Were Soldiers” touches on more than history; it touches on our common humanity. As night falls in the Valley of Death, the movie cuts from the North Vietnamese commander gazing at a beautiful moon, to the American commander, eyes fixed on the same.
And that celestial body sheds light on both men, both countries.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director
MPAA Rating: R for sustained sequences of graphic war violence, and for language.
Director: Randall Wallace
Cast: Hal Moore: Mel Gibson; Julie Moore: Madeleine Stowe; Basil Plumley: Sam Elliott; Bruce Crandall: Greg Kinnear; Jack Geoghegan: Chris Klein; Joe Galloway: Barry Pepper.