March 15, 2002

Soldier Through This One

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For reasons that I’m sure are pretty obvious, war movies seem to be a very popular fad these days. This weekend, I went to go watch the recently released We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson and directed by Randall Wallace. While the film began a bit predictably on the home front, the movie picked up once the soldiers arrived at the battlefield. Once again, the two men who brought us Braveheart have adopted a poignant, true story of a courageous warrior and transformed it into a sure-to-be Hollywood blockbuster.

Every war movie that has come out seems to have a different, but singular moral to present to its viewers, but We Were Soldiers seems to offer multiple viewpoints. While it illustrates a young man’s willingness to die for his country, the film also portrays war as being the ultimate destroyer of families.

Based on Moore’s memoir of the events of November 14, 1965 at la Drang Valley, Vietnam, We Were Soldiers depicts the battle between the some 400 soldiers of the U.S. 7th Air Calvary and 2000 Vietnamese soldiers. We Were Soldiers tells the story of this fight in a very refreshing way; through the eyes of all of its participants whether or not they were on the battlefield that day and regardless of which side they fought on.

Mel Gibson plays Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, the commander of the 7th Calvary, coincidentally the same regiment commanded by General Custer. Gibson portrays Moore gracefully, with a great deal of honor and respect for his men and a lot of love for his family. Sent into the first big battle between the United States and North Vietnam, Moore’s brigade is badly outnumbered and in a very bad position geographically. Despite his disadvantages Moore manages to win the fight and return his men to base, dead or alive.

While Mel Gibson’s character is fairly well developed, his men seem to be stereotypical soldiers who spout archetypal soldier talk. From Lt. John Geoghegan (Chris Klein), the idealistic recent college graduate who tells Moore that he “wants to help orphans, not make them,” to Sergeant General Major Plumley (Sam Elliot), the veteran career soldier, tough to the bone, who informs Moore that, “Custer was a pussy, you ain’t,” We Were Soldiers skims over the men who fight the wars, giving them faces but not much more. While it does a great job portraying the big picture, the movie neglects the most vital elements of war, the soldiers themselves.

A couple of exceptions are the photographer, Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper) who co-wrote the book with Moore and Major Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear), the helicopter pilot. Coming from a lineage of soldiers, Joe chooses to experience this war through the lens of a camera instead of through the sites of a machine gun. Unlike all of the other reporters, Joe bravely flies with the soldiers onto the battlefield and fights alongside them while taking first hand pictures of the carnage. Joe’s shock at what he sees is portrayed nicely by Pepper as he stares in awe at the bodies lying all around him. Kinnear, as well, turns out a fine performance as the courageously defiant pilot who flies into the field against his orders to pull out the injured.

Although the fighting is as graphic as it was in Braveheart, Wallace intertwines those scenes with glimpses from the home front, where wives wait anxiously for news of their husbands. By juxtaposing the brutality of war with its emotional edge, We Were Soldiers does a good job conveying the fact that, even on the battlefield, soldiers are forever intimately connected with their loved ones back home. It is hard to say which is more heart wrenching; the young, promising soldier lying in a pool of his own blood or his wife’s reaction when she receives the news.

Madeline Stowe portrays Moore’s wife a bit one-dimensionally, since she seems to be in anguish throughout the entire movie. However, the scene where she and another soldier’s wife, played by Keri Russell, take over the job of delivering the telegrams to the wives of fallen soldiers is truly a touching one and very well done. The wives as a whole are as undeveloped as their husbands but they do lend a very sentimental touch to the film.

Wallace’s movies often fall under the trap of branching out onto too many themes instead of developing one to its full. He tries to interject the ideas of racial equality and the inhumanness of war into the film when his movie is really about the courage of those doing the fighting and that of their families at home.

Nevertheless, We Were Soldiers is the best war movie I have seen so far this year. It captures the true essence of what it means to die for your country — even if it means leaving your newborn baby behind. While exemplifying the valor of the outnumbered American soldiers, it makes a good effort to portray enemy soldiers with respect and emotion as well, something that is rarely done, let alone done well. So if you haven’t seen any moving films yet this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true, go and watch We Were Soldiers.

Archived article by Yiwei Wang