Tuesday, December 24, 2013

CRACKER? We Were Soldiers (2002)

                “We Were Soldiers” was based on the acclaimed best seller We Were Soldiers Once…And Young by Lt. Col. Harold Moore and journalist Joseph Galloway.  The book is a non-fiction account of the Battle of Ia Drang in the Vietnam War.  The movie was written, directed, and produced by Randall Wallace of “Braveheart” and “Pearl Harbor” infamy. 

                The film opens with a scene set in 1954 during the First Indochina War pre-Dien Bien Phu.  A French unit is ambushed in the Ia Drang Valley (the Valley of Death) by the Vietminh led by Nguyen Huu An  and wiped out.  The action is graphic with “Saving Private Ryan” style cinematography (quick cuts, slo-mo, POV).  It’s a great opening and sets the theme of “how will the American experience be different?”

                The body of the film begins at Fort Benning, Ga (it was filmed on location) in 1964.  Back when America was innocent, naïve, and overconfident.  And clueless about nonconventional warfare in a jungle environment.  Moore (Mel Gibson) arrives with his idyllic family of supportive wife and perfect kids.  A 1950s TV family in a 2000s war movie that wants to be a John Wayne movie.

Plumley and Moore - comedy team
                Moore is in command of a new type of unit – air cavalry.  Helicopters will take the role of horses.  The unit is the 7th Cavalry and in case you don’t get the reference, the movie hammers the fact that the 7th was Custer’s unit and you know what happened to them!  We get the obligatory training montage.    The movie is an excellent study in command.  Moore is the classic “lead by example” commander.  He is also very hands-on in his leadership.  This includes counseling his young officers.  For instance, he has a talk with a new father named Lt. Geoghegan (Chris Klein) in a chapel.  The scene is cringe-inducing with overt religiousity and sappy dialogue.  Geoghegan is saintly and soon to be a papa with his new bride (and thus doomed).  Moore offers a prayer that concludes with asking God to disregard the enemy’s prayers and help us kill the “little bastards”.  Hilarious!

Geoghegan and Moore pray to prey
on our enemies
                The movie makes a concerted effort to integrate the families into the narrative.  Moore tells his daughter that war is when some people in another country try to take the lives of people and then soldiers like daddy have to go over and try to stop them.  This is not a bad analysis of what the public was told the war was about in 1964.  The movie introduces us to the officers’ wives.  Julie Moore (Madeline Stowe) is the sorority mom.  When orders come, the men are enthusiastic about going off to test their manhood, the wives are stoically nervous.

                The unit is sent to the Central Highlands in 1965.  The air cavalry experiment is about to begin.  That experiment is simple – use mobility to “find the enemy and kill them”.  Their first mission is to land in an enemy area and provoke combat.  Hopefully not against ten to one odds.  Oops!  Hueys led by Maj. Crandall (Greg Kinnear) drop them in a clearing designated LZ X-Ray.  The tactics are realistic as the Americans come charging off the choppers guns blazing and immediately establish a perimeter.  Things go wrong immediately as the gung-ho Lt. Herrick (Marc Blucas) goes chasing after an enemy scout and gets himself killed (“If I have to die. I’m glad to give my life for my country.”) and his platoon cut off in a position called The Knoll.  Sgt. Savage (Ryan Hurst) takes command.  The trials the Lost Platoon will go through are incredible.  A few men holding out against huge numbers of the enemy.  The fighting gets so desperate Savage calls artillery fire down on his own position.

                Inside the perimeter, it’s a macrocosm of what the Lost Platoon is going through.  The landing at LZ X-Ray was like kicking an ant pile.  It turns out there is a NVA battalion commanded by now Col. An stationed in the hills nearby and they are up for a fight.  Even against the vaunted U.S. Army.  The battle is a series of enemy assaults and Moore’s attempts to plug the holes with his courageous few.  Crandall’s helicopters participate by bringing in reinforcements and supplies and medevac the wounded under fire.  They also bring in an intrepid photojournalist named Joseph Galloway (Barry Pepper).  At one point, the NVA get to the command post and Galloway grabs an M-16 and fights for survival, like everyone else.

                At this point the movie jumps to the home front where the wives are coping with separation, but not death.  Then the first telegrams arrive.  Julie Moore and Barbara Geoghegan (Keri Russell) take over delivering the death notices.  It’s extremely poignant and effective.  Wouldn’t it be extra poignant if one of the telegrams is for one of them?

Mrs. Geoghegan and Mrs. Stowe
delivering telegrams
                Meanwhile, day two dawns to more of the same.  Now the VC have joined in, for Christ’s sake!  Geoghegan and a black soldier make a two man assault so racism can be eliminated and Geoghegan can leave his body in no man’s land to be found by Moore later.  Hail, Hollywood!  The enemy break-through in several places and it begins to look like those Custer premonitions will come to fruition.  It gets so bad Moore has to call for “Broken Arrow” (when all available aircraft drop ordinance on a unit about to be overrun).  Some friendly fire napalm roasts Pfc. Nakayama because he had made the mistake of bragging about his new born.  Two proud fathers, two doomed soldiers.  The movie implies the Broken Arrow incident turns the tide.  Soon after, another attempt to reach the Lost Platoon is successful.  Savage takes a short breather and then reenters combat because if you have a name like that …

Napalm + Hollywood = box office dynamite
                On the third day, An plans an all-out assault to finish off the exhausted Americans and thus convince the Yankees that South Vietnam is a bad investment.  This will be the ultimate vindication for his “grab them by the belt buckle” solution to American artillery and air support.  Col. Joshua Chamberlain, I mean Lt. Col. Moore, looks at the situation and decides it calls for a bayonet charge.  “Fix bayonets!”  Moore (Gibson)  leads the charge.  The enemy are too surprised to fire their weapons.  However, the thrill of the chase carries our heroes smack into the well- defended enemy bunker complex.  Get more telegrams ready, including one for Julie Moore.  But wait, the air cavalry arrives in the form of Crandall in a Huey gunship and he proceeds to Gatling and rocket the enemy to smithereens.  USA! USA! USA!

                An licks his wounds and prepares for the long haul.  The media arrives like vultures to report the great “victory”.  Moore is the last to leave, as he promised.  The rest is history.  Spoiler alert:  we lost.

                This is a schizophrenic movie.  Parts of it are great and parts are not.  Not surprising for a movie that tries to be accurate and entertaining in equal measure.  Wallace insisted the movie was as accurate as possible (the same bull shit he spewed about “Braveheart”) and most of it is.  The parts that are aimed at the general audience make a war movie lover squirm.  The Moore family scenes are not pathetic, but it’s obvious Wallace meant to make the opposite of the unpatriotic, impious Vietnam flicks like “Platoon”, “Apocalypse Now”, “Full Metal Jacket”, and “The Deer Hunter”.  The pre-battle training sequence is simplistic and heavy in foreshadowing.  For instance, Herrick is a tightly-wound glory hound who is likely to get his men into a trap.   Sure ‘nuff.   The references to Custer’s Last Stand are too maladroit.  

                The trite pre-Vietnam scenes come to an abrupt end when the unit gets shipped overseas.  That scene is powerful with a building score and no dialogue.  In no time at all, they are in battle.  The action is consistently intense and some of the effects are spectacular.  This movie has more combat than a vast majority of war movies.  And yet, believe it or not, the actual battle was even more intense and violent than the movie.  The tactics are realistic for both sides.  The movie is excellent on helicopter participation in the fighting and air and artillery support.  The napalm shots are breathtaking (get it?).  There is even a “mad minute” moment to get the enemy to reveal their positions.  One problem I had was the lack of emphasis on the role of M-60s in holding off human wave attacks.  It could be argued that “We Were Soldiers” comes closest to accurately portraying a Vietnam battle.

                The movie is rolling along nicely until it jumps the shark with Moore going out in the dark to find Geoghegan.  It is inconceivable that a commander would risk his life in a situation like that.  The scene was obviously forced in to confirm Moore’s pledge not to leave any men behind.  More tears get jerked with the telegram for Barbara.  But Wallace saves his best for last with the abysmal bayonet charge topped off with the Crandall massacre of the remainder of the enemy.  Wallace forces a happy ending into what was a pretty level-headed narrative.  This reminded me a lot of “Pearl Harbor”.  Worse, the success of American grit and firepower in winning the battle dilutes the explicit moral that America will have a hard time in Vietnam.

                The last ten minutes of the movie prevent it from being a very good movie, but it still ends up being good and better than most Vietnam War movies.  The acting is good if a bit too earnest and the cast is able.  The actors were put through a boot camp.  Mel Gibson is not aggravating and gets Moore’s personality right.  It’s obvious Gibson was comfortable playing a man as religious as he is.  Greg Kinnear is strong as Crandall and Pepper’s late appearance as Galloway gives the movie a second wind.  Making the most impact is Sam Elliot as Sgt. Major Plumley.  It’s acting in his sleep, but the character is a lot of fun, if clicheish.  He gets some great lines and provides some welcome humor without cracking a smile.  He does not say a lot, but it’s all quality.  Unfortunately, much of the dialogue could easily fit into a 1940s war film.  When Moore asks Galloway what he is doing there, Galloway says “because I knew these dead boys would be here.”  At one point,  Moore says “There’s nothing wrong except that there’s nothing wrong.”  Apparently, the dialogue is accurate, but it seems hokey.

                The movie is technically proficient as would be expected for a movie costing $70 million.  Wallace may be shaky as a screenwriter, but he does a good job directing.  The action scenes incorporate all the bells and whistles of modern war movies.  There are some hand-held shots.  There is some slo-mo.  Blood splatters on the camera lens.  It is a very violent movie.  The make-up crew did a remarkable job on some horrendous wounds.   Someone counted the number of KIAs – 305.  The sound effects are great.  The lighting in the night attacks is admirable.  The score is fine and restrained.

                The movie has some admirable goals.  Wallace wants the audience to get a feel for what military wives go through.  Having a military mother and having lived on a base while my father flew in Vietnam I can attest to the authenticity of the home front scenes.  The telegram scenes are not in the book and may be Hollywood, but they are refreshing for this macho genre.  We certainly did not need another stale romance or love triangle.  Stowe is great as Julie Moore.  WWS has a strong female vibe.  Another example of balance is the coverage of the enemy.  This is not “Black Hawk Down”.  The communists are not faceless.  Gen. An (Don Duong) is sympathetically rendered as are his men.   One soldier gets to keep a diary with his girl’s picture in it and then gets to try to bayonet Col. Moore.  They are brave but there is definitely a drone quality to them.  Wallace goes out of his way to cover their tactics and even implies they will win the war.

                Some people sneer at the unambiguous religiousity of the film and Gibson’s involvement in the film caters to this criticism.  However, my research shows that Moore is indeed a devout Catholic so the characterization is true to form although obviously forced into the film (probably at the insistence of Gibson).  Considering how a vast majority of war movies purposely ignore religion, we can excuse WWS for purposefully including God.  It has more scenes with religion than any ten war movies.  Hell, even An says a prayer.  Another jarring element is the squeaky cleanness of the American soldiers.  This ain’t “Platoon”.  There is no drug use or sociopathic behavior.  Although I would put the movie in the VioLingo school, I do not think the f word was used a single time.  (Considering the graphic violence, Wallace’s decision to sanitize the language is bizarre.)  Before you cry bogus, this is fairly close to the 1965 Army especially when you consider these would not be draftees and they are in an elite unit.  They should be naïve, enthusiastic, and patriotic.

                In conclusion, “We Were Soldiers” could have been the best Vietnam War movie if Wallace had not pulled his punches in the end.  For someone who wanted to make the most accurate Vietnam War battle movie, it is infuriating that he would taint his admirable effort with a phony happy ending.  Especially when the truth would have fit his purpose so much better.  Still, if you overlook the bayonet charge, the battle is as good as you are going to get, the wives get their just due, the soldiers of both sides are positively depicted, the enemy is sympathetically portrayed, and the movie is an excellent study in command.  Nothing’s perfect.

grade =  A-
broken arrow


  1. I admit that I dislike both Randall Wallace and Mel Gibson, but the movie was better than I expected and the battle scenes were superb, so of the best I have ever seen, although I suspect that their second-unit director deserves much of the credit. I agree entirely that it could have so easily been better, but I am just grateful that they avoided painful love triangles or sappy romances. Since you grew up on an air force base during the war, I am even more impressed with the homefront scenes, which I already thought were quite strong. Great review.

  2. Thanks. I totally agree about Gibson and Wallace. That's a great line about the second unit director! I notice you were not put off by the sappy religiousity. "Passion" came two years later.

    Speaking of the air force base, I can recall Secretary of Defense Rusk visiting a friend's family after his father was shot down and captured.

    Do you think the review matches the grade? I have wondered about that.

  3. The grade seems a little high given the number of criticisms you make. I often have the same problem where I give a movie that does not exactly match the review. A couple of times I have gone back and changed a rating. One was The Steel Helmet after a discussion with you.
    Also, I don't think you actually said if the movie will crack the top 100.
    Sappy religiousity is to be expected in a Mel Gibson film, not desired, but expected.

  4. I think this is one movie where the aggravating aspects like the happy ending are forgiven because of the overall quality of the film. I also probably did not give enough credit to the film for not making a mockery of the book. I read the book long before the movie came out and liked it. Whenever that happens you naturally fear for whether the movie will do justice to the book. I think the movie is worthy of the book. As far as the shoving of religion down our throats, I cut it some slack because Moore is quite religious. I also don't mind it balancing all the modern war movies that ignore religion in a war context. That is unrealistic.

    Thanks for mentioning me not revealing whether it will make the 100 Best. I would think so. It is much better than many of the films in the 100 Greatest.

  5. I had my problems with this and that's why I never got around to writing a review. Not that I don't think it's in a way a very good movie but it's a problematic movie. Yes, religion is part of the problem I had, not becaise it's used but how it is used. Yeah well. I need to write that review some day. I'd say it's top 50 material nonetheless. It's very graphic.

  6. Agree. I was a bit torn by the fact that Moore is a devout Catholic (as is Gibson) so his portrayal is authentic, but it does seem the screenwriter (with strong influence from Gibson) forced religion into the film. It will be interesting where it ends up in my 100 Best list.

  7. I agree that the happy ending is almost unforgiveable, given that there was an exceedingly tragic twist to this skirmish; where a another batallion of the 7th Cav was all but wiped out in a horrific massacre the very next day just a few miles away at LZ Albany

    1. That's the part of the book the movie conveniently omits. Don't look for a sequel covering a battle we lost. That would refute the myth that we never lost a battle in Vietnam.

  8. The whites only scene is perhaps the most cringingly awful scene in any film I have ever seen and I have been a film buff for over 35 yrs. This could have been a great film, but crippled by risible dialogue and clichés.

    1. Yes and no. For me (Yes, I'm causasian); I saw as some people, even then; didn't really understand what the South was all about. Perhaps that family lived in a rather rural part of Indiana...or Wisconsin...and didn't know segregation as much as other people


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.