Retro Review: We Were Soldiers

Written: March 4, 2002

Historically speaking, Vietnam was a nightmare of a war. It changed the face of American warfare from the moment troops were sent in. Men died, families cried and our pursuit of the “red menace” continued.

As the war magnified, America began to devour itself from within. It wasn’t our war and it became our undoing. We lost that war and it was probably the most un-honorable war ever to be fought.

In the new Mel Gibson film, “We Were Soldiers”, a sliver of that war is looked at again. Gibson stars as Col. Hal Moore, a family man and career soldier, who has to lead a regiment of “green-horns” into one of the fiercest land campaigns in the Vietnam War.

The battle Moore’s regiment will end up in the middle of is dubbed “The Valley of Death” which was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Moore promises he will be first off the chopper into the heat of battle and the last to get on the chopper when it concludes.

Moore is honorable and drives passion into his men. Moore is also a “war-history” analyst and tries to examine all sorts of military campaigns. He seems to focus on General Custer when he is assigned the 7th Cavalry for his tour in Vietnam. Who will survive to see his wife’s face again? Who will face a bayonet to the gut?

On many levels, I had a lot of problems with “We Were Soldiers”. The film is conceived like one of the old war movies of the 1950s except with tons of juicier squibs being exploded throughout. After witnessing “Black Hawk Down” and “Saving Private Ryan”, this film is quite tame and I anticipated more from it.

From a historical angle, “We Were Soldiers” doesn’t even try to capture the horror or the truth behind Vietnam. The battle scenes hardly even scratch the surface of the actual horror the men must have felt. The film does mark Hollywood’s first attempt at making an honorable Vietnam film, if that is possible.

In a post 9/11 era, this film will be appreciated and in some cases embraced. But I do believe that there have been so many other films about Vietnam that are twice or three times better than this.

Films like “Apocalypse Now”, “Platoon”, “Full Metal Jacket” and “The Killing Fields” show Vietnam as the way it probably was and with more realism.

While watching this film, I had to remind myself that this was even a Vietnam film. In some of the action sequences, I half expected Gibson to meet up with John Wayne and attack the Japanese.

The thing that seems to separate World War II and Vietnam War films is the horror of war and the pessimism often displayed by soldiers in Vietnam. The soldiers knowing that they are being consumed and are desperate to survive.

“We Were Soldiers” seems to display more of the “Gung Ho-John Wayne” style of war films where the consuming desperation is no where to be seen. Is this good? Well on the realistic side probably not but in some ways it probably is for sensitive people still dealing with the events of 9/11.

The film does pay homage to the men who died but not to the historical event as a whole. If we are going to honor the men who died at least tell an accurate account with some realism and passion. The men deserved a better tribute.

I did really enjoy how much Mel Gibson embraced his character but I really didn’t feel that his character grew from the beginning of the story to the end. He seemed to be the same man throughout. War changes us so how come Moore wasn’t affected.

The performance that I probably enjoyed the most of the film was Barry Pepper, who plays a reporter who is swallowed by the battle and has to choose to fight or observe. He was the only hi-light in “Battlefield: Earth” and wonderful as baseball legend Roger Maris in “61*”. Pepper is an unsung actor that needs to be recognized.

I also enjoyed Sam Elliot as the film’s stubborn Sgt.-Major. It’s nice to see Elliot front and centre again. I have really have missed the veteran actor.

“We Were Soldiers” doesn’t pave any new ground or try to. It just is what it is. How can Hollywood make an honorable war film about a dishonorable war? Well they have now.

(2.5 out of 5)

So Says the Soothsayer.

Side Note: Is it just me or is Madeleine Stowe, who plays Gibson’s wife in the film, starting to look more and more like Cher?

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