‘Dead or Alive we will all come home together…’ proclaims Mel Gibson’s fatherly, devoutly religious Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, to his US Army Battalion shortly before they ship off for 1965 Vietnam. It’s just one corny sentence (among a great field of corny sentences), but serves as a perfect introduction to the film, demonstrating typically Hollywood Dialogue, whilst showcasing the film’s early 60’s setting.
Unlike Platoon-seen through a young draftee’s eyes, or Apocalypse Now, set against the backdrop of the conflict’s chaotic height, We Were Soldiers takes place in a more idealistic time, when the US wasn’t yet aware of what it was letting itself in for in Vietnam, and as such the film dispenses with much of the harrowing imagery, and overblown satire audiences have come to expect from the era. In both tone and structure it more closely resembles a 60’s WW2 film, a film not about the dehumanising consequences of war, rather a guts and glory story about the ties men form under such conditions, and what they will do to preserve said friendships.
That’s not too say it’s jingoistic, and by no means does the film shirk away from portraying the horrors of war… in fact nothing could be further from the truth.
Adapted by Writer-Director Randall Wallace (Also behind the scripts for Pearl Harbour and previous Gibson vehicle Braveheart) from the Bestselling Book ‘We Were Soldiers…Once and Young’ by retired US Army Lt. General Hal Moore and Journalist Joseph F Galloway, it details the US armies’ first major battle in Vietnam. Moore’s 400 man unit is ordered on a simple search and destroy mission into Vietnam’s central Highlands, the largely inexperienced troops are quickly surrounded by over 4,000 NVA soldiers and face a bloody three day battle for survival.
We Were Soldiers is a flawed but enjoyable War film. Graphically violent, unevenly paced, but featuring a strong Ensemble cast, it is a film that won’t be too all tastes, and certainly merits its BBFC rating.
Following a messy (in more ways than one) prologue, the story switches to early 60’s Washington DC. America already has thousands of Special Forces ‘advisors’ in Vietnam, and step by step, finds itself increasingly involved in the struggle against Communism. Lt Colonel Moore is given command of an experimental Air Calvary Battalion- the 1st/7th Regiment (the same unit as General Custer), and ordered to train them for possible deployment in the warzone. A protracted, clichéd but enjoyable ‘training segment’ follows, as the soldiers gradually learn the do’s and don’ts of warfare.
Firing Weapons at the target range, going for company jogs in the countryside, and undergoing daily foot inspection’s, it’s all pretty predicable stuff, told with some very cheesy dialogue, but enjoyable all the same (Moore is introduced driving to the base in a car, sporting a white toothed grin, as his kids sing ‘the dog went over the mountain’…). It’s certainly easy to anticipate where the story is going, and at this point in the film, it’s told pretty leisurely, but the pace soon picks up, and before long the film throws itself into some staggeringly violent set pieces.
Whilst this opening section is certainly overlong and clichéd, it is well utilised by Wallace, it is here the film’s few instances of humour (which are largely funny) mostly make there appearances, and the slower pace gives him time to explore the characters. In contrast to the book, which drew on hundreds of accounts, the film pares down the story to Moore, and a few supporting characters, it’s a wise decision, in contrast to other recent War Films (Black Hawk Down being an obvious example) it’s largely possible to tell the different characters apart, and the time spent getting to them makes it easier to care what’s going on in the battle sequence’s which follow.
These scenes embrace all the corny clichés of the Genre- awkward questions from children about what a war is, Wills being reluctantly filled out etc., but due to the cast’s committed performances it somehow feels right, if anything the film could have spent more time in this department.
Upon arrival in Vietnam Moore’s receives orders ‘find the enemy and kill him’, their (much like the film itself) blunt and his men fulfil them with relish. The battle scenes are dramatic-both in their content and the way they are staged. GI’s crawl through the grass, exchanging gunfire with the NVA soldiers, whilst explosions gouge great chunks in the landscape, the battle scenes take up well over half the film, and look, even feel very convincing.
Men scream in agony, as gory make up work takes its toll, whilst their friends die in there dozens all around, rarely before has Hollywood shown the physical effects of war so violently. The makeup work is thoroughly convincing, in some cases too much so, Napalm, and Phosphorus grenades make unnerving appearances in the film (explaining there usual absence from Hollywood productions in the process), whilst gunfire creates a constant stream of contorted corpses. The battles scenes are extensive and very, very violent and may well prove off-putting for some viewers; in any case it demonstrates talented special effects technicians, and a massive list of extras.
Whilst they are incredibly violent the battle scenes are largely easy to follow. The audience is constantly reminded of what’s going on where, and the battle scenes are largely told up close with main characters. Perhaps realising that the straight forward ‘kill or be killed’ mission wasn’t entirely emotionally involving, Wallace focuses the battle around Moore’s attempt’s to rescue a cut off Platoon, it veers towards predictable at points but is a clever way to structure the film, eliminating several potential dramatic gaps in the process, and giving the film an emotional hook to fall back on. Despite the lack of dramatic dialogue (mostly the soldiers just shout obscenities and orders at each other) In these scenes, it’s hard to lose interest or get confused, even if the graphic violence does get a little repetitive after a while.
Rather less successful are the scenes on the home front. Every once in a while the film takes a detour back to the Troops base at Fort Benning, showing the battle from the worried perspective of the wives and children. It’s a brave move on Wallace’s part, as it is a rarely explored facet of warfare, but it doesn’t completely work, despite the committed performances from many of the actresses (Julian Moore stands out in her limited role as Moore’s strong willed wife), clichéd dialogue and slow pacing make these scenes feel largely intrusive to the main story. Meanwhile Back in Saigon several shady, sweaty Intelligence agents chain smoke, whilst gesturing at Moore’s position on the map, making broad statements and stupid tactical suggestions in the process, this scene isn’t intrusive, it’s irrelevant.
Whilst the effects are convincing, ultimately such an emotionally wrought story would be nothing without convincing performances, which the ensemble cast are largely up to. Sam Elliot makes a big impression as the gravel voiced, seemingly Fearless Sgt Major Plumley (even if he does look a little too old for the role), whilst Chris Klein (successfully casting aside his persona from the American Pie films) as a young Lieutenant and Barry Pepper as a young Joseph F Galloway (who hitched a lift into the battle, and later published an article which shocked America) gives strong supporting roles. But the film is dominated by Mel Gibson’s Moore, balancing care, courage and Wisdom it’s a strong, suitable central performance that makes the most of the less than perfect script.
Unusually for a US production, there is also time spent dwelling on the ‘enemy’ point of view, a series of interesting vignettes are scattered throughout the film, giving an insight into the NVA perception of the battle, whilst never as insightful as they are in the book, and suffering from similar flaws as the rest of the film it’s a welcome addition all the same. The Vietnamese still die in their hundreds, but at least some have more personality to go with it than Hollywood history has dictated. Don Duong, a notable Vietnamese Actor gives an impressive performance as the Vietnamese commander (He was interrogated by the Vietnamese Government for his troubles and subsequently forced to Immigrate to the US)
Wallace isn’t quite the same man who wrote Braveheart, whilst the dramatic speeches, strongly defined central characters and plot structure are still present; there are a lot of issues with the script. It’s a well-structured film, but too often falls back on predictable generic dialogue to guide the story, or provide character beats, whilst the overloaded narrative, and clichéd characterisation, detract from the powerful central story.
He is rather more successful as a director, staging the action scenes with impressive technical know-how, getting good performances from the cast, and largely keeping the pace moving, the film’s main flaw turns out to be his own script.
The film ends with a cliched, but moving scene with an older Colonel Moore visting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washinton DC.
It’s always a difficult job adapting a bestseller, particularly a Non-Fiction one, deciding who and what to leave out. With just under 2 and ½ hours of screen time to condense a 3 day battle Wallace was left with some tough choices, though he successfully gets across the tone of the Book, and certainly gives a convincing insight into the battle, many characters are absent, and real events dramatically reworked.
It’s also worth noting that only half the book is covered in this film, the Campaign continued for almost a year for the troopers (as is noted in a closing commentary in the film), with an even more bloody Battle fought at nearby LZ ALBANY only a couple of day later, some veterans were annoyed at such liberties being taken, but it is a film, and at points the short running time (138 minutes) feels to long anyway.
‘They Finally got it right’ Hal Moore was said to have observed, on a visit to the set, it’s an interesting statement, whilst the effects, violence and committed performances from the cast all paint a very convincing picture, and the film succeeds certainly succeeds as a love letter to the men who fought in the battle as a film it isn’t quite as successful. A weak script, repetitive battle scenes, and an over reliance on Hollywood storytelling methods, mean that it ends up feeling rather muddled for such a simple story. Some viewers will probably be pulled in by the action heavy, simple storyline, whilst anyone else will notice the flaws, and have an enjoyable, but not remarkable watch.
The negatives are matched almost equally by the positives.