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'We Were Soldiers'

'We Were Soldiers' finds willing heroes in Vietnam struggle

Friday, March 01, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"We knew what Vietnam had been like, and how we looked and acted and talked and smelled. No one in America did. Hollywood got it wrong every damned time, whetting twisted political knives on the bones of our dead brothers."

'We Were Soldiers'

RATING: R for sustained sequences of graphic war violence and language

STARRING: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott

DIRECTOR: Randall Wallace

WEB SITE: www.weweresoldiers.com



That passage, the literary equivalent of an incendiary device, is part of the prologue to the 1992 book, "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." It was written by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, now retired, and Joseph L. Galloway, a former reporter, photographer and editor for UPI and U.S. News & World Report.

So, it should come as no surprise that the movie, "We Were Soldiers," tries to get it right. It makes a case for duty, for brotherhood, for sacrifice, for leadership, for men who left behind wives, infants, toddlers and daughters who donned white gloves and hats and clutched purses as they posed for one last picture with their father before he shipped out.

When Randall Wallace approached Galloway about turning the book into a movie, the reporter asked, "Do you believe in heroes?" And Wallace, who had written the Mel Gibson film "Braveheart," said he did.

So, it's no wonder that "We Were Soldiers," written and directed by Wallace, has a distinct point of view. When an American has been shot and lies shaking and bleeding on the battlefield, his final words are: "I'm glad I could die for my country."

If you want ambiguity or arguments about whether the United States should have been in the war, rent an Oliver Stone movie or take a college class, it seems to say. It briefly questions the manner in which President Johnson escalated the war, but it shows men answering their country's call.

The movie opens with a bloody ambush against the French in Vietnam in 1954 and jumps a decade ahead to Fort Benning, Ga., as Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), his wife (Madeleine Stowe) and their five children arrive. The military has decided helicopters are the way to conquer Vietnam's terrain, and Moore will lead the charge.

"We will ride into battle and this will be our horse," he says, with dramatic flair as Maj. Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear) appears behind the controls of a chopper. With the help of flinty, grizzled Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott), Moore begins to train the troops who will become the 1st Battalion, 7th Calvary of the U.S. Army.

As Moore hammers home the message that they will be landing under fire, that some will die and that they will only have each other, his wife takes the women under her wing. A gathering to discuss where newcomers can do laundry or buy groceries is cut short when Barbara Geoghegan (Keri Russell), goes into labor. Her husband (Chris Klein) will go into battle with his daughter's pink hospital bracelet on his wrist.

After Moore addresses his soldiers and vows he will be the first to set foot on the field and the last to leave, he and the troops ship out. Their test comes in mid-November 1965, when they find themselves at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang (pronounced Eye Drang) Valley. "Ia" means river in one of the Central Highlands dialects.

Moore and 400 of his men are surrounded by roughly 2,000 North Vietnamese. The heart of the movie tracks the savage three-day battle that was the first major encounter between the soldiers of North Vietnam and America. We watch Moore direct his men, who are under almost constant fire, and try to anticipate the enemy's moves.

It is harrowing and hellish, with images that linger after the film ends. One that I can't get out of my head: UPI's Galloway (played by Barry Pepper) is pressed into combat service and tries to lift a badly burned soldier. The skin on the man's lower legs slides off in his hands.

"We Were Soldiers" excels in its chaotic yet carefully choreographed battle scenes but it fails to provide an epilogue on the men who survived the fight (although it lists the names of the dead and where you can find them on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial). While it hints at what is to come, it doesn't put the battle into a strong historic context and for those of us with no sense of direction, more on-screen maps might prove useful.

The film also elevates Moore to virtual sainthood at home and away, although maybe he's deserving of that portrayal. This is commander as father figure, refusing to leave his men so he can brief the brass.

Watching the toll this one battle took, I couldn't help but wonder what it was all for -- especially knowing that now, tourists at a museum in Ho Chi Minh City can see mannequins of American soldiers carrying M-16 rifles. That doesn't diminish the valor of the men portrayed, but maybe it raises questions that can't be easily answered in a two-hour, 20-minute movie.

As Moore and Galloway ask, in their book, about the men whose names are now inscribed on the polished black granite: "What would they have become, all of them, if they had been allowed to serve their country by their lives, instead of by their deaths?"

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