It is a truism that nobody hates war more than soldiers. We Were Soldiers, which chronicles a bloody three-day battle between the North Vietnamese Army and the US Seventh Cavalry in November 1965, offers ample evidence of why this should be so. Following the example set by Steven Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan, Randall Wallace, who wrote and directed this square, effective combat epic, plunges us into the horrific chaos of close-range fighting. Bullets smash faces and rip through bellies inches from the camera, whose lens is occasionally smeared with blood. When the snap of gunfire and the thump of artillery momentarily fall silent, the air is filled with the moans of the wounded.
But if We Were Soldiers treats war as a nightmare, it also insists on the honor and rectitude of the men who fight it, and on portraying their loyalty to one another in an almost romantic light. In a speech to his men on the eve of their departure for Vietnam, Lt Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) tells them they are leaving home and "going to what home was always supposed to be." Given what will happen -- the men, badly outnumbered, will be overrun by enemy troops and suffer heavy casualties in the course of an ill-defined and dubious mission -- this seems like an astonishing statement. What he means is that, in the heat of battle, the men will look out for one another with a simple, unquestioning, sacrificial devotion stronger than the bonds of home or family.
Since the battlefield is where this movie's heart is -- and where the colonel's heart will, in a sense, be broken -- it is not surprising that home itself is a flatter, less inspiring place. Difficult as the combat scenes are to watch, they have a hard, realistic focus that the first part of the movie, set in Fort Benning, Georgia, lacks. As a screenwriter, Wallace has never had much use for subtlety. The clumsy, puffed-up dialogue he wrote for Pearl Harbor was enough to make you wish the Japanese would hurry up and attack, and the maudlin tableau of young soldiers and their pretty, worried wives has a similar effect here.
We Were Soldiers
Directed by: Randall Wallace
Taiwan release: Today
Running time: 120 minutes
Starring: Mel Gibson (LT Colonel Hal Moore), Madeleine Stowe (Julie Moore), Greg Kinnear (Major Bruce Crandall), Sam Elliott (SGT. Major Basil Plumley) and Chris Klein (2nd LT. Jack Geoghegan)
Moore and his company -- which includes a leathery veteran (Sam Elliott), an earnest young former missionary (Chris Klein) who has a newborn daughter, and a maverick helicopter pilot (Greg Kinnear) with a nickname not suitable for publication here -- are icons of manly uprightness and professional grit. The depiction of their home lives is meant to fill in a human dimension that will be effaced by the mud and noise of Ia Drang; Moore, for example, is devoted to his wife (Madeleine Stowe), his five children and his Roman Catholic religion. But the scenes are so clogged with sentiment that they have the opposite effect. We would care more about these men and their loved ones if they were allowed to display more ordinary human foibles, perhaps a touch of weakness, meanness or vanity.
Like the book on which it is based (written by the real-life Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, a journalist played in the film by Barry Pepper), We Were Soldiers is intended to be not only the story of the men who fought at Ia Drang, but also a tribute to them.
The bluff esprit de corps that informs the book has clearly influenced Wallace's approach to the story. It's as if he feels that to probe too deeply into the lives of the characters would be to betray them, and so his soldiers are presented without blemish. The domestic world they inhabit -- of station wagons and whitewashed houses, patient wives and obedient children, where racism is a rumor and sex the vaguest of notions -- seems mythical and unreal, a nostalgic projection of American innocence that has existed only in the movies.