NOW PLAYING: We Were Soldiers

Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2002

To be perfectly honest, I was not planning on seeing We Were Soldiers, Mel Gibson's highly anticipated Vietnam flick. First, Vietnam movies start to wear on you after awhile. They're always bitter and depressing, and usually pretty long, at that. Also, the preview for this movie didn't impress me. Besides looking fairly typical, Mel Gibson's accent, somewhere between John Wayne and Jimmy Carter, got on my nerves immediately. Besides, I only get to see one movie a week and my wife didn't want to see a war movie. But, as fate would have it, she had to go out of town and threatened me with grievous physical harm if I went to see John Q without her, so I found myself buying a ticket to Soldiers after all. Am I glad I did.

We Were Soldiers tells the story of the first major battle between the Americans and the North Vietnamese army. Set in 1965, Vietnam and the conflict going on there were still relatively new to the American people. The fifties were only just ended, and the angry sixties had yet to rear their ugly head. When Col. Hal Moore, played with a surprisingly subtle, non-irritating accent by Mel Gibson, is called into battle, he knows it will be rough, but has no idea of how bad it can get. This is pre-Platoon, pre-Apocalypse Now, and pre-Black Hawk Down. He gathers his men together and in only one of the film's myriad heart-wrenching sequences, he tells them that he will leave no man, alive or dead, behind. And off they go.

The battle is rough. Really rough, but we should be getting used to that by now. Since Saving Private Ryan laid bare the horrors of battle in a gut-churning twenty-five minute opening sequence, war movies have been upping the ante, one by one. Black Hawk Down, Soldier's closest competition, hits the audience hard from nearly the word go and doesn't stop. We Were Soldiers goes it one better if only in sheer numbers. Bodies fall in waves and blood is everywhere. But somehow, this movie, though much more violent than its predecessors, leaves the audience with a better feeling than most war films. I don't know whether it has more to do with the nation's post 9/11 attitude, or the fact that this movie takes place before Jane Fonda taught us to revile our country's policies toward Vietnam, but Soldiers seems to have left all the political baggage behind. Gone is the fervent anti-United States attitude that seems to pervade most Nam flicks. Don't get me wrong, this is definitely an anti-war movie. I haven't seen a war movie yet that could be described as anything but negative toward it's subject matter, but Soldiers succeeds in showing the futility of war without destroying the character of the participants. In that way, this is an uplifting movie.

After the war, Moore chronicled the events of this horrific battle with the assistance of Joe Galloway, a young photo-journalist who is thrust into the thick of things after hitching a ride on one of the troop transport helicopters. Galloway, played by the extremely talented Barry Pepper learns first hand the difference between being a dead non-combatant and being a live participant, and is the only civilian to have been awarded the bronze star in Vietnam. The book they wrote together is called We Were Soldiers Once, and Young (a much better title, in my opinion, than the stunted abbreviated version the studio came up with) and has long been considered a classic of the genre. Only recently did the two agree to let Hollywood do a treatment of their work, having turned down multiple offer over the years, due mostly in part to the political slant that has become a standard of Vietnam films. "This movie is about the love between soldiers on the battlefield," Moore stated recently when asked about the differences between Soldiers

Also interesting in this film is the presence of the Vietnamese soldiers' point of view. Years after the war Moore, now a general, traveled to Saigon and actually met the Vietnamese commander he was pitted against. The two became friends, and perhaps it was that friendship that led to the excising of the standard view of the enemy as a nameless, faceless evil horde. Instead we see the Viet Cong commander caring for his men as Gibson does on the opposite side. We see that the enemy, too are soldiers, and young. We Were Soldiers is hard hitting and terribly sad (I'll never forget the scene where the Col.'s wife takes up the job of delivering the government telegrams to the new widows in the neighborhood), but it's fresh point of view and embracing attitude can go a long way toward healing some of our long-held national wounds. Grade: A

We Were Soldiers is rated R for intense violence.

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