Battle up

Mel Gibson plays Lt. Col. Hal Moore in the Vietnam throwback <i>We Were Soldiers</i>.

Mel Gibson plays Lt. Col. Hal Moore in the Vietnam throwback We Were Soldiers.

Rated 3.0

Writer/director Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers is proof that if you wait long enough, every kind of movie comes back into style. Like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, Wallace’s latest is a throwback to films like Pork Chop Hill and The Longest Day, that recount a battle from the past as a tribute to the men who fought it, with no examination of the policy or politics behind the war itself. In Pork Chop Hill the setting was Korea; in Black Hawk Down it was Somalia; in We Were Soldiers it’s Vietnam.

Mel Gibson plays Lt. Col. Hal Moore, the real-life commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Air Cavalry—the same regiment, we are informed, as Custer commanded at the Little Big Horn 90 years before. The battle is Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. It was the U.S. Army’s first major engagement in Vietnam.

All this is explained in the film’s press materials, but not in the film itself. Instead, Wallace concentrates on giving us the battle, dividing screen time between Moore and his men on one side, the North Vietnamese commander in his underground headquarters on the other, and the wives back in the States (led by Madeleine Stowe as Moore’s wife Julie), cowering in base housing dreading that telegram: “The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you … ”

If all this sounds awfully familiar—well, it is. In adapting Moore’s book about the battle, We Were Soldiers Once … And Young (co-written with Joseph L. Galloway, played in the film by Barry Pepper), Wallace shows a lazy tendency to rely on the time-tested conventions (which is the polite way of saying “cliches”) of war movies of yore.

Addressing his men in an airplane hangar as they begin their advanced training, Moore declaims, “We are the new cavalry, and this is our horse!”—and at that exact instant a helicopter thunders by outside the hangar, unseen and unheard until Moore gave it its cue. Later, while he’s reading a bedtime story to his 5-year-old daughter, she interrupts him to ask, “Daddy, what’s a war? Is somebody going to try to take your life?” Maybe I’ve just seen too many war movies and that’s made me too cynical. But if you can sit through moments like that without rolling your eyes to the ceiling, you’re a lot stronger than I am.

These early scenes tend to reduce Moore and his men to stereotypes. There’s Sam Elliott as the crusty old Sergeant Major, snarling and ramrod-straight. Chris Klein as the earnest, caring young officer, solicitous of his men and so proud of his newborn daughter that he wears a bead bracelet spelling out her name. Greg Kinnear as the helicopter pilot Capt. Crandall, nicknamed “Snakeshit” because that’s how low he can fly.

But if the characterizations of Moore, his men and their wives make them appear less than fully three-dimensional (and if the North Vietnamese are hardly characterized at all except as resourceful fighters and valiant foes), at least Wallace, in the battle scenes that make up most of We Were Soldiers, does justice to the savage combat itself.

That is, he does justice to it, but he can’t quite make sense of it. Of course, in the philosophical sense warfare is often senseless, but Wallace doesn’t manage to make dramatic sense of it—the way Ridley Scott did with the chaotic street fighting in Black Hawk Down. Wallace gives us subtitles that introduce stages of the fighting (“2:45 P.M.—The Knoll;” “6:30 A.M.—The Ridge”), but they don’t really explain as much as they seem to. Ridge? Knoll? How long does this battle last? One day? Two? Three?

The progress of the battle, the geography of the battlefield—and, for that matter, the reasons for Moore and his command to be there in the first place—are never more than vaguely indicated. All we see for sure is that our guys are surrounded by a hell of a lot of their guys, there’s an awful lot of vicious fighting, and, at length, Moore and his surviving command finally extricate themselves, taking their dead and wounded with them. Vietnam in a nutshell, I guess.