This is big time Hollywood on the Vietnam War. It’s based on the story of the first battle between American forces and North Vietnamese troops in November 1965. Like Stanley Kubrick’s excellent Full Metal Jacket (1987), this is made up of two distinct parts; the preparation of a specific group of servicemen for battle – here it’s the US Army ‘helicopter soldiers’ of the newly created Air Cavalry, instead of the US Marines depicted by Kubrick – and an explicit second half concerning the ferocity of combat. Unlike Kubrick’s occasionally blackly comic, mostly scathing exposé of the dehumanisation process in military training, We Were Soldiers strives to resurrect the sort of conservative image of uplifting heroism in modern warfare that has, in recent decades, been damaged (some would say discredited) by other war movies, such as Oliver Stone’s semi-autobiographical, highly intense Platoon (1986) and Brian De Palma’s harrowing gang-rape shocker Casualties Of War (1989).
We Were Soldiers is based on the war memoirs of retired General Harold G. Moore and reporter Joseph L. Galloway. Mel Gibson portrays Colonel Hal Moore as a blandly stoic career soldier troubled by the hurried deployment of American infantry into NVA territory.
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Although director Randall Wallace manages to avoid the blatant jingoism of Rambo: First Blood 2 (1985), his attempt to recreate the battle of Ia Drang’s ‘valley of death’ with a sense of documentary realism (‘blood’ splashes the camera, repeatedly) is deplorably insincere, historically blindfolded, and deeply flawed as both stirring drama and graphic horror. Ignoring, entirely, the murky political agenda behind US involvement in Southeast Asia, this movie opts to concentrate on larger-than-life characters like Sergeant Major Plumley (a typically gruff Sam Elliott), and photojournalist Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper, star of Battlefield Earth), who appears unexpectedly halfway through the spectacular battle scenes.
Back on the home front, the usually marvellous Madeleine Stowe is watchable but unimpressive as Moore’s wife, taking on the thankless job of delivering hated telegrams to unsuspecting new widows. Obviously, Wallace draws such insipidly sentimental tears from the open well of Spielberg’s WWII movie, Saving Private Ryan (1998), but tends to overemphasise and misplace these sad moments in the narrative, so they detract from the largely relentless pace of the main action. Also, a heavily accented Scottish lament, which accompanies the scenes of impending doom and slow-motion carnage, is a misjudged affectation that mocks Americans of Celtic origin and reminds us of Gibson’s laughable star turn as William Wallace in the charmless and foolhardy epic Braveheart (1996).
I admit that We Were Soldiers does have its moments; explosive bomber raids by Navy jets and exciting helicopter flights over the hilly Vietnamese landscape deliver the goods as straightforward entertainment without drawing attention themselves as digital effects but, if you’ve seen one huge napalm inferno (even one that engulfs hapless US troops in ‘friendly fire’), you’ve seen ’em all – and the repetition of such costly visuals becomes a megabuck squandering annoyance.
The DVD comes in one of those ghastly cardboard boxes, and has Dolby digital 5.1 sound plus English subtitles for deaf. Disc extras include standard making-of featurette Getting It Right (25 minutes), in which various parties (including Moore) assert that this film is the best ever made about Vietnam, deleted scenes, trailer and TV spots, and a director’s commentary track.