For this day after Veterans Day, here's a film about soldiering that wears its allegiance in its very title. It was released about six months after 9/11, in the spring of 2002, and in that sense is a movie about an old war seen through the lens of a new one:
The best thing about We Were Soldiers is how bad it is. I don't mean 'bad' in the sense that it's written and directed by Randall Wallace, screenwriter of Braveheart (which won Oscars for pretty much everything except its screenplay, which was not overlooked without reason) and Pearl Harbor (whose plonking dialogue has been dwelt on previously in this space). Mr Wallace is as reliably uninspired as you can get.
And yet it serves him well here. Pearl Harbor was terrible, but it was professionally terrible, its lame dialogue and cookie-cutter characters and butt-numbingly obvious emotional manipulation skillfully woven together into state-of-the-art Hollywood product. By contrast, in its best moments, We Were Soldiers feels very unHollywoody, as if it's a film not just about soldiers, but made by soldiers - or at any rate by someone who cares more about capturing the spirit of soldiery than about making a cool movie. It's the very opposite of Steven Spielberg's fluid ballet of carnage in Saving Private Ryan, and yet, in its stiffness and squareness, it manages to be moving and dignified in the way that real veterans of hellish battles often are.
This is all the more remarkable considering that it's about the first big engagement of the Vietnam war, in the Ia Drang valley for three days and nights of November 1965. In those days, the word "Vietnam" had barely registered with the American public and the US participation still came under the evasive heading of "advisors". In essence, the 1st Batallion of the 7th Cavalry walked - or helicoptered - into an ambush and, despite being outnumbered five to one by the enemy, managed to extricate themselves. Colonel Hal Moore, the commanding officer of the AirCav hotshots, and Joe Galloway, a UPI reporter who was in the thick of the battle for two days, later wrote a book - a terrific read. That's the source material from which Wallace has made his movie, with Mel Gibson as Moore and Barry Pepper as Galloway.
We Were Soldiers opens with a brisk, unsparing prelude - a massacre of French forces in the very same valley, 11 years earlier. Then we're off to Fort Benning, Georgia a decade later, where Colonel Moore and his grizzled old Sergeant-Major, Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott), are training youngsters for a new kind of cavalry. "We will ride into battle and this will be our horse," announces Moore, as a chopper flies past on cue. Basil Plumley, incidentally, is not in the least bit plummy or Basil-esque. He's the hard-case to Moore's Harvard man, a fairly predictable social tension, at least to those BBC comedy fans who treasure the "Dad's Army" inversion, with lower middle-class Arthur Lowe and his posh sergeant John LeMesurier.
Wallace turns a great book into a clunky film, and at first it seems as if he's doing the usual adapter's shtick of taking a vivid real-life story and shaving all the edges off to fit the usual cliches. The Fort Benning scenes become incredibly irritating in their bland gee-whizzery. There's always some kid around to prompt Mel Gibson to wax philosophical, as when his five-year-old cute-as-a-button daughter asks him, "Daddy, what's a war?"
Meanwhile, Mrs Moore (Madeleine Stowe) serves as den mother to the army wives, clustered around the living room like a convention of 1960s sitcom spouses. One of them is puzzled because she's just been into town and discovered that the local laundromat won't let her wash her coloreds (there's a sign in the window saying "Whites Only"). As in Pearl Harbor, the clothes and hairdos look just right, but the characters and emotional moment feel phony.
But once Mel & Co hit 'Nam, We Were Soldiers lives up to its title, as if happy to have its studio-mandated soppy-girly scenes behind it. At the time of its release, it was fascinating to watch the hasty and not entirely voluntary evolution of the Hollywood war movie post-September 11th. You'll recall the moment in Saving Private Ryan when Tom Hanks says, in all seriousness, that maybe saving Private Ryan will be the one good thing to come out of this lousy war. Hollywood still can't bring itself to be patriotic, to fight for a cause, so in the modern war movie, detached from the morality of the cause, military values - honor, courage, comradeship - exist in a vacuum, the soldier's professionalism its own raison d'ĂȘtre.
That's a problem dramatically, but it's an amazing transformation nevertheless. A Vietnam movie like this would have been unthinkable 20 or 30 years ago, or at any time since John Wayne made The Green Berets. This is a film where soldiers lie burned and bleeding and say "I'm glad I could die for my country'"without a trace of Altmanesque irony or Oliver Stoned mockery.
Perhaps the scene that sums up what changed - if only in that brief period of post-9/11 national unity - is the moment when Joe Galloway's fellow members of the press corps are choppered in after the battle. Galloway himself has been transformed by what he's experienced: he understands now, he gets it. Meanwhile, they cluster around Colonel Moore asking the usual idiot how-do-you-feel questions: "How do you feel about the loss of your men, sir? Have you notified their families?" In this film, soldiers are intense, heroic, highly skilled - and the media are a bunch of droning boneheads in safari suits. Who'd have thought it? Considering that for the previous three decades the press congratulated themselves for being the real heroes of Vietnam - getting the truth back to the American people, etc - this scene seems almost heresy.
Mel Gibson? Oh, he's fine, if you make allowances for the wandering southern accent. The real problem is the characterizations of his men, whom Wallace completely fails to distinguish from one another. That's a pity. One of the reasons Colonel Moore wrote his book was to memorialize as individuals, as personalities, the men under his command. It's wellworth reading.
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