Vietnam War

'We Were Soldiers' has history on its side in conveying the realities of war. But its credibility gets mired in a swamp of sentiment and patriotic cliches.

March 01, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A taut and iconoclastic war film lies buried beneath the blood-soaked corn of We Were Soldiers. Rarely has a movie stuck so close to the facts, yet felt so false.

Once the movie draws us into the little-known battles of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965, the harrowing tale of 400 Americans going up against 2,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong rouses attention and respect no matter how awkward the execution.

But writer-director Randall Wallace doesn't inspire belief even when history backs him up. He works too hard and hokily to establish Americans as warrior-idealists. His sentimental strain infects the whole movie.

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and Pearl Harbor (and wrote and directed the turgid 1998 The Man in the Iron Mask), tries to create a Vietnam War movie that honors the American fighting man. Though the goal is worthy, the result is another counterfeit World War II movie - much better than Pearl Harbor, but equally relentless in its forced emotions. Wallace doesn't let our respect for these champions grow. He jerks tears for his fighters before they spill a drop of blood.

As a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, the movie's real-life hero, retired Gen. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), was an incredibly quick-witted and sure-footed field commander, as well as a pioneer in the use of helicopter-driven combat units. He won a Pyrrhic victory at the Ia Drang Valley in the first major engagement of American and North Vietnamese troops.

Leading the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry, he suffered staggering losses - but inflicted even worse ones on his opponent. The outcome helped convince higher-ups that the Vietnam War was winnable. Maybe it would have been if they'd listened to men like Moore.

According to the gripping source book, We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young, Moore possessed a sophisticated idea of Vietnam's military challenge. In the movie, we have to take his erudition on faith. All we see him do is draw up a list of French mistakes and become obsessed with massacres, especially the ones that befell his 7th Cavalry predecessor, Custer, at Little Big Horn, and the French troops who fell 10 miles west of An Khe. (Moore wrote the book with Joseph Galloway, the courageous UPI correspondent who entered the thick of the fighting. In the movie, Barry Pepper's Galloway functions as the audience's surrogate, a noncombatant drawn into Moore's band of brothers.)

Into battle

The ambush near An Khe on June 24, 1954, opens the movie, with the sweating, white-capped French soldiers looking as out of place and easy to spot as the Redcoats were to Revolutionary War guerrillas. By the time Moore arrives in Vietnam, he and his collaborators have put together a new sort of combat unit - in theory, able to strike with unexpected force and swiftness thanks to helicopter transport and troops trained to debark on the fly.

The American leaders are as anxious to pitch Moore's men into the fray as the Vietnamese are to confront them and learn their techniques. That's what happens at the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam's pivotal Central Highlands.

Before we get there, Wallace wants us to meet and grow fond of the soldiers and their wives and children as they assemble in Fort Benning, Ga. Moore instills family values in his unit and stays true to them in his home, where he and his wife (Madeleine Stowe) raise five kids without a hitch - although as one comic scene tells us, he's Catholic and she's Methodist. That must be their only disagreement.

The effective scenes at least reactivate cliches. Sam Elliott's extraordinarily confident and competent sergeant major, Basil Plumley, is one more comically gruff drillmaster, but he is entertaining, and he does get to prove his mettle in action.

The ineffective scenes just lie there on the screen with all their calculation exposed. Mrs. Moore takes charge of the officers' wives the way Lieutenant Colonel Moore does of their husbands. At their opening coffee klatch, one woefully green spouse warns her new pals that the washing machines in Georgia don't work with colored fabrics - they have these warning signs that read "Whites Only."

Wallace designs everything to demonstrate that the U.S. military represents what America should be. Too bad he writes and directs with a teacher's pointer.

Gibson has to muster every bit of gumption to keep the virtuousness from becoming stupefying. If Wallace gets away with this movie, it's because Gibson embodies old-fashioned manliness and valor with a quicksilver receptivity to his surroundings and costars.

Wallace, to his credit, tries to convey the respect Moore has for the North Vietnamese. He dedicates the movie to all who fell in the Ia Driang Valley, whatever their allegiance. But the result is equal-time banality - for example, when Wallace shows us that a bespectacled North Vietnamese soldier who tries to bayonet Moore carries a picture of his true love.

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