Elevate the warrior, not the war: That's movie soldier Gibson's aim

March 10, 2002|By Ron Dicker | Ron Dicker,Special to the Sun

Old soldiers never die -- they're played by Mel Gibson.

"I guess I'm drawn to those stories," he said of his new film, We Were Soldiers, "the whole idea that when your back's against the wall, where do you go?"

Gibson said he did not want to stake out any moral ground in this true Vietnam tale. His hero in The Patriot (2000) began as a pacifist. His blue-faced Scotsman in Braveheart was a freedom fighter. In We Were Soldiers, he's a leader just doing his job.

Taking a cue from the man he portrayed in We Were Soldiers, Lt. Col. Harold Moore, on whose book the movie is based, Gibson wanted to act in a Vietnam story that would let audiences "hate war but love the warrior."

Over four days in November 1965, American troops triumphed over immense odds in the Ia Drang Valley. More than 2,000 North Vietnamese and 450 Americans began the fight. Just 200 Vietnamese and 200 Americans finished it, with the Vietnamese in retreat.

"It doesn't view conflict from a cynical place," he said. "There's no drug-taking, baby-killing lieutenant. It was true to the experience of those guys who were there."

Gibson, 46, appeared fighting fit in a denim shirt and wool vest during a chat in New York City. The star of the four Lethal Weapon movies has whittled his multiple-pack habit to just three cigarettes a day ("It's brutal") and is eating raw foods. One of the cornerstones of his diet is a blended avocado drink. So he's made concessions to age, but he isn't content to play Hollywood statesman just yet.

Although six years removed from winning best director and best picture Oscars for Braveheart, he has not lost his box-office luster. His past three films, What Women Want (2001), The Patriot and the animated Chicken Run (2000) all cleared well over $100 million.

"To get on-the-job training from him is a diamond," said Chris Klein (Rollerball), who plays a gung-ho officer in We Were Soldiers. "I was just watching him standing around and throwing pearls."

The occasional public-relations glitch has tarnished Gibson's image over the years. Anti-feminist remarks have been attributed to the actor, and he angered gay groups for including an effeminate Prince Edward in Braveheart.

Still, "If there's a hole in him," said Soldiers co-star Madeleine Stowe, "I don't know what it is."

Gibson will appear this summer in the next paranormal thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, Signs, and will then take to the battlefield again as Alexander the Great in a miniseries for HBO. The project is in pre-production and Gibson is looking for a director.

Gibson, who still lives in Australia with his wife, Robyn, reigned over Hollywood in the 1990s and his clout is still considerable. Asked if he had to be careful about planning his career from here, he said, "Put it this way: There's more opportunities to map it because there's a wider variety of choices you can make."

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