We Were Soldiers (2002): Randall Wallace’s War Movie, Starring Mel Gibson

The war genre, vigorously energized with such recent seminal films as Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Ridley Scott’s visually awesome Black Hawk Down, takes a steps backward with We Were Soldiers.

We Were Soldiers
Weweresoldiers poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

This old-fashioned, moralistic Vietnam War movie pays tribute not just to the soldiers in combat but also to the folks in the home front.

As directed by Randall Wallace, who also penned the dissatisfying Pearl Harbor, the film eschews the more significant political questions, instead centering on the sacrificial valor of one battalion headed by a courageous leader (played by Mel Gibson) during a crucial Vietnam battle.

We Were Soldiers, produced by Gibson’s company, adds another panel to the war heroes embodied by the mega-star in Galipoli (an early career highlight), Oscar-winning historical epic, Braveheart (also scripted by Wallace), and Civil War drama, Revolution, which, despite lukewarm reviews, earned over $100 million domestically.

Gibson plays Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, who led the First Battalion of the Seventh Calvary, the same regiment of the fierceful and fearful hero, General George Armstrong Custer, whose mythical status casts a shadow over Moore. For the most part, the Battalion consists of young, innocent men, but there’re also older men bearing the scars and decorations of previous wars, such as Sergeant Major Basil Plumley (Elliott).

“I can’t promise you that I will bring you back,” Moore tells his soldiers at Fort Benning before leading them into battle, “but I swear this: When we go into battle, I will be the first to step on the field, and I will be the last to step off.” He concludes his valiantly heartfelt speech with what the film’s powerful message, “I will leave no one behind, dead or alive. We will all come home together.”

In spirit, We Were Soldiers belongs to the movies made during and shortly after WWII, which presents a number of problems for revisiting such a turbulent war as Vietnam. For starters, there have excellent movies, among which Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning Platoon occupies a prominent place. We Were Soldiers doesn’t offer Rambo’s jingo heroism, or the impassioned metaphorical good versus evil of Platoon. It also successfully avoids the guilt issue that permeated Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

In its narrower thematic focus, We Were Solders resembles Hamburger Hill, John Irving’s underrated film that recreates the repeated attacks in 1969 upon Hill 937, which later serves as a symbol of Vietnam’s futile senselessness. Similarly, though set in November 1965, Wallace focuses on the intense four-day struggle during the Ia Drang campaign (in Vietnam’s Central Highlands), the war’s first major battle, in which 235 Americans died and 245 were wounded. Moore, who lost 70 of his soldiers, led a ferocious fight in a site known as Landing Zone X-Ray.

With all the narrative problems–the lack of distinguishable characters–of Black Hawk Down, what was refreshing about its meticulous reconstruction of the American military debacle in Somalia was the lack of rhetoric moralizing. As if trying to correct that movie’s problems, We Were Soldiers’ first reel constructs in great detail a sympathetic portrait of a classic American hero: Good at work and good at home. Late at night, loyal wife Julie (Stowe) watches her husband laboring over history books about massacres, some of which are in French, and strategizing alternative battles paths. Not neglecting his large family, Moore goes to church, attends social activities at the military base, and encourages his wife to become a leader among the women.

This being 1965, glimpses of racism are shown in a session, in which a naive white wife mistakes the sign of “no color” in the laundry room for non-white clothes, rather than black customers, only to be corrected politely by a black woman in the group.

Though basically a bloody, wrenching saga, by standards of Vietnam combat films, such as Platoon and Hamburger Hill, We Were Soldiers is a disappointing picture that lacks authentic look and feel. On the other hand, the audience will have several characters to root for, prominent among them is lieutenant Geoghegan (Klein), a newly wed fighter whose religiosity proves inspiring to Moore in a chapel scene (seldom seen in war films).

The most riveting figure is UPI war correspondent Joseph L. Galloway (a wonderful Barry Pepper, who excelled as the sniper in Saving Private Ryan), one day shy of his 24th birthday, who endured the brutal battle and co-wrote the book upon which the movie is based. Galloway out-hustles the other reporters at a firebase and asks to hop a ride to the action–“If he’s crazy enough, let him join,” Moore says. Forced to trade off his blown off camera for a gun never held before, he is the type of American hero who does the right thing–Galloway would win a Bronze Star for his valor in defending the beleaguered unit.

Raised in Refugio, Texas, and heir to a long warrior tradition, Galloway tells the film’s most touching “anecdote.” His great grandparents befriended as a result of a peculiar event: As Civil War vets, each of whom had one leg amputated, they would meet periodically to buy a shared pair of shoes.

This is Wallace’s second directorial effort, following The Man in the Iron Mask, with Leonardo DiCaprio, which enjoyed a marginal success. Here he is telling a tense human drama, adapted from a true account of battle, aptly titled “We Were Soldiers Once….and Young.” Wallace has expanded the story’s emotional scope by depicting the home front–the women left behind–which was only briefly mentioned in the book. Learning another lesson from Black Hawk Down, which consists of one relentless battle, Wallace intercuts the intense combat scenes and bloody carnage with how the wives dealt with the war, specifically the daily routine of conveying death telegrams to the young widows.

Another new angle of We Were Soldiers is a more careful presentation of the North Vietnamese soldiers as worthy and intelligent adversaries, who, like the Americans, were forced to leave their wives and children behind, and suffered heavy losses.

Disregarding the racial discord, individual clashes, indifferent home front, and belligerent media, all documented in other Vietnam movies, Wallace is determined to honor soldiers who took pride in being American warriors. But he pushes too much the notion of the battle as a noble memorial to the American experience, a microcosm which is viewed by him metaphorically with didactic and spiritual references that weaken the drama.

Gibson is a dashing popular star who, unlike Tom Hanks, lacks distinctive personality as an actor. There was always something of the naughty schoolboy and daredevil in Gibson’s screen conduct, and his breakthrough into “serious” roles (Hamlet) demonstrated limited versatility. Emulating Sean Connery, Gibson now wishes to establish a screen persona that’s not totally reliant on his action-hunk image (the Lethal Weapon movies) or satirical macho stud (Maverick).

In We Were Soldiers, which is structured as a star vehicle, Gibson is cast in a strong dramatic role, going for the grave nobility of Braveheart, but sans the latter’s intense severity. Blessed with a resonant voice, Gibson is such a disarming actor that he makes this flawed war drama watchable, occasionally even touching.


Directed by Randall Wallace
Screenplay by Wallace, based on We Were Soldiers Once… and Young by Hal Moore and Joseph L. Galloway
Produced by Bruce Davey
Cinematography Dean Semler
Edited by William Hoy
Music by Nick Glennie-Smith

Production companies: Icon Productions; Wheelhouse Entertainment

Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date: March 1, 2002

Running time: 138 minutes
Budget $75 million
Box office $114.7 million