Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Randall Wallace
Stars: Mel Gibson, Barry Pepper, Madeleine Stowe, Sam Elliott, Greg Kinnear,
Saving Private Ryan set a new standard for war films with its gritty realism, while the recent Black Hawk Down raised the bar for the depiction of the intensity and brutality of conflict. We Were Soldiers again raises the bar for realism and graphic combat scenes in a war film, but it is also at times a moving tale of heroism under fire.
Based on a true story written by Lt Col. Harold Moore, We Were Soldiers depicts the first battlefield confrontation between American troops and the North Vietnamese army in Vietnam in November, 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley.
Mel Gibson delivers a strong, heroic performance as Moore, the veteran soldier who trains his inexperienced squad for combat and then leads them into the gruelling conflict. Moore’s unit is, somewhat ironically, the 7th cavalry, the same unit commanded by the ill-fated General Custer! We Were Soldiers is, ultimately, a bit like a Vietnamese equivalent of Zulu, as a small force of 200 US soldiers grimly defend their position against an overwhelming number of enemy forces for three long and gruelling days, resulting in high casualties and a pyhrric victory for the Americans, who were then dragged into a conflict they were always destined to lose. The scenes of unrelenting chaos and bloody battle are poignantly contrasted with those of the wives back home being told of the deaths of their loved ones by telegram initially and coldly delivered by taxi because the US Army wasn’t able to get its act together in time.
And in a similar fashion to the recent, much maligned Pearl Harbour, We Were Soldiers also attempts to put a human face on the enemy, in particular the Vietnamese commander. The film also somewhat poignantly explores the futility and waste of war, and delicately poses the question of what America was doing there in the first place.
Writer/director Randall Wallace (who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Braveheart) certainly keeps the intensity going here with some quite graphic battle sequences, but one wonders how much Gibson himself had a hand in shaping the film. Technically the film is brilliantly constructed, with the complex battle scenes spectacularly staged. Dean Semler’s cinematography is also superb.
While Gibson has a solid presence, Sam Elliott is superb in a scene-stealing performance as the laconic, gruff, seemingly invulnerable veteran sergeant major. Greg Kinnear makes the most of a smaller, albeit showy, role as a cocky but heroic helicopter pilot, while Barry Pepper plays a hotshot photo-journalist who hails from a long line of military heroes but has opted to shoot this war with a camera rather than a gun. Madeleine Stowe is also memorable as Moore’s strong willed, take-charge wife who keeps the home fires burning.
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