By Fred Harvey
The History Place
This film marks the return of John Wayne style battle movies to America's post September 11 culture, and contains nothing we haven't already seen before in dozens of Hollywood war movies. This time we're back in Vietnam.
We Were Soldiers, directed by Randall Wallace and starring Mel Gibson, takes us along with the U.S. Army's 7th Air Cavalry in 1965, when American troops were first becoming directly involved in fighting North Vietnamese soldiers. The film chronicles the famous Battle of Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam's Central Highlands. Here, for the first time, a large number of U.S. troops used Huey helicopters to fly into hostile territory, jump off, and go straight into battle, a technique that became standard practice throughout the Vietnam War. The Battle of Ia Drang also marked the first big showdown between U.S. Army combat troops and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars.
The American troops are led into battle by Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, played by schmaltzy Mel Gilbson like a reincarnation of John Wayne, with plenty of 'Aw Shucks' patriot clichés and phoney-baloney red-white-and-blue emotionalism. But wait, it gets worse. All of the soldiers in this flick are like John Wayne. They're all emotional clones from the unreal factory, and nearly impossible to relate to as real men. And so, when these guys finally go into battle after the long, long send-off from their stateside families, we watch the bloody action on screen in a rather detached manner and that's not good.
The battle sequences have all been seen before and certainly done better. Basically, if you want to save yourself the price of a theater ticket, simply watch a video of Oliver Stone's Platoon and replay (over and over) the part of the movie toward the end when Charlie Sheen and his buddies get overrun by the NVA. That's what We Were Soldiers pretty much looks like for a good hour and a half.
When it doesn't look like Stone's movie, We Were Soldiers diverges a bit and looks more like one of the yucky old Sam Pechinpah westerns where guys get shot in super slow-motion, spattering blood everywhere and giving us a chance to actually tally up the number of bullet holes in their gut.
Other times, We Were Soldiers takes a lesson from the touchy-feeley World War II saga Thin Red Line and lets us learn about the humanity of the enemy. We get to know an NVA soldier who keeps a diary and writes down all his sensitive thoughts and stuff, just before he dashes off like a maniac into battle against the Americans.
We Were Soldiers has absolutely nothing new to add to our understanding of Vietnam or of warfare itself. The film makers obviously played it very safe, taking a little bit of this, a little bit of that, presenting us with a commercial project that is a waste of time for anyone who wants to learn something.
The reliance of a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C., to wrap this film up is an utterly cheap tactic designed to lend emotional credibility to this exercise in war-schmaltz.
Which leads me to wonder - What the hell is the point of making a movie like this about Vietnam? Money? Vietnam was the worst catastrophe the United States ever became engaged in, an absolute waste of human lives and potential, caused by politicians stumbling and bumbling into a war against Communism that mainly served to inflict unimaginable suffering on Vietnam's civilian population - a population mostly dumbfounded by all the war madness. Yet, what we have here is really a kind of 'feel good' Hollywood movie about the Vietnam catastrophe, when there simply was not then, nor will there ever be, anything to feel good about.
Rated R for war violence and language.