Rated R - Running Time: 2:17 - Released 3/1/02

A hard-hitting, gritty account of one of the earliest battles of the Vietnam war in which Americans were involved, Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers recounts the first landing of the 7th Cavalry Regiment in November 1965 into the Ia Drang valley, which would later come to be known as the "Valley of Death." Based on the book We Were Soldiers Once, and Young by Joseph L. Galloway and Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, it features fine performances by Mel Gibson (as then Lt. Col. Moore, operation commander), Barry Pepper (as then Army reporter Galloway), Chris Klein, Greg Kinnear, and many others. Unfortunately, the screenplay adaptation by director Wallace (Braveheart, Pearl Harbor), and his direction, seem to lean toward melodrama, especially in the scenes among the soldiers' wives back home. This fault doesn't seriously mar the film, but it takes away from its overall impact by occasionally pandering to the audience's sympathy with overly dramatic dialogue rather than simply telling the story in a straightforward and ultimately more effective way.

At the film's beginning, we see some footage of the war that occurred in the same place in the 1950s between the Vietnamese and the French Army, who lost their long-held control over Indochina during that very bloody struggle. We then meet Lt. Col. Moore, who is preparing his as yet inexperienced men at Ft. Benning, Georgia, for their first assault against the well-entrenched North Vietnamese Army, using the "Huey" helicopters that would become one of the most prominent symbols of the war. Between goodbye scenes with his wife Julie (Stowe) and children, Moore is shown at the base, talking to young soldiers like Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Klein), Huey pilots like Maj. Bruce Crandall (Kinnear), and his crusty second-in-command, Korean War veteran Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott). We then move to the combat, which took place over three days in Nov. 1965.

Throughout the battle we are kept aware of Moore's desire not to repeat the mistakes of the French, and also of General Custer at Little Big Horn, as the script draws repeated similarities between those battles and the one currently under way. The actual combat footage is tense, violent, and loud, as would be expected, with inspiration clearly drawn from the likes of Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Each time the Americans seem to be controlling the conflict, the NVA launches a devastating counter-attack, once again turning the tables. Soon the Americans are surrounded and cut off from their supply lines, and it is the duty of Crandall and his fellow pilots to fly into heavy fire to rescue the men. Meanwhile, back at Ft. Benning, we witness another horror of the war in the form of telegrams that are delivered to the wives of each soldier killed in action.

Of course all the leading actors are fine in this film, and the combat intense and realistic, but the battle strategy (of which we see both sides, cutting back and forth between the American and Vietnamese command posts) is somewhat unclear, resulting in a lot of bloody footage without any real explanation of what the objectives were or why certain actions were taken. It's all very fascinating in a morbid sort of way, but it's hard to keep up with who's where and which side is more in control of the battle. Of course, this may be the intention of director Wallace, to show the confusion and futility of the situation, but it hinders the viewer's understanding of what's going on. Still, We Were Soldiers is a gripping, fast-moving film that will be added to the short list of quality movies focused on the U.S. conflict in Vietnam. ****

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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