We Were Soldiers (2002) – movie review

Share now:

Movie Review by Reece De Ville

Starring: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Keri Russell

Director: Randall Wallace

From one of the darkest hours in America’s participation in the Vietnam War comes the story of Lt Col Moore (Gibson) and his company, the First Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry. As with most operations against the Viet Cong, vital information is ignored by the Generals in charge as bravura and naivety reign over tactical positioning, leading to one of the greatest massacres in US history. Moore’s men find themselves outnumbered and alone in the la Drang Valley where a previous ‘invasion’ by the French had led to a bloody massacre, a fact not lost on Moore before and during the operation.

As is the fashion in modern-day war epics, the viewer is thrown into the very heart of the battle, and WE WERE SOLDIERS certainly follows that line. Indeed, Randall Wallace’s hyper-kinetic direction and use of searing sound as bullets thud and napalm sears across the landscape two hours of what could be the most intense and realistic look at modern warfare to date. The battle never rests, and the matter-of-fact way in which soldiers, both American and Vietnamese, are killed brings home the horror of such a pointless war. Each death, however significant, becomes insignificant in seconds. The final image is perhaps the most poignant too, being that of the Vietnam War memorial over which the names of soldiers lost in the battle of la Drang Valley are displayed.

However, as breathtakingly disturbing as the ongoing battle is, the emotional heart of the film suffers as a result. The first twenty minutes of the film seems rushed as little background is given on Moore’s military and personal history, save for a few passing comments of admiration and awe from the new recruits. Madeleine Stowe appears in a thankless role as Moore’s wife, with only the briefest of screen time to bring home the message that the War affected the wives of the soldiers also and made many a widow before the last few soldiers returned home. Both Chris Klein and Barry Pepper (who also narrates the film as war correspondent Joseph L Galloway) are underused in roles, which again seem underwritten. However, both impress with what little they have been given which almost makes up for Klein and Pepper’s participation in ROLLERBALL and BATTLEFIELD EARTH. Almost

Mel Gibson, Greg Kinnear and Sam Elliott are good value as always, bringing the necessary gravitas and grizzle to proceedings as is required. Kinnear in particular conveys the sense of sheer desperation and futility deftly as the never ending injured are ferried in his helicopter to ‘safety’. Gibson banishes all memories of Martin Riggs in a role, which needs a commanding presence without treading into boys-own hero territory.

WE WERE SOLDIERS is certainly able to sustain the interest over two and a half hours, and is technically stunning. But, this is a tale which rings too many familiarity bells to possibly find a new audience (platoon lost and outgunned in enemy territory: see HAMBURGER HILL, PLATOON etc), and cannot tear itself away from the battlefield for long enough to juxtapose Gibson’s predicament with that of Stowe’s. But, it is a heartbreaking story and one that should be told, but perhaps more as part of a history lesson and less as mainstream entertainment.

4 out of 6 stars