We Were Soldiers

January 28, 2012 12 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton and Craig Roush

Plot: What’s it about?

In 1998, after Saving Private Ryan was released, I’m not sure anyone in Hollywood had any idea how much the film would affect war movies. But watching Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers, a cloying, heart-wrenching entry into an increasingly crowded genre, it’s clear that the tactics Steven Spielberg used in recreating the invasion of Normandy have become standard practice. As in any war movie nowadays, soldiers are cut down by ordinance and gunfire inches from the camera, blood flows freely, and severed limbs are the norm. The lesson to be learned, of course, is that war is hell, and no one hates it more than the men who have to fight it. Aside from these preconceived notions, however, We Were Soldiers boils down to a generic wartime masquerade buoyed by a strong lead performance from Mel Gibson.

Gibson is unfortunately responsible for Braveheart, one of the greatest epic films about (among other things) war, and so now whenever he gets in the saddle for something like this it draws the inevitable comparisons (the same thing happened to him in 2000 when he starred in The Patriot). Like Tom Hanks, he is incapable of making a movie without audiences inferring larger political implications — a move that often means overlooking his most obvious talents as an actor. Simply put, Gibson saves We Were Soldiers from being a decidedly forgettable movie.

Here, he embarks as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry regiment, whose 400 soldiers would become surrounded by over 1,800 North Vietnamese in the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. The actual battle — whose purpose may be less glamorous than some viewers would like — took nearly seven weeks to fight, but the Randall Wallace script focuses solely on the first three days of the conflict.

Wallace is also present as director and executive producer. He’s become a moviemaking Swiss Army Knife — he pretty much does it all — and since he wrote the script for Braveheart in 1995, he’s almost always been within spitting distance of Gibson. That’s good, though, because Wallace is unquestionably familiar with Gibson’s style, and whereas another director might have tried to contain the star within the film’s thematic boundaries, Wallace lets Gibson give the movie just what it needed — a healthy dose of Mel Gibson.

As Moore (who co-wrote the book We Were Soldiers Once … And Young with Joe Galloway, on which the Wallace screenplay is based), Gibson is robust, friendly, endearing, and courageous. He calls to mind images of John Wayne, but only because the movie is given over to Hollywood heroics, and those heroics naturally fall to the leader of the pack. As all talented actors should, he stands head and shoulders above his costars, including such names as Madeline Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Barry Pepper (who plays the movie’s version of Galloway), and Chris Klein. Gibson is the kind of actor that every marketer can plaster on posters and memorabilia without worrying that he’ll fail to dominate the film.

Unfortunately, the film can’t decide whether it wants to be a John Wayne kind of war film or a Ridley Scott/Steven Spielberg kind of war film, and that indecision ultimately consigns it to producing the least remarkable parts of both. This is, essentially, Pearl Harbor meets Black Hawk Down: Wallace’s intended, no-holds-barred depiction of warfare is sunk by his affinity for typical war film melodrama.

One of his main conduits to this melodrama is his occasional use of cuts back to the home front, where Madeline Stowe is the central player. She has the somewhat thankless role of Moore’s wife Julie, but she stars in many scenes that feel disconnected from the story of the 7th Cavalry. There’s an interesting angle here, to be sure, but it’s distracts from the film’s chief intent, which is to promote the battlefield morals cherished so dearly by Moore (that come from his experience as husband and father, as established in the film’s opening act). It also reeks of studio-inspired suggestions for Wallace to turn his script into something suitable for the whole family.

The North Vietnamese army is another tool that Wallace uses to ham it up. Unlike many current war films, Wallace seeks not only to personalize the Americans but to personalize the enemy as well. He offers several scenes inside their underground headquarters and allows them a more evenhanded presence than is usually found in a Hollywood production. But while his objectivity is commendable, it is only notable because it seems so ridiculous in a film that is otherwise not far from jingoistic, militant patriotism.

Such sentiments sell movie tickets, though. We Were Soldiers has an all-around appealing quality to it — it’s “audience friendly,” for lack of a better phrase. Wallace and crew do not shy away from graphic content, and the war scenes could go toe-to-toe with those found in Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan, but they do present a war movie that seems somehow more human than any to come before it.

Of course, it’s that very aspect that makes it seem like such a movie rather than an honest depiction of the Vietnam War. Unlike many war films, the first 45 minutes or so are devoted to developing back-stories for the principal characters, and in this respect Wallace belongs to the Spielberg School of Making War Films. But whereas the characters in Saving Private Ryan felt like soldiers in World War II, the characters in We Were Soldiers feel like they’re characters in a movie — like they’ve all got Lines To Say and Scenes To Act.

Unfortunately for We Were Soldiers, it is a decent movie in a genre that is crowded with far better representation. While this is no awful film — it’s almost hard to make a big-budget war film nowadays and screw it up — it is very much a movie that is unconcerned with the larger issues that suggest themselves in wartime and instead, simply a movie that is concerned with being entertaining to as many people as possible.

Video: How does it look?

The movie, long by today’s standards (running at 138 minutes) has been presented on a dual-layered disc with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 that has been enhanced for widescreen TV’s. While mostly consistent throughout, I found some scenes to suffer from heavy artifacting. Granted, this is a new to DVD movie and by all rights it should appear flawless, but then again I kept thinking of how much information is on the disc. A long movie, commentary, a Dolby Digital EX track and so on. I can only think that all of the supplements (which, arguably, aren’t that much) can compromise the integrity of the picture. Some scenes, however, looked crystal clear. I can only guess that perhaps some of the shots were shot that way intentionally to show how war might really look like. They don’t really comment on it in the commentary track, so I suppose we’ll never know. It’s not unwatchable, but just not up to the standards that Paramount has set for it’s new to DVD releases.

Audio: How does it sound?

I could be wrong, and probably am, but I think this might be one of Parmount’s first DVD’s to have a Dolby Digital EX track (6.1 channels that require the purchase of an EX receiver and a rear center channel speaker for those of you who are wondering). Quite simply, it rocks. Helicopters, guns and just about every other thing that is on screen sounds amazing. The surrounds are going throughout the entire movie and the sub kicks in on several occasions. Like Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down, this movie about war will bring you that much more into the film. This is one of those discs where you show your friends, turn up the volume and wake the neighbors!

Supplements: What are the extras?

While not sporting a plethora of supplements, this features a commentary track with writer/director Randall Wallace (who also penned a movie called "Braveheart"). Wallace, who is also featured in the featurette, kind of overlaps himself from the Behind the Scenes and on the commentary track. Still, the track is good, he’s proud of his work and has a great admiration/respect for the people in the war. Being a solo track, there are some gaps in it, but not that many. This might show how much work went into the film as he always has a lot of information about the film. Next up are ten deleted scenes with optional commentary by Wallace. The scenes are entitled "The Lake", "Soldiers’ Wives", "The Church", "Beck and Adams", "Snake and Too Tall", "Burning the Codes", "End of Big NVA Attack", "Courage is a Beautiful Thing", "Return to Camp Holloway" and "Moore Debriefed by McNamara and Westmorland". While based on the commentary, all of the scenes were supposed to be included; they were cut for the usual reason–time. At over two hours, the film needed less time for these scenes, but luckily for us, they’re all included on the DVD. They are presented in a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 ratio. Lastly, we have "Getting it Right: Behind the Scenes of We Were Soldiers" which concentrates on the book and how it was translated to the screen. The lines from the book "Hollywood has gotten the story of the Vietnam Veteran wrong every damn time…" were the obvious inspiration for the brutal reality of the film. Unlike most EPK featurettes, this is well-made and worth watching. On the whole, a good movie, awesome sound and even the picture is a bit iffy; this disc is recommended.

Disc Scores