Film of the Week: 'We Were Soldiers'

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  Feb. 28, 2002 at 11:40 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- The Vietnam War movie has attracted the considerable talents and even grander egos of legendary filmmakers, ranging from the operatic (Francis Ford Coppola of the grandiose "Apocalypse Now"), to the erratic (Michael Cimino of the fever-dream "Deer Hunter"), and even the quadratic (Stanley Kubrick of the coldly geometric "Full Metal Jacket").

Among the borderline megalomaniacal geniuses who have tried to impose their personal vision on the war, perhaps only the decorated Vietnam veteran Oliver Stone managed to focus -- in "Platoon" -- more attention on the soldiers than on the director.

So, it's something of a relief that the Vietnam combat movie "We Were Soldiers" -- starring Mel Gibson -- is in the hands of a less artistically ambitious (even if less talented) filmmaker. Randall Wallace is best known as the screenwriter of Gibson's memorable "Braveheart." This time he does double-duty, writing and taking over the director's chair from Gibson.

Wallace has condensed a celebrated nonfiction bestseller about the ferocious 1965 battle of Ia Drang Valley. The book was written by two survivors, battlefield commander Lt. Gen. Hal Moore (Gibson) and United Press International reporter Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper).

(Watching another UPI writer voluntarily helicopter in to cover a battalion on the verge of obliteration while I reclined in a comfy screening room chair was, personally speaking, a humbling experience.)

As with "Black Hawk Down," "We Were Soldiers" serves as a moving tribute to the fighting men, but not to the politicians and desk generals who expended them with no clear strategic purpose.

Just as in "Black Hawk," outnumbered U.S. Army troops chopper into an ambush. The Americans rule the sky, but the excellent North Vietnamese regular troops, dug deep into tunnels, own the underworld. On the surface, the two armies clash heroically, reminding us of how valiant our soldiers were before the politicians' refusal to try to win the war drained their morale.

Ridley Scott's powerful, authentic, but austere "Black Hawk" is the more stylistically striking. Also, the Vietnam film's aura of visual authenticity isn't helped by being filmed in the dry woodlands near Hearst Castle rather than someplace tropical.

Scott's movie is also more innovative. But not all of "Black Hawk's" new ideas -- such as having no central character -- are good ideas.

In contrast, Wallace's "Soldiers" is a more conventional Hollywood movie, complete with a big hero, a little romance, a little humor and lots of tears to complement the carnage. Of course, there are perfectly understandable reasons why the world loves conventional Hollywood movies. "Soldiers" is cornier than "Black Hawk," yet more emotionally cathartic.

Wallace's much-scorned script for "Pearl Harbor" tried to recreate "Titanic's" unlikely mix of macho machines and teenybopper treacle. In "Soldiers," fortunately, he's aiming instead at a more mature audience. In fact, although Moore & Galloway entitled their book "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young," the three top stars aren't all that young anymore.

Mel is now 46. The gorgeous Madeleine Stowe ("The General's Daughter"), who plays his loving wife, is 43. The 57-year-old Sam Elliott portrays the toughest Sergeant Major in the Army, perhaps because he's saddled with the Jeevesian name of Basil Plumley.

"Soldiers" reflects the old warrior's tragic view. Unlike "Apocalypse Now," which was billed an anti-war movie, but whose most famous scene -- the ride of the Valkyries -- has fired up young male would-be warriors for decades, "Soldiers" resists conveying the naïve youth's thrill in thundering into battle on helicopters.

Even more than "Black Hawk," "Soldiers" is hideously violent. Hundreds of men are gunned down, and nearly everyone seems to get shot in an artery, with blood squirting three feet in the air.

The most heartbreaking scenes, though, are back at Ft. Benning in Georgia. As the natural leader of the officer's wives, Stowe accepts the crushing job of delivering the dreaded telegrams to the brand new widows.

I don't understand why Stowe never became a huge star. In this role, for instance, she radiates erotic chemistry with Gibson, maternal warmth with her five children, and profound empathy with the widows. I guess the actress didn't want superstardom enough to sacrifice having a family of her own.

In contrast, it's easy to understand why the lanky Elliott has never attained the fame he deserves. He has been the Great American Cowboy Movie Character Actor during an entire generation of almost no Great American Cowboy Movies.

Gibson's performance might somewhat disappoint his fans, because it's not quite as charismatic or iconic as William Wallace or Mad Max. Gibson, though, offers an interesting portrayal of an outstanding officer, but one who lacks the "gravitas" to be the perfect natural leader. He exhausts himself keeping up a façade of martial greatness that gives his men the confidence to stave off annihilation. And, in the end, maybe it's no longer a façade.

Rated R for buckets of blood, but not much else that's objectionable.

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