WE WERE SOLDIERS
written and directed by Randall Wallace with Mel Gibson, Madeline Stowe, and Barry Pepper opens March 1 at Meridian, Oak Tree, Varsity, and others
RAMBO IV MAY NOT be such a bad idea, to judge from this adaptation by Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace of the best-selling 1992 Vietnam account We Were Soldiers Once...And Young. The book's co-authors, Lt. Col. Hal Moore and journalist Joe Galloway, are the righteous, unconflicted protagonists of this violent, sad, patriotic flick. Back from Braveheart, Mel Gibson makes Moore a faultless, loving father figure to his troops and family. (As his wife, Madeline Stowe wears a variety of '60s housedress-housecoat ensembles while maintaining a stiff upper lip back home.) It's 1965, and Moore is eager to test new helicopter-assisted strategies in the field; on TV, LBJ's black-and-white presence makes the escalating Vietnam conflict an ominous opportunity.
One measure of a good war film is how long it takes to reach combat. Discounting a pre-credit massacre of French-colonial troops in '54, Soldiers loses considerable narrative momentum during 45 minutes wasted at Fort Benning, Ga., where we watch Moore's men go through the standard training montage. Characters are sketched perfunctorily: Greg Kinnear the swaggering chopper pilot (looking like he'd rather be in M*A*S*H); Chris Klein the nice-therefore-doomed lieutenant; Sam Elliott the tough, tall sergeant devoted to his C.O.
Then the shooting starts—and doesn't abate for almost 90 minutes. Soldiers is no Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down (the current benchmark for scary, chaotic battlefield realism), but it's an honorable if unremarkable treatment of well-meaning, overmatched men under fire. Moore goes in with some 400 troops against roughly 2,000 Viet Cong soldiers. He leaves with 155 dead and 124 wounded, harrowing stats.
That Soldiers is a true story makes its horror genuinely affecting. But its history is perhaps better suited to the History Channel. Having directed just one prior feature (The Man in the Iron Mask), Wallace is no Spielberg or Ridley Scott. Nor is he a Francis Ford Coppola or Oliver Stone, whose landmark 'Nam movies make Soldiers seem a thoroughly square, whitewashed affair. Where are the drugs, disobedience, and disgust? Instead of "The End," we have some doleful, apparently Scottish ballad. In Braveheart, the good guys were the natives fighting colonial oppressors. Here, Wallace grants some respect to the Viet Cong but ignores why we fought, and failed, to crush their rebellion.