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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
War as Art
by Betty Jo Tucker

Filmmaker Randall Wallace told USA Weekend, "When movies portray sound and fury and mayhem that we know in our hearts is false, then we’re diminished as a people. I think that is destructive art." Could he have been referring to Black Hawk Down? Perhaps, but Wallace’s new film, We Were Soldiers, also packs the screen with an abundance of sound, fury, and mayhem while creating its own gory battlefield art. Will this ultra-violent movie help heal the wounds left by the Vietnam war, especially those of the soldiers who fought there and their families? I hope so. Otherwise, it’s just another bloody war flick.

Because the US involvement in Vietnam met with such hostility at home, veterans of that war failed to receive the respect awarded to men and women who served in other wars. We Were Soldiers, based on the book by Lt. Col. Harold Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, attempts to make sure the men who died and survived from both sides of the first battle of the Vietnam War are not forgotten. One perceptive survivor of the battle depicted in We Were Soldiers explains, "What the Vietnam veteran needed was John Wayne, and Mel Gibson gives us our John Wayne. "

Gibson (The Patriot) portrays Moore, commander of the 7th Air Cavalry --- the first troops in military history to be dropped into a war zone by helicopter. Played by the charismatic Gibson (complete with an almost convincing Tennessee drawl), Moore emerges as the fascinating character this man must be in real life. Religion, love of family, and loyalty to his men make up Moore’s trinity of values. But an obsession with military massacres seems to take up a good deal of his time before his Vietnam assignment. He studies photos, books, and paintings about Custer’s last stand and a massacre of French soldiers by the Vietnamese. Imagine Moore’s dismay upon discovering his new battalion will be named the 7th Cavalry, the same as General Custer’s.

Instead of horses, Moore and his soldiers ride helicopters into battle. Like Custer and his men, they are surrounded and outnumbered by the enemy. After being dropped into Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley on November 14, 1965, a ferocious three-day battle ensues in which 450 U.S. soldiers fight against 2,000 North Vietnamese. But Custer lacked Moore’s leadership ability. The outcome in Ia Drang, though resulting in 79 deaths and over 100 wounded among Moore’s ranks, ended more favorably to U.S. forces --- or so we thought then.

Released so soon after Black Hawk Down, comparisons are inevitable between these two war movies. Both show how American soldiers fought courageously for each other against all odds, which included the unwise political decisions sending them into battle. However, We Were Soldiers includes respect for the enemy, more character development, and scenes about how families suffered along with the soldiers. In addition to Gibson’s Moore, two characters in this film held my attention every time they appeared on camera. The gravelly-voiced Sam Elliott (The Contender) adds humor to his portrayal of a gruff sergeant major whose tough demeanor hides a concern for the men equal to Moore’s. And Madeleine Stowe (Imposter) gives a poignant performance as Moore’s loving wife --- even though she looks more like Morticia from The Addams Family than her usual lovely self in this challenging role.

Director Wallace (The Man in the Iron Mask), who also wrote the screenplay for We Were Soldiers, once told me he chooses only film projects that emphasize courage, morality, and heart. His previous screenplays (Braveheart and Pearl Harbor) illustrate his interest in highlighting such important human values. But sometimes the noblest intentions go awry. By focusing on graphic battle scenes and the courage of the men involved, his films seem to glorify warfare. And, in We Were Soldiers, cinematic touches (i.e. a soldier’s arm looming up in the darkness and commanders from opposing sides looking at the same moon) transform the battlefield into a work of art. I can’t help it. This bothers me down deep in my soul.

(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "R" for sustained sequence of graphic war violence, and for language.)

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