Directed by Randall Wallace, starring Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Keri Russell and Barry Pepper.
There are consistent scriptwriters, there are consistent directors, and then there is Randall Wallace. Having come to prominence in 1995 as writer of the widely acclaimed epic 'Braveheart', Wallace marked himself out as one to watch. Since then, by any stretch of the imagination, he has simply dropped off the radar. In 1998 he scripted and directed the execrable 'The Man In The Iron Mask', while his creative nadir arrived (we hope) last year in the form of his writing credit on the nauseating 'Pearl Harbor'. Here the omens are somewhat better as he is re-united with Mel Gibson for an adaptation of the book 'We Were Soldiers Once…And Young', which chronicles what is considered to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
Gibson plays Lt Col Hal Moore, a decorated soldier, and earnest family man, who is asked by his superiors to lead 400 US soldiers into the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam in 1965. History weighs heavy on Moore's mind, as he struggles to banish the thoughts of what happened to a group of French soldiers in an earlier battle with Vietminh soldiers on the exact same spot he and his men are bound for. He's also cognitive of the fact that he's leading the same regiment that Custer led – the First Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry. But Moore, as we soon learn, is a born leader and hero; and after a brief period of family bonding and military training, Wallace brings us straight to the business of the battlefield.
Although the action sequences lack the visceral impact of those in Ridley Scott's recent 'Black Hawk Down', they are never less than impressive and, unlike in Scott's film, benefit from a sharper sense of dramatic pacing. Wallace wisely chooses to juxtapose the insane slaughter in the Valley of Death with depictions of the grief and hope of the soldiers' families back home. Admittedly, we never get any real sense of the trauma of the loved ones, but with recent war movies tending to rely solely on a relentless barrage of bloodshed to pummel the audience into submission, the scenes away from the Ia Drang are more than welcome.
It's futile trying to analyse Gibson's performance because with an actor as limited as he is, it's obvious he'll do his usual good-guy-with-a-violent-streak turn – which is exactly what we get. Elsewhere, head wife Madeleine Stowe shows off her newly collagen-enhanced lips, which actually come in handy as they quiver at the arrival of each death-signalling telegram; Greg Kinnear has little to do as a loyal aircraft pilot, while Sam Elliott, as Gibson's trusted Sgt. Major, simply rehashes the gruff persona he presented in Rod Lurie's 'The Contender'.
'We Were Soldiers' is no 'Platoon' or indeed, to give a more recent example of outstanding war movies, 'The Thin Red Line'. And it's likely that many will translate its attempts to empathise with both sides as nothing other than a perfunctory gesture at fair-handedness, and a lazy analysis of the Vietnam War as merely a Pyrrhic victory for the Yanks. Ultimately, though, it staggers out bloodied, partially bowed, but at least not totally beaten. Joe Galloway, the war reporter who co-wrote the source material with Hal Moore, says he rates the movie as being about 85 percent accurate and 15 percent 'Hollywoodized'. He's probably being overly generous to the filmmakers, but considering this could have been a whole lot worse, Galloway's ratio is probably fuelled by a sigh of relief at Randall Wallace's improvement on his last two efforts. At least the latter's not consistently bad. Yet.