is infinite and at bottom unknowable. It's been said that every man fights his own war
, and the echoes of General William C. Westmoreland's
time in Vietnam
are assuredly different from my own, just as my war bears little resemblance to that of the men who fought in the Ia Drang Valley in November of 1965.
Perspective, in the sense of even-handedness, in war movies is practically impossible, if only because there always has to be a "bad guy." In the quarter century since the end of America's involvement in Vietnam, each attempt by Hollywood to "get it right," has met with something less than complete success. The best of the Vietnam films, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, 84 Charlie MoPic, Born on the Fourth of July, were honest and true to the memory of those who fought and died there, but in the end—sometimes purposefully, at other times because of budget and politics—each of these movies failed to bring perspective into the theatre. Each of these movies succeeded in describing a piece of what has come to be called the "elephant" of war. But none of them has shown us the whole lumbering unpredictable beast that is, in the end, personal.
Vietnam's a hard one to get right, precisely because of the pervasiveness of the media in those years. They tell us Vietnam was the "first television war." If that indeed is the case, than what we came to view as "real" in Vietnam is, by definition, a lie. Because television must be considered to be unreal. It is "directed." It is "photographed." It is—most mendaciously of all—"edited."
War, the whole damn elephant, can only be experienced. You don't get to pick and choose and "do over" in war. You're lucky if you even get to walk away. That being said, Randall Wallace's new Vietnam film We Were Soldiers is the most honest and unrelenting look at the life of an infantryman that has ever been filmed.
Which, I know, is saying a hell of a lot.
But what's in play this time around is the fact that the story of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry's four day baptism by fire in the Ia Drang Valley—the first large-scale battle in the Vietnam war—is absolutely true, and it is told from a field grade officer's point of view, which means it's not a Vietnam movie about potheads, malcontents, and "rock n rollers with one foot in their graves."
The screenplay, by Wallace, who also wrote Braveheart, is adapted from the book We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, by
Harold G. Moore, a West Point Lieutenant Colonel who commanded the unit, an element of the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile), and Joseph Galloway, a UPI reporter/photographer. Both men were there. And both men were committed to describing the entire elephant. "We knew what Vietnam had been like, and how we looked and acted and talked and smelled," they wrote in their introduction. "No one in America did. Hollywood got it wrong every damned time, whetting twisted political knives on the bones of our dead brothers."
By definition, a field grade officer has to see the Big Picture. Unlike the privates and the officers who command the privates—the Lieutenants and the Captains—a Lieutenant Colonel's job is extremely complex. He is privileged to get a look at the Big Map, but he is tasked with being on the ground, with his men, where the bullets fly and the blood flows. It is the matter of leadership, of being in command, that is the subject of We Were Soldiers, and we've never seen that before in a Vietnam film. What's it like to be responsible for the lives of 450 men, most of whom you barely know? What does it mean to kill 1800 Vietnamese regulars in their own backyard? What is the true cause and effect of leadership? How do you train a leader? How do you keep him alive that he might teach others and thus keep them alive?
Mel Gibson portrays Lt. Colonel Hal Moore to perfection. For this viewer at least, it's as if Mad Max, William Wallace, and The Patriot were all just preparatory to the delicate work that Gibson does in this film. The simple actor's choices that he makes in solution to the quandaries of making a film about still-warm history are profound. If they are "politically correct"—Patriotic. Devout. Paternal. Sentimental. Honest— I leave to the sort of people who need to define those things for whatever reason. I only know what sort of man I'd want leading my army, and I'd pick Gibson's Colonel Moore over William C. Westmoreland every time.
Wallace has the good sense as a second-time director to cast the always-fascinating Sam Elliott as Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, Moore's strong right hand, a grizzled World War II paratrooper who's seen it all, and who seems to have most of the film's best lines: To the Colonel, during a moment of doubt: "Sir, Custer was a pussy. You ain't."
Barry Pepper, Hollywood's go-to "steady" guy of choice (The Sniper in Saving Private Ryan, Roger Maris in 61) is equally well-cast as Galloway, the man of conscience, a "non-combatant," the reporter who wants to tell America the truth but discovers that the truth is mostly something no man or woman should have to hear.
Greg Kinnear is marvelously, tirelessly heroic as chopper pilot Bruce Crandall, who returns to LZ X-Ray time after time after time, for four days, carrying supplies and the wounded and dead in and out of what came to be known as the Valley of Death.
Most significantly, however, writer-director Randall Wallace has chosen to show us more of the elephant than we have ever seen before in a single film. Steven Spielberg, of course, broke new ground in the depiction of explicit battlefield action in Saving Private Ryan, and there is much of that here, but the biggest departure from "standard" Hollywood war movies is the exact placement of this gem of a war movie in its historical and emotional setting.
In a brief prologue, we are reminded that the French preceded us into the Valley of Death. Not accidentally did the Vietnamese have an ancient proverb: "He who controls the Central Highlands controls Vietnam." A French patrol is cut to pieces in the first three minutes of the film, and this fatefully ironic order is given when the Viet Minh commander is asked "Do we take prisoners?": "No," he says, "kill all they send and they will stop coming."
We Were Soldiers tells also the story of the women and children who waited back home for dreaded telegrams regarding husbands and fathers, the simple matters of cooking and cleaning and sleeping and going to school made frustrating complex by not knowing. By imagining the worst. By, often, being told the horrible truth in the most horribly mundane way. Madeleine Stowe is transcendent as Colonel Moore's wife Julie, mother of their five children, a woman who takes it upon herself to inform each and every new widow, personally, of the greatest change in her life she will ever know.
And finally, there is the enemy. Not faceless in this film. Not inscrutably martially artistic. This is the most even-handed treatment of the North Vietnamese Army you are likely to find anywhere, and it is a tribute to Wallace that he retains every word of Moore's and Galloway's dedication to their common enemy:
While those who have never known war may fail to see the logic, this story also stands as tribute to the hundreds of young men of the 320th, 33rd and 66th Regiments of the Peoples Army of Vietnam who died by our hand in that place. They, too, fought and died bravely. They were a worthy enemy. We who killed them pray that their bones were recovered from that wild, desolate place where we left them, and taken home for decent and honorable burial.
This is our story and theirs. For we were soldiers once, and young.
305 Americans died in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley. More soldiers than were killed in any regiment—on either side—at Gettysburg.
Their names are engraved on the third panel to the right of the apex, Panel 3-East, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Please see We Were Soldiers. The men who survived Ia Drang are no longer young, nor should they be forgotten.
- I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
- A long time gone
- How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
- Libber and I go to war
- Fate takes a piss
- Thanks For the Memory
- Back in the Shit
- LZ Waterloo
- Saturday Night, Numbah Ten
a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate
Combat Infantryman Badge
Firebase Mary Ann
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?
A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
We Were Soldiers