We Were Soldiers (2002)

D: Randall Wallace
S: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe

Another impressively mounted but politically disturbing American portrayal of military conflict, this time set during the Vietnam war, a struggle which has already produced a variety of perspectives on the morality and ethics of American warfare. This account is based on the non-fiction book by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and war correspondent Joseph L. Galloway, both of whom fought in the strategically important battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. This battle saw some 400 American troops engaged in combat with about 2000 North Vietnamese soldiers. It was the most unlikely of victories, but it was won, with consequences for American involvement in Vietnam thereafter the results of which are well known by now.

The film follows the events from the point of view of then Lt. Col. Moore (Mel Gibson), a devout Catholic and career military officer with a wife and family. After being ordered to take charge of the newly revamped 7th Cavalry (the regiment famously led by Gen. Custer), Moore oversees the development of a new form of mounted combat, namely the use of helicopters to deposit and remove soldiers from the battlefield. The testing ground will be Vietnam, at that time a country still locked in civil war following the French defeat. The United States is technically not involved yet, at least not in full-scale war. Moore's guinea-pig operation turns out to be more of a test than anyone could have expected.

There are several interesting quirks to the representation of the Vietnam conflict in this film. The setting so early in the war makes the tricky questions of America's moral imperative to fight there less fraught. It also means that the portrayal of America at home is more in line with the kind of clean-cut innocence more associated with the 1950s. Though Johnson is President, this is almost an America where Kennedy was never assassinated. Certainly there is no sense of self-doubt or hesitation among the powers that be, and no 'war at home' to contend with yet. As such this is a very straight-faced representation of America during Vietnam, probably the least politically ambiguous portrayal of the conflict since The Green Berets. In this environment, Moore's only misgivings are strategic ones. Having studied the history of the Indochina war and being aware of the operational methods of his opposite number, Moore also finds himself reading much portentous material referring to Custer's last stand and finding the word 'massacre' in far too many books for it to be mere coincidence.

The film is militaristic in all senses, almost to the point where it alienates civilian viewers. This has been the trend in several recent American military themed films, and not merely those released since September 11, 2001. As far back recently as Rules of Engagement, American films have been representing the military as a self-sustaining, self-sufficient force which is not only capable of acting on its own to protect its interests, but which is morally obliged to do so.

In Rules of Engagement a military court finds an American officer not guilty of charges of violating the rules of engagement even though the crucial evidence which would prove his innocence (and he was innocent) has been destroyed by a scheming civilian. The implication was that the hierarchy will protect you, no matter what the cost. Words of comfort to the military, no doubt, but more disturbing from an outsider's perspective. When Jack Nicholson's character spoke of the necessity for iron warriors on the wall in A Few Good Men, there was, at least, an overriding sense of criticism to suggest ambiguity in how we responded to it. We may agree, but we were also reminded that the machine needs to be answerable to someone other than itself.

Similar troubling themes surface in Black Hawk Down where a keynote sentiment is sounded near the end by an Army Ranger about to go back into battle in spite of just having survived a gruelling mission. He explains that he simply has to go back, and that no one who hasn't been there and fought side by side with other soldiers can understand why. Fair enough, but there is a troubling undercurrent to the suggestion. It is as if those who volunteer for military service have earned entry to a higher order of civilisation because they have sworn to protect 'peace' at all costs. When Starship Troopers made the same suggestion, everyone assumed the film was being ironic.

We Were Soldiers continues to develop the theme that the American military is the true family upon which the foundations of the State are built. The film makes this explicit by splitting the action between the combat on the field and the lives of the Army wives at home in the States. Madeleine Stowe is introduced as Moore's (Methodist) wife, an understanding woman who eventually assumes the burden of delivering the news of their husbands' deaths to the other women. Though separated, these 'families' are shown to be tightly composed and co-dependent. Soldiers on the field refer to their wives and children, Moore in particular makes a speech about the relationship between being a soldier and being a father and there are many cross-cuts to make visual connections between 'home' and 'abroad'.

From a general point of view this is an understandable and sympathetic reading of the life of the warrior. We should not forget that soldiers are human beings with hopes, fears, feelings, and emotions, much as 'anti-war' films would argue they are not (or that they have been systematically purged of humanity by the 'system'). It is also fair enough to remind ourselves that this film is an adaptation of Lt. Gen. Moore's own account of the battle from his own perspective, and therefore likely to be infused with his moral and professional sensibilities. Diversity of opinion reflects diversity of experience and no story should try to take all points of view into account.

Yet part of the logical corollary to this thesis is that the military is a father to the nation, a paternal, protecting figure to whom we all owe unquestioning respect and admiration like a child in a 1950s sit-com. This is the disturbing element here, and it is one made all the more pronounced by representing the Vietnam war, usually a signifier of cracks in the system and ripe for counter-cultural reading, within the same frames of reference that more 'propagandistic' war films of the past were produced. There is an uneasy suggestion of Orwellian newspeak to it, as if the past is being rewritten. I know this is an exaggeration, but the point is still taken. Respect for those who lay down their lives in this manner is one thing, but unquestioning empathy is quite another. Are we all to become soldiers? Must we?

Why does any of this film school stuff matter? Should you go and see the movie or not? Well if you are looking for a very straightforward, well mounted evocation of combat and siege, then We Were Soldiers is the movie for you. Though not quite as gut-wrenching as Saving Private Ryan's opening scenes or pretty much all of Black Hawk Down, the film is an intense and involving representation of up close and personal violence on a massive scale. Its most immediate generic forebear is probably Cy Endfield's Zulu (a film to which Black Hawk Down has also been compared), but it also draws heavily on the American Western, not least of all in its explicit references to Custer. Ironically enough, part of the point of it seems to be to win back the flag for the General, as if Moore manages to overturn the result of Little Big Horn and wipe out the Indians.

The performances are generally good, although the characters do not stand up to much scrutiny given the unambiguous simplicity of the emotions which their fates are supposed to evoke. Gibson has a commanding presence, as always, although Moore's domestic and personal moments tend towards generic cliché in a way which belies his living presence in the world. He is certainly a less interesting character than William Wallace, but I guess that is what you get when you deal with someone who can advise you when you are writing the script. Sam Elliott is fun as a hard-nosed Sergeant Major, although we have, of course, from a generic point of view, seen this character before.

The combat scenes are exciting and well handled by director Randall Wallace (The Man in the Iron Mask). Costumes, cinematography, music, and pyrotechnics are all exactly what you would expect form a well-financed Hollywood blockbuster helmed by capable people. Wallace may have dropped the ball somewhat with his script for Pearl Harbour, but he shows more faith in cinematography and composition than Michael Bay. This allows his writing and his directing to work together to a satisfactory result. He tells this story well and works hard to establish the character dynamics upon which the emotional centre depends. If you rate a movie on its technical merits, then there is no problem. It works as narrative and as spectacle, even if it does not have great depth or intrinsic value as cinema on the whole.

We Were Soldiers is a disquieting film though. It demands and expects an emotional and intellectual response which runs contrary to general good judgment, especially at a time when tensions are running high and the threat of runaway militarism is so real. The film vividly creates a world in which a military ethos is more admirable (and natural) than a civilian one and in which the bonds between soldiers are shown to be more important even than country itself. There is a moment in the film when, as in Black Hawk Down, one soldier makes a speech to this effect, a startling, throwaway moment where he says that it is not a matter of cause or country when you are in combat, but a question of sticking up for the soldier standing next to you. Again, you can understand it, but the implications of this point of view are too worrying to pass without observation right now.

Like all works of propaganda, whether or not you call them propaganda depends on your point of view. Whether or not it works depends on the level to which its point of view is reinforced by other representations or utterances in the world beyond where you see it. Right here, right now, We Were Soldiers plays like a recruiting film for the military. At another time when the shadow of war has passed again, it will seem less so and more a story about soldiers seen from a soldier's point of view. It may or may not matter to you when you pay for your ticket, but it is worth bearing in mind.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.