I struggled with how to start this post reviewing We Were Soldiers. I’ve already written at length about my dislike of most war movies in my post on Green Zone. After considering my options for this post, I decided to take a positive tone and acknowledge the value I do see in war movies. Like mother always said, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
I see two main things that good war movies do. First, they depict real events and soldiers worth memorializing. For example We Were Soldiers chronicles the Battle of la Drang on November 14, 1965, which was the first combat of the Vietnam War. Greg Kinnear plays helicopter pilot Bruce Crandall who made 20 flights into intense enemy fire to deliver ammunition and evacuate wounded soldiers. He was awarded a medal of honor. Memorializing important battles and soldiers is a worthwhile endeavor, even if it is not entertainment.
Second, good war movies memorialize innocent victims and/or the work of good people co-opted for evil ends. These are the war movies I like best. For example, The Wind Rises (a top 3 Hayao Miyazaki movie) beautifully tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi–the real-life engineer whose airplanes were turned to instruments of war. For a darker example, The Innocents examines how faith in God is tested by severe trauma after Polish nuns are raped by Russian soldiers in WWII. A good war movie leaves the viewer unsettled and feeling complex things beyond mere patriotism. We Were Soldiers doesn’t do this (for the most part), opting to lean into US patriotism.
In fact, love of God & country is central to the filmography of screenwriter & director Randall Wallace. He loves war movies and other inspirational stories. After writing/directing/producing three war movies (Braveheart, Pearl Harbor, We Were Soldiers), he made two inspirational sports movies (The Rookie, Secretariat) and a religious drama (Heaven is for Real with Greg Kinnear, which I reviewed here). One narrative thread connecting these movies is white people overcoming extremely long odds to emerge victorious. This is basically the theme of all dad movies, a genre I don’t like (i.e., this list is my movie anti-list, especially water-war-movie Master and Commander). Even so, I will do my best to review We Were Soldiers. Out of respect, I will break my tendency to just use actors’ names and highlight the names of the real-life soldiers they played.
We Were Soldiers (2002)
The first 40 minutes of We Were Soldiers shows how Mel Gibson (Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore) recruits and trains soldiers, while the last 100 minutes show Mel leading his men in the Battle of la Drang in Vietnam. Mel is married to Madeleine Stowe (Julie Moore) and they have five children. Mel wants to raise them Catholic, but appreciates the more free-form nature of approaching God inherent to Methodism. Numerous early scenes establish Mel as a man-of-faith, in prayer with his children to pray and later with a soldier. It’s clear that for director Randall Wallace, strong faith in God produces bravery on the battlefield.
In his army troop, Mel’s right-hand man is Sam Elliot (Sergeant Major Basil Plumley). Mel wants to fly his men into battle on helicopters, so he recruits pilot Greg Kinnear (Major Bruce Crandall) to lead the team of pilots. Other men in Mel’s crew include Chris Klein (Second Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan) and Marc Blucas (Second Lieutenant Henry Herrick). Klein’s wife is played by Keri Russell (Barbara Geoghegan) who gives birth to a baby girl just weeks before Chris leaves for battle. Keri and Madeleine form a soldier’s wives crew. Once the war starts, Madeleine and Keri bear the responsibility of delivering soldiers’ death notifications to the other women and these scenes are the movie’s strongest emotional gut-punches.
Then Mel’s men ship out to Vietnam and the battle happens. Vietnamese troops open fire on a US post, hurting no one, and flee into the mountains. They’ve set up an ambush and want the US army to pursue them. Mel’s men oblige, flying in helicopters and fighting in the Battle of la Drang. The battle lasts three days, with the severely outnumbered American men using air raids and heavy artillery bombardment to hold off the Vietnamese. According to Wikipedia, both sides claimed victory. Here are other interesting things that happen:
- On landing, Marc Blucas rashly chases a Vietnamese scout into what is clearly an ambush. As such, Blucas is one of the first soldiers to die. This carelessness feels like something that belongs to Blucas’ role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and not to his role here as Henry Herrick. In fact, according to IMDB this was a major goof as the real Henry Herrick proceeded more strategically.
- Barry Pepper plays Joe Galloway, a reporter who flies into the battle to report from the front lines. Joe Galloway’s book We Were Soldiers became the basis for the movie. (Sidenote: Barry Pepper also stars in Unknown with Greg Kinnear).
- Late in the battle, the mortars get so hot and the men have no water so they pee on the mortars to cool them down.
- America is convinced they will lose the battle and higher-ups repeatedly order Mel (i.e., Hal Moore) to return to base and abandon his men. Hal Moore survived and fought for another year in Vietnam.
Two things I didn’t like about We Were Soldiers were the chaotic filming of the Battle of la Drang and Mel Gibson’s performance. The battle lasted an excessive 100 minutes and constantly jumped ahead in time and to random locations like the ridge, termite mound, and creek bed. I couldn’t keep track of where specific soldiers were fighting even though I saw them for a full 100 minutes (or until they died). In addition, Mel Gibson has a very limited acting range and used a few different accents throughout the movie.
On the flipside, three things I liked about We Were Soldiers were the heavy toll of war viewed through the women’s club (discussed above), Greg Kinnear (more below), and Barry Pepper. Pepper arrives unprepared for the harsh conditions of war. His eagerness to report fades as he sees men die, is forced to shoot a gun, and watches a soldier burn alive. At battle’s end, he wears an expression of total defeat. In one of the movie’s best scenes, the heaviness Pepper bears is framed in sharp discord to the cheeriness of fellow journalists who bum-rush him for quotes on the ruins of the battlefield.
Greg Kinnear’s performance rivals Pepper’s. Major Crandall’s nickname was “Snakeshit” because he often flew his helicopter low to the ground. Greg’s deprecating humor irl fits perfectly with playing a man who bears such a nickname. In the movie’s opening scenes, he’s very carefree and goofy. He plays baseball with his men, using his pilot’s helmet as a batter’s helmet and joking about being called out at home. At the soldier’s farewell ball, Greg whips out his great singing voice to belt a tune. They’re short scenes, but full of the lighthearted touches that Greg does well.
Another thing Greg does well is emoting defeat. His face can carry the sorrows of the world. Once Greg is in Vietnam, the joy fades to sorrow. On the first day of battle, Greg flies to the landing zone (LZ) numerous times to bring in fresh troops. As the battle heats up, Greg’s countenance gets more dire and his eyes seem to die. At one point, Greg has two medevac helicopters trail him to evacuate wounded soldiers. But the LZ is hot with enemy fire, and the medevac pilots are too scared to land. Instead, Greg takes on the responsibility of flying out the wounded for the rest of the battle.
In Greg’s best scene, he returns to base at the end of day one. As soon as Greg lands, a medevac pilot aggressively confronts Greg, blaming Greg for taking him to a hot LZ. Greg is so worn down from the events of the day, he reaches his breaking point. He pulls his gun on the medevac pilot and has to be separated by another soldier. As Greg’s anger fades, he laments that the next day will be even more strenuous.
Unfortunately, we don’t see much more of Greg on the next two days of battle, except for airstrikes on the enemy. Even so, the emotional arcs of Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, and the Weeping Wartime Widows are the best parts of We Were Soldiers as they demonstrate the emotional and physical toll of war. Greg’s role was small, but good. He even had fun behind-the-scenes, adding humor to a strenuous shoot.
- A good war movie should depict real events worth memorializing and honor both the good soldiers and innocent victims of war. By these metrics, We Were Soldiers scores maybe a 6/10 as director Randall Wallace leans heavily into messages of US Patriotism.
- We Were Soldiers covers the Battle of la Drang (November 14-16, 1965), which was the first combat in the Vietnam War.
- The battle sequence was excessively long (100 minutes!) and chaotic, but the movie was saved by Madeleine Stowe, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper, and Greg Kinnear who showed the brutal effects of war on people’s lives and disposition.
- Greg Kinnear played Major Crandall, the lead helicopter pilot responsible for flying troops to battle and extracting wounded soldiers. Despite little screen time, Greg excelled in showing a war-induced change from cheery to sorrowful.
- Next-up: In my previous post, I said that the movies remaining in this project are either recently released or from the early 2000s. I like the idea of alternating eras, so next up is Strange But True from this year. The trailer is wild.
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