A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

April/May 2002

We Were Soldiers

BY MARC LEEPSON 

We Were Soldiers, Randall Wallace’s film adaptation of Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s seminal Vietnam War tale, We Were Soldiers Once and Young, easily stands with the best Vietnam War films ever made. The movie, which Wallace wrote, directed, and co-produced, focuses on one of the most important engagements of the Vietnam War, the four-day November 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. And it focuses on the battle with an intensity matched in few films. 

More than an hour of this film consists of some of the most horrifying and frighteningly realistic battle footage ever made. That includes vivid and intimate depictions of helicopter landings on the hottest of hot LZs, brutal fire fights featuring human-wave NVA and VC attacks and chaotic hand-to-hand fighting, and a blistering array of exploding artillery, napalm, and other ordinance. Wallace shows countless numbers of soldiers - including dozens of Americans - dying violent, horrible deaths. 

Wallace and company faithfully recreate what happened at LZ X-Ray when Lt. Col. Hal Moore took 450 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division troopers into rugged Central Highlands territory near the Laotian border. They knew the enemy was active in the area. They didn’t know they would be landing in the middle of an enemy base camp housing two regiments (some 4,000 troops) of NVA regulars.  

What happened was a big surprise to the American command. The NVA stood and fought the Americans for the first time in the war. The battle was portentous. The NVA was forced to retreat after suffering extremely heavy casualties. That was due to Moore’s brilliant and courageous leadership, the experience of many of his NCOs and company commanders who were hardened Korean War veterans, and Moore’s use of extremely close (and massive) air and artillery support. The NVA lost thousands killed and wounded; the Americans hundreds.       

The NVA high command concluded that with ten times more casualties than the Americans, they could win the war. Gen. Westmoreland concluded that with ten times fewer casualties than the enemy, we would win the war. The rest is history.           

Moore and Galloway tell the entire Ia Drang Valley story - including the disaster that struck the men of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry at LZ Albany - in their remarkable book. Wallace zeroes in on what took place at LZ X-Ray. But he wisely includes several important features of Moore and Galloway’s book. That includes, primarily, a view of the battle from both sides.            

Both book and film give excellent and insightful looks into the NVA commanders’ decision-making during the heat of battle, as well as Moore’s. The film is the first Vietnam War combat film to pay more than cursory attention to the other side. It is dedicated, in fact, to the men who fought and died in the Ia Drang Valley on both sides.            

Another unique thing about the movie is that it provides historical context for the Ia Drang Battle and for the entire American military effort in the Vietnam War. The film begins in 1954 with a recreation of a particularly horrific French defeat in the Ia Drang. It shows Hal Moore’s grasp of that engagement and his thorough understanding of the nature of the American effort to fight the Vietnamese communists on the ground.            

Mel Gibson does an excellent job portraying Hal Moore. He looks like Moore; he acts like Moore. He is completely believable exhibiting extreme courage and coolness under fire. You also believe him as he shows extreme compassion for his men. And he convincingly shows Hal Moore’s rare (among military men of his rank) understanding of the tactical and strategic forces at work in the Vietnam War.            

Barry Pepper makes a convincing Joe Galloway - the UPI war correspondent who was on the ground with Moore and his men in the midst of the worst of the battle at LZ X-Ray and who wound up taking photos, taking notes, and literally fighting for his life when the NVA nearly overran the LZ.            

Sam Elliott almost steals the show as hard-core Sgt. Major Basil Plumley. The wonderfully salty Elliott actually serves as comic relief at several points in this most uncomedic film.            

Wallace’s screenplay works in nearly all aspects. He pays attention to the home front, focusing on Moore’s wife Julie (the beautiful, raven-haired Madeline Stowe) and the other wives back at Ft. Benning. Julie Moore acted heroically in her own right, taking it upon herself to break the news of the deaths of husbands and fathers when the Army was merely sending telegrams by way of commercial taxi cab drivers.           

Wallace’s direction is scintillating, especially in the extended battle sequences. This is not a film for the faint of heart. The battle is rendered with lots of blood and gore. The horror is anything but gratuitous, but it’s writ large and in living color. Virtually everything looks and feels right - from the soldiers’ uniforms and accouterments to the impressive and extensive military hardware on display.           

Books and films are different media and tell stories differently. There are overly dramatized scenes in the movie. And there are scenes that exaggerate or change events in the book drastically, including the way Wallace depicts an unruly mob of reporters descending on Moore and Galloway after the battle. That’s Hollywood.           

Overall, We Were Soldiers, the movie, gets nearly all of the book right. The film is a tribute to the men who fought in the Ia Drang Valley. It is a tribute to those who were wounded and those who were killed there. And it is a well-deserved and long-overdue tribute to Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore, Jr., West Point class of 1945, Korean War and Vietnam War veteran, an exceptional combat leader, a Life Member of Vietnam Veterans of America, and a true American hero.


What Might Have Been

By Jim Belshaw 

They went to a movie to see fathers they'd never known. They'd been to other movies telling stories of the Vietnam War, but they walked away from them with gnawing questions: Was my father like that? Could my father have done those awful things? They hoped this movie, We Were Soldiers, didn't come with the heavy baggage of the movies that preceded it. 

They were nervous the night they went to the theater. They cried when they saw movie. They thought the battle scenes would be difficult, and they were. But the most profound moment took them by surprise. 

“Absolutely, without a doubt, the hardest part was watching Mel Gibson come home,” Michelle Baugh of Sons and Daughters in Touch said. “Watching the taxi pull up, watching his wife, knowing he would get out of that taxi, I felt this huge lump in my chest. I knew what was coming. To hear those words—‘Your daddy's home’- was the hardest part. I was so happy for them, and I was so jealous.” 

Her father, Richie Githens, was killed in action in Vietnam on May 29, 1968. She was 3 months old. She's 34 now. 

Kelly Rihn is 36. Her father, Joel Coleman, died on May 5, 1966, in the Ia Drang Valley. He had celebrated his 21st birthday two months earlier. 

“When Mel Gibson came back and his wife yelled up the steps to the kids, ‘Daddy's home,’ that absolutely crushed me,” she said. “I just lost it. It was worse than the battle scenes.” 

They each went to the movie a second time, accompanied by their mothers, whose own worst scenes have telegrams in them. 

“I knew some parts would affect Mom more than others,” Rihn said. “The hardest for her was when one of the wives got the telegram [informing her that her husband had been killed]. She was holding a little girl and standing at the door. When my mom got the telegram, she answered the door and she was holding me. I was 7 months old.” 

It is the family scenes they talk about more than anything. They say those scenes have not been done before; they say their fathers were family men as well as soldiers. 

For days after seeing the movie, the telephones of Sons and Daughters in Touch rang frequently. People wanted to talk. “When we talk, all of us have had times in our lives when you just thought he was going to show up,” Kelly Rihn said. “At the strangest times you'd get these thoughts. At a high school football game, you'd think, ‘Wouldn't it be cool if my dad just showed up at the game?’ You know, like somebody made a mistake.” 

So they talked about the movie they've seen twice and probably will go back to see again. They talked about one scene, examined it, held it closely. A taxi cab pulls up in front of a house. A soldier gets out. 

“We were all just sitting in that movie, gaping at the screen at that scene,” Michelle Baugh said. “And we're all thinking of what might have been.

   


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