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
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
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
What Might Have Been
By Jim Belshaw
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.
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
“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.”
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
“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.”
each went to the movie a second time, accompanied by their
mothers, whose own worst scenes have telegrams in them.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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