After Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan reinvented the way the brutality and chaos of war was depicted on the cinema screen back in 1998, Hollywood went slightly nuts for all things World War II. At one point, it felt as though we were getting one every other week, and fatigue naturally kicked in, especially since none measured up to Spielberg's visual masterpiece (if very flawed film), other than Terrence Malick's superior The Thin Red Line released the same year. By 2002, attention was moving towards the Vietnam conflict, an unjust and borderline psychotic war that resulting in heavy losses on all sides. It was a favourite topic for many filmmakers in the 1980's, and produced a few greats, but interest seemed to wane as we moved into the 90's. In 2002, We Were Soldiers was supposed to rekindle our fascination with Vietnam, but has since faded into a long list of half-forgotten war movies.
Based on the book We Were Soldiers Once... and Young by Hal Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, Randall Wallace's film attempts to cover the Battle of Ia Drang from three perspectives: the 400 American men fighting at the front, the 4,000 Vietnamese troops they're up against, and the wives at home fearing the arrival of a taxi cab bringing them unwanted news. The bulk of the action follows Moore (Mel Gibson), then a lieutenant colonel, through training his troops and eventually onto the front line, where intelligence is so sparse that they have no idea what they are up against. It turns out that the Americans are greatly outnumbered, and so begins one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war. He is later joined by reporter Galloway (Barry Pepper), who captured much of the conflict on camera as well as picking up a rifle himself. At home, Moore's wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe) intercepts all the letters informing the devastated wives of their loss to hand-deliver them herself.
We Were Soldiers feels like more of a complete overview on the battle thanks to this unique perspective, while the action is some of the toughest and most unflinching in the genre. Perhaps down to its more observational approach - apparently the events take place almost exactly how it played out in real life - the film often gets criticised and labelled as a pro-war movie. I don't feel that what we see is glamorising or promoting war in any way. On the contrary, it refuses to really to take a stand, and this is what makes Wallace's movie far less interesting than it should be. It all boils down to 'war is Hell', but most people know this already whether they have experienced combat or not. The battle scenes are intense, horrifying and well-staged, and demand to be admired from a technical point of view. But it's nothing we haven't seen before. Despite Chris Klein's failure to really convince as a human, We Were Soldiers features many impressive performances, most notably by Sam Elliott as Sgt. Major Plumley, a gruff Sam Elliott-type who mows down his enemies with a revolver while the rest of his men pack automatics, and Gibson himself, who helps tug on the heartstrings during quiet moments of reflection.