Mere moments into We Were Soldiers, the battlefield smells familiar. As a circa-1954 French platoon maneuvers through the Vietnamese Central Highlands, a soldier’s conversation is interrupted by a spatter of blood and the rotten-melon squelch of a bullet entering his commander’s head. Raging battle ensues, bodies pierced in every possible manner by flying ammunition. It’s cinematic warfare as we’ve come to expect it post-Saving Private Ryan, the same unapologetically graphic aesthetic propagated by the current patriotic hit Black Hawk Down—war is hell and warriors are meat.
There are legitimate arguments to be made on either side regarding whether or not this trend is a good thing—is literal blood-and-guts honest, or exploitative?—but neither side has much to do with why We Were Soldiers ultimately proves so frustrating. Because no sooner does the brutal opening sequence end than we’re thrown into an entirely different world—not just a war movie set in the 1960s, but one that feels like it was made in the 1960s. Somewhere, there’s a middle ground between Black Hawk Down’s relentless sensory assault and the sanitized-for-your-protection war films of a bygone era. The seriously split personality of We Were Soldiers ain’t it.
Like Black Hawk Down, We Were Soldiers comes from a non-fiction book based on a chaotic real-life battle—in this case, the November 1965 Ia Drang Valley campaign that first planted Americans squarely in the middle of the Vietnam War. Mel Gibson stars as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, a Korean War veteran assigned to lead a group of Army Air Cavalry in a previously untested brand of helicopter warfare. But no sooner are Moore’s men on the ground than it becomes clear they’re in serious trouble. Superior numbers under the command of Vietnamese commander Ahn (Don Duong) are pinching in on the Americans’ position, and Moore begins to wonder whether his men can hold out until reinforcements arrive.
And to We Were Soldiers’ credit, at least Moore’s men are actually men. The most common—and entirely deserved—criticism of Black Hawk Down was that it treated Americans and Somalis alike as anonymous gun-toters, whose deaths inspired about as much resonant emotion as blasting a character in a video game. Director and screenwriter Randall Wallace, who also dealt with noble fighting men—and Mel Gibson—as writer of Braveheart, isn’t about to make any such mistake. We Were Soldiers spends 45 minutes with the soldiers on the home front, building lives and histories for the soldiers. Wallace even journeys behind the Vietnamese lines, giving individual faces to the enemy soldiers as well. When people die here, it means something.
If only it didn’t mean we’d be knee-deep in clichÃ©s as well as blood. Characters introduced with any sort of sentimental connection—a photo of the Girl Back Home, a hearty cry of “My wife’s having a baby today!”—are so doomed they might as well be wearing targets on their backs. The military wives collapse into tears upon receiving telegrams informing them of casualties. Not one but two different men whisper, “Tell my wife I love her” before dying. If not for the occasional returns to contemporary carnage, the melodramatic throwback sensibility We Were Soldiers might have you swearing it had been languishing on a shelf since World War II.
And there certainly is plenty of that contemporary carnage—horrifying glimpses of phosphorous burns, legs stripped of their flesh and men picked off like ducks in a shooting gallery. There’s an ever-present tension in We Were Soldiers between a sweeping drama of comrades-in-arms and the source material’s guts-and-bolts anatomy of a mission gone awry. Instead of finding a way to combine the two, Wallace simply alternates between them. The tone shifts are enough to give you whiplash.
Many of Wallace’s directing choices are gripping, from the eerie illumination of advancing Vietnamese soldiers to the gentle tinkle of falling spent cartridges. It’s telling, however, that the film offers a heroic return home as its climactic moment. We Were Soldiers knows that we in the 21st century expect war movies to shake us up. It’s also so grounded in a simpler past that it just can’t help giving us a great big hug.