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Bob Smithouser

Movie Review

“We came in spastic, like tameless horses/We left in plastic as numbered corpses . . . We held the day in the palm of our hand/They ruled the night/And the night seemed to last as long as six weeks on Parris Island” —Billy Joel, “Goodnight Saigon”

LBJ is running the nation. Theaters are showing Doctor Zhivago and The Sound of Music. Radios are abuzz with the Rolling Stones’ hit “Get Off of My Cloud.” It’s 1965. But in certain parts of the world, no one cares about the Courreges trouser suit or the latest writings of Kurt Vonnegut. Eleven years after an ill-prepared French battalion was brutally massacred in North Vietnam’s central highlands, America prepares to send its forces into the same region. Led by Lt. Col. Hal Moore, a group of fresh-faced, idealistic young men bid farewell to their families and answer Uncle Sam’s call. The choppers land. The troops fan out. Very quickly, these fighting men realize they’re in way over their heads and lack the top-brass commitment needed to win the battle. Countless U.S. and enemy soldiers get slaughtered in the Ia Drang Valley. After three hellish days, the remaining Americans acknowledge that it’s just a matter of time before the North Vietnamese regroup and finish them. Supplies and escape have been cut off. Hal and his men decide if they’re going to die, they’ll go out fighting, so they stage an all-out attack on the enemy line. This gritty, unrelenting account of a dark time in our nation’s history is based on actual events recorded in the book, We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.

positive elements: Hal models servant-leadership, displaying courage and offering pearls of battle-worn wisdom to his men. He’s a man of prayer [see below] and preparation who pledges to be the first man off the chopper and the last back on when the bullets start to fly, leaving no one behind. And he does just that. He tells his officers-in-training that a leader must remain “cool and calm” under fire, ignoring explosions while taking care of each other as a family. Soldiers die nobly while retrieving wounded colleagues or otherwise putting comrades first. One is shot dead just after he gives up his place on a medical evacuation chopper. Another throws himself on a live grenade.

Self-sacrifice isn’t restricted to the battlefield. On the home front, Hal’s wife, Julie, befriends a diverse group of mothers and new brides coping with the war. At one point, the women decry racial discrimination taking place at the base Laundromat. When the government impersonally telegrams widows via Yellow Cab, Julie decides she can do the job with greater compassion, and assumes that responsibility. Hal writes letters of comfort to the grieving wives of key men, attempting to encourage them. A photojournalist trades his camera for a gun when he’s needed in the fight, and acts bravely. It is he who reminds viewers that, for soldiers in this conflict, there were “no bands, no flags, no honor guard to welcome them home.” The film’s final frames pay tribute to the men who gave their lives at Ia Drang Valley, and Vietnam veterans in general. Like Black Hawk Down, this movie exposes the horrors of war while essentially saying to those in ivory towers, “Don’t send our kids into a fight unless you intend to win it.”

spiritual content: Hal is a devout Catholic who talks to God on several occasions. While leading his five children in a liturgical bedtime prayer, his littlest daughter pipes up, “I don’t wanna be Catholic. I wanna be Methodist like Mommy so I can pray whatever I want.” It’s a cute moment that inspires the family’s commander-in-chief to affectionately suggest that God made her hard-headed. Hal tells Julie, “I thank God for you.” When Jack, one of his officers, becomes a new father, Hal encounters him in a church and offers to pray for him. This sincere, touching and humble intercession begins wonderfully, but deteriorates with the flip addendum, “As for the enemy, ignore their heathen prayers and help us blow those little bastards straight to hell.” Jack confides in his superior, “I know God has a plan for me. I hope it’s just to protect orphans, not make any.” In Vietnam, Hal prays over the bodies of his fallen fellows. Statements about men praying in their own way, or calling God by different names indicate a subtle attempt by the filmmakers to embrace a big-tent spirituality.

sexual content: Hal and his wife wrestle playfully in bed, but that’s all. Also to the film’s credit, unlike many war films that include sexual banter between bunkmates, this one avoids crass sexual dialogue.

violent content: The combat-related brutality comes in exhausting flurries and gets quite explicit at times. In addition to hundreds of men being blown up, machinegunned, bayoneted or incinerated in impersonal fashion, a number of deaths are isolated for either emotional impact or mere shock value. People take bullets to the head with wide sprays of blood. A bugler gets shot in the throat, then finished off at close range. Riddled with bullets, a pilot crashes his chopper. A man’s face is burned by a phosphorus grenade, while another U.S. soldier is so horribly disfigured after being engulfed in flame that layers of skin come off when they try to carry him to safety. Flesh flies. Heads explode. Bodies convulse as life ebbs away. The residue of violence is occasionally as unsettling as the killings themselves (blood pours off the deck of a chopper, Vietnamese bodies are piled high to be burned, etc.). A few deaths are filmed in slow motion, making the carnage linger on the screen.

crude or profane language: Not as much as one might expect in a war film like this. Still, there are about 30 profanities, including misuses of God’s name, a dozen s-words and several f-words.

drug and alcohol content: Hal and a friend drink beer. Men smoke cigarettes and cigars.

other negative elements: Although desperate times do call for desperate measures, some viewers may be put off by a scene in which soldiers cool down a 60mm mortar tube by urinating on it.

conclusion: A bit melodramatic at times, We Were Soldiers has its heart in the right place, wanting to honor the memory of the men who gave their lives in what turned out to be a divisive and politically incorrect war. This 1965 conflict took place pre-Tet, when our soldiers heeded the call to arms with a leftover WWII idealism and the confidence that they were fighting a winnable war. It is gut-wrenching to see a platoon of khakied commandos attack a hill like John Wayne or Audie Murphy, only to be unceremoniously mowed down by an enemy hiding in the brush. Interestingly enough, this movie humanizes the opposing army more than most Hollywood efforts, making us feel that the tremendous loss of life on both sides was as much a tragedy for the Vietnamese as it was for us. But at what cost to the viewer? Director Randall Wallace, who teamed up with Gibson on the Oscar-winning war epic Braveheart, isn’t opposed to showing every gaping wound and oozing laceration caused by unbridled barbarism. We Were Soldiers is extremely graphic. And it doesn’t want us to walk away feeling good. Still, it forces us to face up to a period in history many would rather forget, and out of that ugliness develop a renewed respect for the duty-bound men who lived the nightmare.

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Bob Smithouser

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