Of all the genres of film, ones about war have the highest potential to make the audience’s heart wrench. Most war movies attempt this, some succeed, and some don’t. Without a doubt, We Were Soldiers succeeds tremendously. In the recent trend of the genre, neither the American or North Vietnamese armies are made to appear as monsters who take pleasure in slaughtering their enemy. Instead, they are each treated with respect by the filmmakers and are portrayed as equals. This film is about the atrocities of war and their effects on the soldiers and their families. It is not about painting the Americans in glory whilst spitting on the Vietnamese, as many Vietnam War movies in the past (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) have done.
On November 14th 1965, in the valley of Ia Drang in the highlands of Central Vietnam, the first major ground battle of the Vietnam War was fought between the United States and the Vietcong. The Central Highlands of Vietnam are different to the jungle where most war films are set; it is hot and dry and very hilly, with many trees but also many open fields of grass. The area was known as the “valley of death” to the US troops. The commanding officer of the air cavalry that fought on that day was a man by the name of Lt. Col. Hal Moore (played by Mel Gibson). He was a caring husband and father of five children, and a religious man. He was always the first to set foot off the choppers and the last to leave the battlefield. His second in command was a strict no-nonsense Sgt. Major Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott). They were in command of around 400 men, but when they landed in Ia Drang Valley, they were almost instantly surrounded by over 2000 North Vietnamese soldiers. It turns out that they were only a few miles from a Vietcong base camp.
We see a very well executed scene before the men leave for Vietnam where Col. Moore is pondering over a book about General Custer. The parallels between Moore and Custer are startling: both were Lt. Colonels, both were in command of the 7th Cavalry, and we can see Moore wondering if he is about to lead his men into a slaughter just as Custer did in the American Civil War.
Bad turns to worse when a squad is cut off from the main force after its young and inexperienced leader guides them into an ambush. The main force is being overrun and can’t reach them until the next morning. There is a brilliant scene that evening when a squad member can smell the enemy sneaking up on them. They call for illuminance, and a rocket is heard overhead, then crashing with a bright blue light. A bunch of Vietcong are revealed, only metres from the Americans. The scene gives out a very eerie feeling, and is definitely one of the best in the film. The battle lasted for 56 hours.
|"I will leave no one behind. Dead, or alive, we will all come home together."|
One thing that the movie does extremely well is explore the effects of the war on the families left behind. The depth of the study on the impact of the lives of the wives is like no other war film I have seen, and it is truly very well done. Madeleine Stowe plays Julie Moore, Hal Moore’s wife. She is the most experienced as far as living on a military base is concerned, and thus takes it upon herself to show the other ladies how things are done. When telegrams start arriving from the military telling of the deaths of the soldiers, they are delivered by Yellow Cab drivers. Julie takes it upon herself to deliver all of them, sparing the grieving wives the shock and indignity of being presented a death certificate by a cab driver.
The commander of the North Vietnamese Army in the region was a man by the name of Nguyen Huu An, and was a Lt. Col., just like Hal Moore. He was a very experienced campaigner, having fought the French for ten years, along with the Chinese and Japanese. It is interesting to observe the parallels between these two great military minds as they try to outsmart each other during the long battle. Often in one shot when we see An make an order, the very next scene will have Hal Moore giving an order of the same nature.
The film was directed by Randall Wallace. This is actually the first film that he has directed, although he did the writing for Braveheart and Pearl Harbor (though we won’t hold the latter against him in this review). He has done a terrific job translating the battle to film, and said that he wanted the film to be true and honest; more in a documentary style than a Hollywood one. He particularly excels when trying to show the hell that the families back home go through when their husbands and fathers are in Vietnam.
The cast of the film is first rate, and they all do a very good job. Each actor is convincing in their role, and some of this can be attributed to the intensive two week army training course that all of them (including the director) went through in preparation for their part. Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Lt. Col. Hal Moore is brilliantly acted, he is able to generate a lot of emotion throughout the film. Sam Elliott is perfect in his role as Sgt. Maj. Plumley. He oozes authority, and gives the feeling that he is tough as nails. One pleasant surprise comes in the form of Chris Klein. His only successes before this film were the two American Pie films, and I was somewhat sceptical that he could give a good performance in such a different role. He does, however, give quite a convincing performance as 2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan. Barry Pepper does a great job as Joe Galloway, a photojournalist covering the battle. After his roles in Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile, he is becoming one of the best talents in the business. I had only seen Greg Kinnear before in As Good As It Gets, and again I was pleasantly surprised by the standard of his performance. He plas Maj. Bruce Crandall, one of the helicopter pilots ferrying men to and from the battlefield. Lt. Col. An is played by Don Duong, a famous Vietnamese actor. He also gives a very accomplished performance. There is a funny quote from the featurette contained on the disc about people in Vietnam labelling Duong the “Mel Gibson” of their country.
There are many gory scenes used, as in most war films, to illustrate the horrors of what went on in the battle. Some scenes are on the same level as Saving Private Ryan, such as a man being hit by a phosphorus grenade and having his cheek cut with a knife to get it off, or a man incinerated by napalm having his charred skin pulled off when he is being lifted up. These two scenes in particular are hard to watch, but they all add up to showing the awfulness of the whole battle.
The film is based on the book by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway. Some liberties have been taken by Wallace, as most films do when based on true events. Some of the more melodramatic scenes have been fabricated by the director, such as a meeting in a church between Jack Geoghegan and Hal Moore before going to Vietnam. One of the standout quotes in the film, where Sgt. Maj. Plumley lets Hal Moore know that “Custer was a pussy”, was also created by the director.
The video quality of the transfer has its high points and low points, but thankfully most of it is very well done. It is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and is 16x9 enhanced.
The man responsible for the cinematography was Dean Semler, whose past credits include Dancing With Wolves (for which he won the Best Cinematography Oscar) and The Bone Collector. His work on We Were Soldiers is some of his best to date. There is never a scene during the battle that looks clean, there is always grime and mud present. This gives a fantastic dirty feel to the fighting sequences.
The lighting used for many of the mortar fire flashed at night is a technique pioneered by the visual effects team working on the film. It is basically a powder compound blasted into a flame, which causes a brief but bright light similar to the results of artillery fire. Using this technique the crew could create explosions of light at will however often they needed it, and its effect in the film is excellent.
There are a few hiccups in the transfer though. There is very noticeable aliasing on the left front shoulder of PFC Willie Godboldt’s army uniform when he is showing Jack Geoghegan his blister during their training. The other problem is a quite severe case of moiré effecting a television screen at about the half hour mark of the film. There is a little grain present, but nothing that is overly worrisome. These are the only real quibbles with the video transfer, everything else is well done.
The transfer is quite sharp, though it can vary a little. The colours are nicely saturated and skin tones are spot on. Shadow detail is fantastic throughout, no features are lost in the darkness that the audience is meant to be able to see. Film artefacts are non existent. Many of the planes and some of the birds in the film were actually created by computer graphics. They fit in very naturally and it is almost impossible to tell that they are not real.
The disc is single sided and dual layered in the RSDL format, with the layer change occurring at 46:14. It is placed in a good spot and is not disruptive. There are two subtitle tracks available, and they are English and English HI. They are very accurate for the most part.
The sound on this transfer is, simply put, the best I have heard yet. There is one soundtrack offered on the disc; a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. Forget Gladiator and The Matrix, if you are looking to give your sound system a good working over then throw in this disc, switch to the battle sequences, and listen to it roar. The surrounds are in almost constant use from the 40 minute mark onwards; choppers go flying behind the couch, bullets and mortar fire are shot from just behind your ears, napalm cylinders whistle over the roof and explode into a burst of flames in the middle of the lounge room.
The subwoofer supports the sound effects brilliantly, with huge reverberations supplied for the gunfire and explosions. You can feel the punch of the bullet from Plumley’s pistol thud into the Vietcong soldiers, and the bayonet of Lt. Col. Moore slicing through the enemy. There are zero problems with audio synch. The dialogue mixing is superb, every word is crystal clear and easily understood.
The score is set by Nick Glennie-Smith, who worked on The Rock. It is quite a rousing effort, delivering a lot of feeling to the battle scenes. Also, there is an old Scottish song during a few scenes that works really well.
The whole audio transfer is truly of reference quality.