The Big Picture: We Were Soldiers (15)

The first casualty is truth
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The Independent Culture

There is a new tendency in Hollywood war movies, discernible first in Black Hawk Down and now in We Were Soldiers, a blood-and-guts account of the first major battle of the Vietnam War in November 1965. These films ply the basic war-is-hell line but artfully smudge the geopolitical context in which the conflict is being waged. American troops are seen fighting with courage and distinction on foreign soil; why they are there at all isn't a question pursued very closely. They're just soldiers doing their job, looking out for their companions. Professionalism, not patriotism, is now the watchword, though this film isn't entirely capable of telling the difference.

Written and directed by Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart but also, alas, Pearl Harbor), We Were Soldiers also continues the hyperrealistic presentation of men under fire that since Saving Private Ryan has been a sine qua non of the modern war movie. We are now braced to expect horrific close-ups of exit wounds spouting crimson plumes, of burned or lacerated flesh; even the camera screen is flecked with arterial blood. Before the chaos busts loose, however, the film attempts to share the focus around a little. So while Mel Gibson takes centre-stage as Lt-Col Hal Moore, with Sam Elliott as his gruff, grizzled Sergeant Major, we are also reminded that soldiers are family men, too. Back in Fort Benning, Georgia, Moore has an adoring wife, Julie (Madeleine Stowe) and several young children, one of whom asks, with saucer-eyed innocence, "Daddy, what is war?"

He's certainly the right man to ask. Moore (on whose book, co-written by Joseph Galloway, the film is based) is a historian of warfare, and sees ominous precedents in commanding the First Battalion of the 7th Cavalry – this was General Custer's regiment. He knows, too, that the Ia Drang Valley, where they are soon to be dispatched, was the site of a massacre of French forces 10 years before. But decisions have been made, first in Washington, then at military HQ in Saigon, and the 7th Cavalry ready themselves for "the Valley of Death". Wallace acquaints us with a handful of Moore's men, including Greg Kinnear as a helicopter flying-ace and Chris Klein as an idealistic young 2nd lieutenant, and makes much of the Big Chief's stirring appeals to his soldiers as multiracial brothers-in-arms – Jews and blacks are specifically welcomed into the fold. It would be as well to remember at this point that this is the South in the 1960s, and such retrospective massaging of racial prejudice affronts plausibility, even if you buy the idea of Moore as a charismatic father-figure.

In fact, the film pretends to an even greater inclusiveness. In the book's prologue, Moore and Galloway salute not only their fallen comrades, but the hundreds of young North Vietnamese soldiers killed in the battle: "They, too, fought and died bravely. They were a worthy enemy. We who killed them pray that their bones were recovered from that wild, desolate place where we left them, and taken home for decent and honourable burial." Fine sentiments, which Wallace apparently took to heart as he was writing the script – "I'm telling the story of soldiers on both sides," he says in the press notes. But is he? Once the choppers swoop down and disgorge the men into the valley, the camera stays almost entirely within the American lines, offering only a brief, occasional foray into the subterranean HQ of the Vietcong forces.

Down here Lt-Col Ahn (Don Duong) prepares his men for battle, though the hectoring staccato of his voice is a poor match for the air of calm authority around his opposite number Moore, a man who has vowed that he will be first on to the battlefield and the last to leave. The Vietcong may have been "a worthy enemy", but for the purposes of this movie they're simply an overwhelming horde to be mown down or blasted to atoms by American fire power. Later in the battle, we witness a soldier – listed in the cast as "NVA Soldier with Bayonet" – take a lingering look at the photograph of his sweetheart inside the pages of his diary. The reward for being the only enemy soldier individually acknowledged is to be shot dead, mid-bayonet charge, by the vigilant Lt-Col Moore himself.

The ambush to which the 7th Cavalry fell victim finds a tragic echo back at Fort Benning, where telegrams (thoughtlessly delivered by taxi cab) arrive to inform soldiers' wives that, suddenly, they are widows. The best scene in the film comes when Madeleine Stowe, holding a bad-news telegram, knocks at the screen door of her best friend Barbara (Keri Russell), who immediately assumes that Stowe's husband is dead. The way Barbara's expression switches from appalled relief to recognition – the telegram is actually for her – has a truthful and ghastly poignancy. Yet the film can't resist cheapening the device as a harbinger of doom. As Stowe is waiting at home she sees (or perhaps hears) a taxi pull up at the kerb outside; a knock is heard at the door and, in fear and trembling, she goes to open it. Of course – you've guessed – it's not a man with a telegram, but her marvellous husband standing there, though not so marvellous that he thought of phoning ahead and telling her he was coming home. Come on, Hal, it's good to talk.

We Were Soldiers is fundamentally dishonest, both in its sentimental calculation and its vaunting of the idea that it's "for soldiers everywhere". While it pretends not to bang the drum for patriotism, images of the flag keep fluttering across the screen, and when crisis looms we are still invited to watch Mel Gibson rise heroically to action – the difference being that, where he was once the scourge of colonialist scoundrels in Braveheart and The Patriot, here he leads a line of invaders. Gibson is solid, in a marquee-name way, though his expressions of tearful remorse aren't the saving ambiguity the film imagines them to be. It may have been part of Randall Wallace's intention not to pitch the film exclusively to Americans, but it's principally Americans who are going to enjoy it.