Political Film Society - Newsletter #128 - March 20, 2002

March 20, 2002


We Were SoldiersWhen Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam's Declaration of Independence at Hanoi in September 2, 1945, American planes provided overhead support to the cheers of the assembled throng; they had backed his struggle against the Japanese during World War II. The next time the American military went to Vietnam, however, the mission was different. We Were Soldiers, directed by Randall Wallace, is about the first unit of American soldiers who engaged the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) on November 14, 1965. As opening credits roll, we see the French go down to defeat in 1954 as PAVN adopts a take-no-prisoners approach. The story begins by portraying the men in that unit, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Harold Moore (played by Mel Gibson), a veteran of World War II and the Korean War. One day he arrives at Fort Benning, Georgia, newly assigned to develop the tactical capability of a new battle concept, namely, using helicopters as a modern version of the cavalry. Fresh from completing an M.A. in international relations at Harvard, he is ordered to prepare his men for war in Vietnam, where he knows from his reading on the subject that he will face a tough and determined enemy with twenty years of combat experience. In short, he shares the widespread military assessment that President Lyndon Johnson's decision to commit American troops underestimated the situation and thus that soldiers under his command must develop close personal relationships and teamwork to survive the impossible objective of defeating an implacable enemy. Among the featured soldiers are combat veteran Sergeant Major Basil Plumley (played by Sam Elliott), helicopter pilot Major Bruce Crandall (played by Greg Kinnear), youthful Second Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan (played by Chris Klein), and photographer Joseph L. Galloway (played by Barry Pepper). Author of the story for Pearl Harbor (2001), Randall Wallace's screenplay for We Were Soldiers is quite similar, not only in regard to the civilian side of the plot but also in the filmscore. When Moore arrives in Vietnam, ordered to command the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry (and aware that the same unit was commanded by General George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn), he is assigned to fight in the Ia Drang Valley of the Central Highlands (actually, a film location in California).

Army intelligence does not indicate the strength or exact location of the enemy, further fueling his pessimism about the assignment. At this point, filmviewers get a taste of actual combat realities-the human wave of Vietnamese attackers and their underground headquarters as well as the American reliance on air support to even the odds. When the battle ends, after we view many gruesome scenes, some 1,800 Vietnamese and 234 Americans have died out of an initial 2,000 Vietnamese to 400 Americans, and in several scenes we see the impact of "I regret to inform you" telegrams on instant widows at Fort Benning. Although we do not get acquainted with the Vietnamese on as personal a basis as with the Americans, Vietnamese Major Nguyen Huu An (played by Joseph Hieu) projects an invincible attitude, though with more respect toward American soldiers than they receive on returning home in the film, and we see the widow (played by Zoë Bui) of one Vietnamese soldier mourn the loss of her husband in battle. Indeed, the Major articulates some of the most profound statements in the film--that the Americans fight well, but that the outcome will be the same as before (presumably referring to Vietnam's defeat of the French and perhaps even the Chinese). He also identifies the new phase of the war as "the American War," Vietnam's name for the bloodbath from 1965-1973. Galloway's voiceovers at the end explain that Moore remained in Vietnam for nine months and then returned. Moore's book, We Were Soldiers Once, and Young (1993), co-written with Galloway, is the basis for the film. Although the movie starts out as a tribute to the heroism and sacrifices of American soldiers in Vietnam, ending with a view of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., We Were Soldiers is also an anti-war film, showing not only that the futility of the intervention in a civil war, even when the morale of American troops was high, but also that the Americans were really naïve aggressors, as South Vietnamese troops are nowhere to be seen in the movie, and the role of the battle in an overall strategy is unclear. Indeed, We Were Soldiers explicitly makes the point that American troops did not fight "for God and country" but instead for each other. Accordingly, the Political Film Society has nominated We Were Soldiers as best film exposé and best film raising consciousness about the need for peace instead of war in 2002. MH