War Movies IV

I finally saw Mel Gibson’s We Were Soldiers (2002). My sister got me the DVD, and I watched it on the laptop. Small screen indeed. I thought it was a solid effort. Gibson is a competent but not brilliant film-maker, who knows his limits and operates within them. He reminds me of something George Thorogood (I think) once said — I only know three chords, but I know ’em cold. Gibson, similarly, knows how to do war and violence and mourning and survivor?s guilt, stoicism and family life all in a very plain and unironic style. Gibson also uses stock characters — the tough commander with a heart of gold, the hard-ass top sergeant, the handsome and idealistic officer doomed to die, etc. This all works decently well in Gibson’s hands, though it is a set of artistic blunt instruments he is wielding. Gibson tells a linear story — a war is underway, troops assemble, a leader (Lt. Col. Hal Moore, played by Gibson) appears, Moore trains them, he leads them into battle, many die, there is mourning over the dead. The parallel plot about the wives at home receiving death notices allows a counterpoint to the din of gunfire, explosions and screaming, wounded men. Moore’s wife is played in a convincing and dignified way by Madeleine Stowe. She is a good actress, with striking looks, who seems to have spent almost her entire career being squandered in sub-par movies. A third somewhat muted parallel plot has unidentified men in Saigon trying to figure out how to “sell” the story of what is happening back home. This allows the suffering and courageous soldiers to be contrasted with a cynical leadership which cares nothing for their lives and which has, in effect, betrayed them before it even committed them to battle. This seems true to historical fact, alas. It is also a theme which has deep roots in American war cinema, including the similar scenes in Pork Chop Hill (discussed here). Some scenes shown from the point of view of the NVA commander and his men are done well, and the NVA soldiers are depicted without rancor or ideology.

The battle scenes are graphic in the contemporary post-Private Ryan style. However, it seemed to me that both the Air Cav troopers and the NVA regulars all fought too bunched up. There were repeated charges, by both sides, with men standing only a few feet away from each other, against an opponent with automatic weapons. That struck me as wrong. This led to a video-game-like destruction of many NVA troops by the Americans. I suspect they did not die quite so easy. Also, an American counter-attack at the end led to a very “Hollywood” moment which did not strike me as plausible. But, I haven’t read here).

The fact that the critics hated this movie on ideological grounds was strong and accurate reassurance that I would like it. One film reviewer I read (can’t find a link; it was a long time ago) went on about how it was mawkish, corny and unbelievable to see Lt. Col. Moore, saying prayers with his children at bedtime. Since I and millions of other parents do the exact same thing, this scene in the movie struck me as perfectly normal. Apparently this particular film reviewer has never met anyone in person who prays with his children. A classic contrast between red state and blue state America right there.

All in all, We Were Soldiers is a good movie. Better than The Patriot, not as good as Braveheart. Worth seeing. Three stars.

5 thoughts on “War Movies IV”

  1. “Gibson also uses stock characters”
    Not really.
    If you are interested in this subject I suggest spend some time with the book .
    You will find that literally everything of any significance in the movie was taken directly from the first hand accounts of the battle written down by Moore himself.
    The tough commander, the hard-ass top sergeant, a terribly burned American soldier of oriental origin., they are all there – including dialog lines like “Gentlemen, prepare to defend yourselves” (admittedly a bit corny but perhaps , considering the fact that a lot of these soldiers grew up watching Wayne movies, it was the case of life imitating art )

    “it seemed to me that both the Air Cav troopers and the NVA regulars all fought too bunched up.”

    This was a known tactic used by the Vietnamese – the idea was to “hug” your opponent in attempt to minimize technological advantage enjoyed by US army.
    The final “charge” , at far as I remember, was a purely “Hollywood” moment though…

    Interestingly, the movie itself depicted only one part of the battle.
    The very next day a replacement battalion was ambushed and decimated while on the way to LZ Albany.
    Due to criminal negligence of some officers, US suffered 151 killed, 121 wounded and 4 missing in action in a span of couple hours – quite a lot, especially compared to 79 men killed and 121 lost during 3 days battle at LZ-Xray ( the one depicted in the movie.)

  2. I found the movie too stereotypical. It felt like so many good old war movies, just redone with modern visuals and famous actors. I liked it though; I saw it on a plane and it was just what I needed at the time. One of my favorites still is ‘The Thin Red Line’. And the Band Of Brothers series. Nothing has come close to that one yet.

  3. Warmi, thanks, I’ll eventually read the book. When I said bunched up, I didn’t mean the idea of “grabbing the belt”, i.e. getting so close to the enemy that he can’t use his heavy weapons. I meant too bunched up together.

    Sylvain, I take your point. On the other hand, the first wave of troops into Vietnam were not cynical, they were patriotic and they grew up on WWII movies. So, I bet they were pretty much as depicted. I agree that it was a “good old war movie” though with modern depictions of violence, and typically of Mel Gibson, it was a professional if not brilliant job. I also liked it.

  4. Capp, good catch. Thanks. I changed it to “film-maker”. Whoever was formally the director, this has the feel of a “Mel Gibson movie”, he starred in it, his film company made it, etc. So, I’ll stick with my basic analysis that he is the “auteur” here, if anybody is.

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