We Were Soldiers


Dead, or alive, we all come home together. So help me, God.

In a lot of ways, this is the movie that The Green Berets should have been.

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Based on Gen. Hal Moore’s book, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, this film presents a mostly positive portrayal of the U.S. role in the Battle of Ia Drang Valley, the first major engagement with NVA forces during the Vietnam War. It’s not “Rah, rah” like John Wayne’s famous turkey, but it does portray the U.S. Air Cavalry forces as brave, capable and honorable, ably led by Moore, then a lieutenant colonel, even while acknowledging the folly that the war became.

The film opens the year before, in 1964, as the Pentagon recognizes the potential for conflict in Southeast Asia and identifies the need for a new approach to combat. This leads to the development of the concept of Air Cavalry, delivering troops to the battlefield via helicopter and then extracting them the same way. The project is turned over to Moore (Mel Gibson), a Harvard-educated officer with a knowledge and appreciation of history. Knowing that his unit is being prepared for Vietnam, he studies the French experience in the region, including a 1954 massacre on the same Ia Drang Valley battlefield where Moore would find himself 11 years later.

Moore’s right hand, Sgt. Major Plumley (Sam Elliott), helps him whip the battalion’s officers into shape as they prepare. Before they deploy, Moore receives word that his unit has been re-designated as the 1st Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry, not good news for a student of history. The last time that unit made history, it was under the command of General George Custer at Little Bighorn. Hardly a good omen.


Sir, Custer was a pussy. You ain't.

When they reach Vietnam, they are plunged straight into combat against an elusive North Vietnamese force in the mountains overlooking the Ia Drang river valley. Almost immediately after hitting the ground, Moore’s troops are under attack from numerically superior forces, seeming to come from every direction at once. From this point forward, the story sticks almost exclusively with the battle from both the U.S. and North Vietnamese points of view. Unlike other Vietnam War movies, the enemy is not a faceless, ghostlike presence in the trees. Writer/director Randall Wallace presents the NVA commander (Duong Don) as equally capable and honorable is his own way, a worthy adversary to Moore. Other NVA soldiers, while unnamed, are allowed to have a human face as well.

The movie takes only momentary breaks from the combat action to revisit the home front back at Moore’s headquarters of Fort Benning, Georgia. There Moore’s wife, Julie (Madeline Stowe) and her friend Barbara Geoghegan(Keri Russell), the wife of one of Moore’s officers, discover that the military does not have a system in place for notifying families that loved ones have been killed in combat, so it falls up these two women to deliver the dreaded telegrams. These scenes are somewhat of a dramatic convenience since it’s highly unlikely that the telegrams would have arrived within the timeframe of the film, but Stowe and Russell are very effective in their roles.

This is the first major Vietnam movie of the post-Saving Private Ryan era, and does not shrink from the audience’s expectation that the violence of combat will be portrayed with unflinching realism. If anything, this movie is even more graphic than movies like Ryan and the recent Clint Eastwood Iwo Jima movies, which had a desaturated color palette, muting the effect of the blood. We Were Soldiers was shot in full color and the blood is bright red and in your face. I know if I took anything away from this movie, it was the notion that there is one thing worse than dying in a napalm attack, and that’s to barely survive one.

As Moore, Gibson manages to portray a larger-than-life figure while keeping his basic humanity. Moore is a devout, loving family man as well as a leader of men. The Green Berets comparison is apt because Hal Moore is a role into which John Wayne could have comfortably stepped.

Sam Elliott brings a sly, gruff humor to a character who has very little to say and says it all in a growling whisper than promises death to anyone who fall short in Sergeant Plumley’s eyes. Barry Pepper, now a three-tour veteran of the new generation of war movies, is just as effective as Joe Galloway, a reporter who was present at the battle and even took up arms at one point. He went on to be the co-author of the book on which this film was based.

Like Platoon, this film is closely modeled on the memories of a man who actually experienced what we are seeing, and it’s definitely stronger for it. This is easily Randall Wallace’s best work, surpassing the entertaining but historically suspect Braveheart and the completely unfortunate Pearl Harbor. Among Vietnam War movies, We Were Soldiers deserves mention with Platoon as well as the criminally underappreciated Siege of Firebase Gloria.


Dead, or alive, we all come home together. So help me, God.

1 thought on “We Were Soldiers

  1. Mike Blitz

    Excellent review, Paul. I picked up this DVD a few months ago, but haven’t watched it yet. I think I’m going to try and find some time for it. That Siege of Firebase Gloria looks interesting as well. I had never heard of that one.


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