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Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Courage buried under the carnage

We Were Soldiers

Rating: * * * 1/2
Japanese title: Once and Forever
Director: Randall Wallace
Running time: 138 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 22

The Vietnam War has been brought to the screen in so many permutations that it's easy to think it's been exhausted as a source for cinema. There's been Vietnam as psychedelic, mythopoeic epic ("Apocalypse Now"); as the great divider of America ("Platoon"); as metaphoric and literal rape ("Casualties of War"); as a killing field ("Full Metal Jacket"); and as the death of idealism ("Go Tell the Spartans")

News photo
Madeleine Stowe and Mel Gibson in Randall Wallace's "We Were Soldiers"

But Vietnam as noble sacrifice? Sorry, wrong war, I hear you saying. Since about 1968 -- when John Wayne's patriotic propaganda flick "The Green Berets" appeared -- there hasn't been a filmmaker able to find anything redeeming in America's first defeat. But with "We Were Soldiers" -- a re-creation of the 1st Air Cavalry's ferocious battle in the Ia Drang valley in 1965, the first major confrontation between U.S. and North Vietnamese forces -- Oscar-winning screenwriter-turned-director Randall Wallace ("Braveheart") finds a new angle on a much-pondered war.

"So many of the stories about Vietnam were about the rape of the American spirit and the rape of Vietnam," explained the director in a recent interview. "And I wasn't trying to redefine that with this movie. It was just that, in this particular battle, with these particular people, there was something noble that was affirmed and something noble that was lost."

That may seem like a hard claim to back up, but Wallace has the right material. Set in late 1965, his film documents the U.S. Army before it lost its sense of purpose (or illusions). "This was the professional army, believing that we were there to protect those who can't protect themselves. These men were highly trained and came out of the World War II tradition of 'just war.' After that came the 'occupation army,' which realized this war was not going to be won."

Wallace also had a real-life hero in the form of Hal Moore, who, as a colonel, led the Air Cav from the brink of disaster to a hard-fought victory. While Moore in the film, as played by Mel Gibson, can seem impossibly selfless and perfect at times, one suspects the real Moore was quite a leader in the best way. One need only read Moore's book on the battle -- "We Were Soldiers Once, and Young," co-authored with journalist Joe Galloway -- and note how little he touts himself to get a feel for the man's character.

Indeed, one of the challenges for Wallace was to give the film a focus: Moore practically wrote himself out of the book, making it an extended series of personal memories of many, many soldiers who served under him. Wallace concurs, pointing out that "[Moore] is completely into self-denial. He wanted to make everyone else heroic and not ever talk about himself. And I did, of course, have to explain to him that we had Mel Gibson playing his role, and you don't leave Mel Gibson sitting on the bench."

With Moore at its center, Wallace's film becomes a very down-and-dirty look at the experience of combat and the pressures of leadership. Like "Black Hawk Down," it immerses us in the maelstrom of modern war, showing moments of both senseless tragedy and impossible resolve. Like "Black Hawk," it also ignores the bigger picture to focus -- in micro-detail -- on the battlefield, an approach that's viscerally effective, but leaves some viewers grasping for context.

Wallace admits that he's taken some flak from the critics. "There are people who will argue that it's political that I refuse to discuss the politics, and they'll call me conservative, like I'm trying to justify the war. I feel that's unfair; I thought this film was transcendent, in the sense that it was truly about soldiers and their families. And the arguments about politics had caused us to ignore the more powerful and immediate and tangible truth that going away to fight a war, any war, is a profound experience."

It is possible to view "We Were Soldiers" as a film that lionizes America's involvement in Vietnam. Certainly, the film's end -- where the U.S. troops overrun the Vietnamese command post -- provides the sort of neat closure that eluded the U.S., both in this battle and the war. Sticking with the battle's actual end -- with the North Vietnamese Army fading back into the jungle -- may have been more to the point.

But to view the film in isolation of the larger body of films on Vietnam, to expect it to capture the truth of the larger war -- beyond this strip of jungle in 1965 -- is a mistake. As Wallace is the first to admit, the film is about emotional truths, whether it's the heart-stopping moment when a young woman receives a telegram informing her that her husband has been killed in action, or the pure terror of spending a night in dense jungle surrounded by people who want to kill you. "I feel those moments are luminous, because they're not about argument of intellect," says Wallace. "They're about a pure human experience that's universal."

As such, Wallace also humanizes the North Vietnamese soldiers and their sacrifices, much in the spirit of Hal Moore, who met and interviewed his former enemies when writing the book.

As a document of modern war, though, "We Were Soldiers" is a harrowing experience. The battles at LZ (Landing Zone) X-Ray and LZ Albany were the first ever involving helicopter airmobile troops on a "search and destroy" mission, historically significant in that they were the precursor to every battle since, including the recent forays into Tora Bora. Wallace executes the assault and ensuing three-day fight with a grandeur of scale that makes even Francis Coppola seem restrained. From crash-landing helicopters to massive napalm strikes, Wallace puts the viewer in the eye of the storm.

Somewhat incredibly, the director reveals that almost no computer graphics were used, except for adding tracer fire. The bullets that tear branches off trees were created through the use of small explosive charges and sound effects, while the napalm strike was, as Wallace puts it, "300 gallons of vaporized gasoline exploding right in front of Mel Gibson's face."

The director is quick to add: "I'm not like a cowboy director, though, I just tell everybody, 'Look, I can re-do a shot, but I can't give you back your head.' "

Getting a 540-degree shot of the landing zone, with constant explosions and incoming fire, in one take is certainly some achievement. Wallace says he wishes he could claim credit for storyboarding it all, but instead credits his crew as well as the cooperation and initiative of the stuntmen, explosives experts and camera crews. When it's suggested that a lot of directors would go ahead and take the credit anyway, Wallace pauses, then slowly smiles and says, "A lot of directors are full of shit."

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