We Were Soldiers

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Review byMatthew Turner3/08/2002

Three out of five stars
Running time: 138 mins

Well-made, if slightly overlong and overly sentimental war drama that doesn’t skimp on the blood and guts - this definitely isn’t a film for the squeamish.

Mel Gibson seems to have a thing about epic war movies, as this is his third (counting Braveheart) in seven years. He has either the fortune or the misfortune (depending on how well the movie does) to be bringing out We Were Soldiers amidst a rush of similarly themed war movies (different wars, same stuff), though this is definitely better than Black Hawk Down, with which it shares most similarities.

Primarily, We Were Soldiers is very similar to Black Hawk Down in that it basically consists of Lots And Lots Of Shooting for almost two solid hours. It's a tad more flag-wavy and sentimental than Black Hawk Down, but it is, perhaps, the better film, largely because they go to pretty decent lengths to give you a few characters to hang on to and care about throughout the film. The other thing it has in common is that both are based on a true story.

We Were Soldiers is about the first major battle between U.S. troops and the North Vietnamese soldiers at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley (aka 'The Valley of Death'), in which almost an entire regiment was wiped out. It's based on a book by survivors Lt Col Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) and a journalist (played by Barry Pepper). The fact that the regiment was the same as General Custer's (7th Cavalry) is an irony that doesn't go unnoticed…

The characters are as follows: Gibson's Colonel Hal Moore, Sergeant Savage (Ryan Hurst, who was good in Remember The Titans), Lieutenant Geoghagen (Chris Klein, who really is Keanu - there's no escaping it), Sam Elliot as The Gruffest Man Alive (and Gibson's best friend) and Greg Kinnear (horribly miscast) as 'Snakeshit' - the low-flying (hence the name) helicopter pilot.

He's not really that bad, but given the number of creeps and losers he's played in his career so far, he never seems comfortable in the part.

Meanwhile, back home, apart from Gibson's 200 children (who, thankfully are off screen most of the time), we have Madeleine Stowe and Keri Russell, as the army wives who take it upon themselves to deliver the 'your husband has died' telegrams that start racking up with alarming frequency.

Effects-wise, if you thought Black Hawk Down didn't skimp on the old gory red stuff, then you ain't seen nothing yet. There is spraying and spurting all over the place. But that is nothing compared to the scene where (look away now if you're squeamish) Barry Pepper tries to move the legs of someone with severe burns from a grenade and the flesh slides off the bone in his hands, just like a charbroiled roast dinner.

There are several good things about the film, for example: the effects, some of the lines (Sam Elliott nicks all the best ones), the fact that the film-makers try and humanise the Viet Cong (although not quite hard enough - one character looks very promising and you can see what they could have done) and some of the scenes with Madeleine Stowe and the 'girls back home' on the base.

However, for each of the good bits, there is a corresponding bad bit, for example: Mel crying with guilt for not dying (he overdoes it); the "They will think they won. More will come, more will die. The result will be the same" moralistic speech at the end, given to the Viet Cong leader; and the tiny American flag - symbolism, anyone? The film is also around 40 minutes too long and takes a long time to get going, though it picks up when it does.

In the end, then, it is worth seeing, especially if you can sit through all the soul-searching ("Tell them what these boys died for, son") and the heavy-handed symbolism. You may want to bring something to vomit into for the gore-soaked passages though, not to mention the overly syrupy final scene.

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We Were Soldiers
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Content updated: 06/12/2019 11:19

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