War may become the blood and guts of romance, its wounded yet beating heart. We Were Soldiers is a love story about war-going men and their wives and children, their country and — to the greatest extent, tragically — their heroic brothers-in-arms “where the metal meets the meat.”
Metal rained almost incessantly on the men of Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s (Mel Gibson, The Patriot) U.S. Army battalions, and even more furiously on those of his counterpart, Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An’s (Don Duong) North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regiments. During four hellishly long days in November 1965, the killing fields of Vietnam’s Central Highlands, known as “the Valley of Death,” were soaked in their blood. In this first major storm of what would be a decade of war, the mission on both sides was the same: Search and destroy, “find and kill the enemy.”
But the now-retired Lt. Gen. Moore penned a heartbreaking memorial to the dead and a testament to the survivors, We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young, co-authored by United Press International war correspondent Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper, Saving Private Ryan). Moore writes, “This is a love story ... we loved our country ... We killed for each other, we died for each other, and we wept for each other. And in time we came to love each other as brothers.”
A romanticist of war in every sense of the word, screenwriter-director Randall Wallace would seem the perfectly tuned cinematic sounding board for Moore and Galloway’s sentiments. He won an Oscar nomination for his big-screen breakout script Braveheart (1995). But he turned the most catastrophic attack on America prior to Sept. 11 into the spectacular backdrop of his pulpy, cinematic romance novel, Pearl Harbor (2001). And his first attempt as a writer-director, The Man in the Iron Mask (1998), was a Hollywood gloss on Alexander Dumas’ classic adventure with little heart.
Romance may be a many-splendored thing. Though the word’s been appropriated by the melodramatic, soft-core pulp sold at newsstands, the dictionary reminds us that true romance is about “heroic or marvelous deeds ... usually in a historical or imaginary setting” — and that the romantic is “imbued with or dominated by idealism.” Romanticism is defined by common men rising against all odds to battle their dragons.
Wallace hit all the right notes in Braveheart, a 13th century Scottish epic fanfare and requiem for a common man, William Wallace (also played by Mel Gibson, the film’s Oscar-winning director), who inspired his countrymen’s successful freedom fight through his legendary military genius, savage ruthlessness and brutal martyrdom.
Wallace, to his credit, manages the unique feat of putting the marvelous heroism of soldiers on either side of the battle up on the screen. Moore’s right-hand man, Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley, who survived parachute jumps into battles in World War II and Korea, is a Sam Ellliot (The Contender) tour de force as he stands ramrod-straight in heavy fire like a Vietnam-vintage Terminator. He’s an iron man tightly wrapped in leathery skin, protecting his boys by taking down the swarming enemy with just his .45 sidearm (his battle motto is “One shot, one kill.”). We watch a young NVA infantryman in gold spectacles (he looks like a Vietnamese Harry Potter in military drag) steel himself to rush Moore’s command post and die, cut down by small weapons fire just yards from his target.
The gut-wrenching, post-Saving Private Ryan realism of Wallace’s battle scenes, though, clangs in disharmony with the idealized ’50s-era pictorial rhetoric of the home front. The director offers us graphic horrors never seen before on screen. Sgt. Savage (Ryan Hurst, Rules of Engagement) uses a bayonet to scrape and dig the burning, sparkling fragments of a white phosphorus grenade from his fallen comrade’s face; Spc. Takayama survives the off-target “friendly” fire of an American napalm air strike with half his head and body charred black by the bomb’s jellied gasoline; and the guns of Maj. Bruce “Snakeshit” Crandall (Greg Kinnear, The Gift) pulverize a platoon of NVA infantrymen with thousands of rounds of ammunition.
But before leaving for Vietnam, while still at their home base of Fort Benning, Georgia, Gibson brings his ideal family man-war heroes of Braveheart and The Patriot (2000) into the late 20th century. His Moore is the perfect doting father of five who explains to his young daughter, Little Julie (Taylor Momsen, Cindy Lou Who of How the Grinch Stole Christmas), that war is when “some people try to take the lives of other people and soldiers like your daddy have to go stop ’em.” He’s a passionate dream-husband to his pretty wife Julie (The General’s Daughter’s Madeleine Stowe, looking disturbingly like the mother of TV’s “Malcolm in the Middle”). With teen movie idol Chris Klein (Rollerball) as Lt. Jack Geoghegan, an idealistic former foreign-aid worker (he tells Moore that “God’s plan is to protect orphans, not make them”) and his pretty young wife, Barbara (Keri Russell, “Felicity”), Soldiers stateside is “Father Knows Best” in fatigues.
We Were Soldiers may not consistently succeed, but Wallace has undertaken a feat as romantic as any of his heroes: to lovingly redeem the Vietnam War.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at firstname.lastname@example.org.