“When we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field. And I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no-one behind. Dead or alive ... we will all come home together. So help me God.”
In the annals of modern warfare, two major contacts have had a profound effect upon me. And not by coincidence have they both had enormously powerful first hand accounts written about what happened by the men who fought in them, but also incredibly intense movie adaptations borne out of those shell-shocked recollections as well. Black Hawk Down is one of them and I have to say that Ridley Scott's film is still, to my mind, the single most realistic and terrifyingly authentic depiction of close quarter battle that I have ever seen. But the other, based upon Col. Hal Moore's and war-journalist Joe Galloway's book “We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young”, entitled simply We Were Soldiers makes an incredibly brave attempt to bring the carnage of one of Vietnam's biggest, and earliest, battles to cinematic life with similar intensity.
“Lay me down ... in the cold, cold ground ...
where afore ... many men have gone.”
In a step that was as fateful as it was determined to pay respect and show defiance, the US Army reformed and re-designated, in 1965, the celebrated 7th US Cavalry - the same regiment that the headstrong “Boy General” George Armstrong Custer led to their almost annihilation at the Battle of the Little Big Horn just under a century before. This irony and blood-soaked heritage is not lost on Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) whose job it will be to lead his freshly trained men into the killing fields of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam. It is November 1965 and the regiment has swapped horses for helicopters, but the result will still be the same - they will ride into a deadly trap that will see them surrounded and vastly outnumbered, cut off and fighting tooth-and-nail to survive incessant attacks from an enemy that has never lost on this ground to anybody. Images of Custer's Last Stand haunt Moore for three days of unbelievably savage combat, but he still has a job to do and, with the belief, courage and fighting spirit of his 400 men, he vows that Custer's fate will not be his.
Randall Wallace was the man who wrote Braveheart, so he knows a thing a two about death, heroism and sacrifice. Now in the director's seat, he proves that he has the visual dexterity and determination to carry off the big screen madness of war with considerable panache. Of course, turning to the man who essayed Braveheart's William Wallace in the first place, the Mighty Mel, himself, he knew he had a solid backbone of righteous nobility and dedicated jingoism to depend on.
And for his part, Gibson is hardly a stranger to the theatre of war, what with afore-mentioned Scottish rebellion in Braveheart, the American War of Independence in The Patriot, the First World War in Gallipoli and the Second in Attack Force Z. But it seems strangely poetic that the man who brought the psychotic Vietnam veteran Martin Riggs so compellingly to life in Lethal Weapon should finally be taken back to his roots in the conflict in Southeast Asia. Big stars all eventually seem to perform a tour of duty there; we even have the Christian Bale POW drama for Werner Herzog, Rescue Dawn, on the way. I'm just waiting for Russell Crowe to grab himself an M16 and take point on a jungle patrol. Thus, Hollywood's atonement for the political debacle that was Vietnam is further satiated by a story that, even with a few filmic conventions thrown in for good measure and for the benefit of audience accessibility, pays its dues to men who were just doing their duty. Moore's campaign was the first major engagement of the war and one of its most brutal and protracted. The film centres primarily on only the first few days of it, but as an encapsulation of the bigger picture, this works just fine.
“When they come ... I'll stand my ground,
Stand my ground ... I'll nay be afraid.”
A great many scenes are wonderfully evocative and worthy of singling out. The first, and possibly the canniest and most deceptively moving is when the troops first leave their barracks for the distant conflict. What starts out with Gibson's Col. Moore making a remarkably understated, yet crucially moving departure from the family home, and stretches out into him standing alone in the pre-dawn darkness at the base, and culminates with hundreds of soldiers clambering onto buses is a simply spellbinding sequence that captures all the dread, the trepidation, excitement and camaraderie of going to war in one very effective sweep. Watch Gibson's face when another officer joins him - the look that the actor gives him, and then each successive NCO that arrives, lit barely by the soft dots of red air beacons above them, is one of pure affection and compassion. There are no airs and graces, no veil of superiority about his demeanour. At this moment in time, when faced with having to commit to the unthinkable, rank means nothing. His expression is one of warmth, as if to say “thankyou for turning up, it's great to see you.” And then, after this wordless bout of lingering looks and pensive nods, the camera switches angles to reveal that the buses are pulling up and that the four hundred troops in the regiment are pouring out of the barracks. Nick Glennie-Smith's amazing music commences with a doomed metronomic tick, tick, tick and then builds beautifully throughout the scene to a heartrending crescendo. Overwrought death scenes, tearful widows and the amassed cinematic imagery of the reality of modern conflict aren't necessary to convey the horror and the heroism of war, as this majestic set-piece so eloquently displays without a single shot being fired.
“Thoughts of home ... take away my fear.
Sweat and blood ... hide my veil of tears.”
Throughout the film, Gibson stamps his authority, the raw energy of Mad Max buried beneath appropriately leathery skin, but the winning warmth and charisma still playing about in eyes that now really do seem to have seen too much. A friend of mine once commented that the actor made Moore too likeable and therefore unrealistic as a commanding officer. But the simple fact is that the Moore we see Gibson playing is as close to the real guy as you could get. The colonel had much more than just the respect of his men, they loved him. He led them into battle and stood there right alongside them in the thickest of the fighting and never once used his rank to avoid contact with the enemy. Gibson chisels out a fine warrior from the screenplay but is perfectly keen to maintain his humanity and humility. When the napalm strike goes horrifically wrong and the radioman calling in the coordinates sits dumbfounded and expecting a roasting of his own, Gibson's Colonel Moore is reassuringly pragmatic and philosophical - “Charlie ... you're keeping us alive. Now you just forget about that one son ... and keep calling them in!”
I've lavished praise on Sam Elliot many times before. From Blue Jean Cop and Roadhouse to Ghost Rider and from The Hulk to, ahem, Barnyard (“Put the hen down, Dag!”), his rubble-packed voice and laconic stare have transformed two-bit characters into stand-proud heroes. Yet, bizarrely, his stalwart Sgt. Maj. Plumley is cut from a different cloth. He is nowhere near as laconic in his battle fatigues, no hint of a smile is allowed to infiltrate his cast-iron demeanour whether training the men or standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them as they face the endless NVA assaults. His dogged “come-what-may” attitude to the inherent danger and sheer indefatigability score highly though. If Moore isn't too proud to admit the chinks in his armour, then it is only because he has the titanic, granite-hewn Plumley backing him up every step of the way. Moore might be the grunt's best friend, but Plumley has a deadpan, straight-to-the-bone manner that makes him the necessary rock for them to cling to when the proverbial hits the fan. One absolutely terrific scene has the Sgt. Maj. standing watch over the wounded as Galloway scuttles in the dirt, traumatised by the ferocity he has witnessed. When the eerie stillness is shattered and the bleeding men realise that the next attack is coming straight for them, Elliot's line, “Gentlemen, prepare to defend yourselves,” sends shivers up and down the spine, such is the gravel-packed, matter-of-fact way in which he says it. Listen to it and it just sounds like a growl. Awesome. He is even a man who is able to carry both the long-haired, grizzled cowboy look as well a super-tight military buzz-cut.
“Once a year ... say a prayer for me.
Close your eyes ... and remember me ...”
Able support from Greg Kinnear gives the film some airborne impetus as his valiant chopper pilot - although his character of the real-life Maj. Bruce Crandall is actually an amalgamation of several genuine pilot daredevils rolled into one - flies round the clock to ferry out the wounded and drop supplies. The depth he emotion he displays just by peering out of his cockpit as the harrowing developments on the ground speaks volumes. Chris Klein also does a good job as the young Lt. Geoghegan, almost making up for the dizzy turn he made in the ill-fated and ill-conceived Rollerball remake that virtually nobody saw. His command of the infamous “Lost Patrol” sees him reaching deep and coming up with the goods that a more lenient screenplay would have been happy to let him exploit elsewhere. Barry Pepper saw action as the Bible-quoting crackshot-sniper in Saving Private Ryan. Here he assumes the role of the combat photographer and journalist Joe Galloway (actually the co-writer of the original book, alongside Hal Moore). I like Pepper, he has an honesty about him that is authentic to the part. He makes a great stab at the emotions when the Chinese trooper he befriends falls victim to the bad napalm drop, but his cries of being a non-combatant land on deaf ears when Elliot's gruff non-sympathiser thrusts a rifle into his hands - “You won't snap any pictures down there, sonny!” he growls at the cowering Galloway. In Hollywood terms, Galloway is merely a cipher, the avenue through which the audience, ostensibly non-combatants themselves, view the terrible events taking place Ia Drang. But in reality his record of the battle and his connection to the men he fought alongside and particularly to Hal Moore, is the lynchpin from which this story and film are depended from. Sadly, I haven't seen Pepper in too many things - and I'm trying not to think about Battleground Earth, thank you very much - but his is a welcome face in this.
Female non-combatants to the movie have to undergo an ordeal almost as terrible as that of the troops as they portray their devastated wives and girlfriends back home, waiting in agony for news of their loved ones and dreading the arrival of those infamous telegrams, delivered so cruelly by yellow taxicabs. Madeline Stowe, so gorgeous in The Last Of The Mohicans (when are we going to see that in high definition?) does commendable work as Mrs Julie Moore in a script that, if we are honest, tries a little too hard and a little too thanklessly to describe her and her friends' agonised plight. It is one of those inevitable elements of such a film that when it attempts to tell the story from all angles, there is unavoidably going to be a down-turn in the excitement when the scene shifts to the relative safety back home. The problem being that We Were Soldiers seems to suffer from this more than most. This is not the fault of the actresses involved, or even Wallace's script for that matter. But rather that the action taking place in the Valley Of Death is just so galvanising and immediate that to leave it even for a minute seems like a terrible wrench.
“Sir, Custer was a pussy.”
The score from Nick Glennie-Smith is absolutely electric, as well. Another fine composer heralding from Hans Zimmer's Media Ventures group, Glennie-Smith takes the typical Zimmer-synth-samplings but plugs them into a marvellously diverse soundtrack that detours into gutturally vocalised aggression to depict the NVA rushing about in their tunnels and Moore's men going over the top at the end, creates beautifully haunting passages to depict the pain and futility of it all and uses some drawn-out tonal sequences to either build up to chaos or ease down from it. But the single most resplendent element that he incorporates into the rich and intense score is the battle lament “Sgt. MacKenzie” composed and performed by Joseph Kilna MacKenzie to pay homage to his grandfather who fought in the First World War, and playing out significantly over two wildly poignant and exhilarating scenes. The lyrics can be found interspersed throughout the paragraphs of this review. Glennie-Smith may have been thinking hard about how he would come up with something to match the diverse and exciting music that Zimmer structured for Black Hawk Dawn and, as far as I am concerned, he has achieved exactly that. Brutal, frightening, pulsating and lyrically haunting, his score is memorable and fitting to the horrendous sacrifices made during the battle.
If the final charge is pure Hollywood, then it is condoned by two things. The first is that we have had the Custer's Last Stand analogy running alongside Moore's interpretation of his circumstances all along, so this ultimate act of desperate courage would seem fitting if he didn't want himself and his men to end up the same way as the original 7th Cavalry. The second thing, and possibly the most emphatic, is that it is so damn good. Set to a truly phenomenal cue from Glennie-Smith, that pumps blood and adrenaline in equal measure, it is a thunderous do-or-die plunge into the vicious maelstrom of hand-to-hand combat. The true battle did, in fact, have many such incidents of bayonet, knife and fist fighting, though Randall Wallace elects to present such pulse-pounding carnage as the filmic pay-off that we have all been waiting for. Exquisite editing and choreography pick out individual shots of cathartic destruction - a rifle-butt slammed into an exposed chin; bayonets chunking into soft bellies; Sam Elliot's automatic barking out like an extension of his voice at anything he can see through the dust-haze; Mel Gibson's slow-motion cresting of the ridge, his eyes chancing a hopeful last-second glance to the skies. It is incredibly potent imagery and a scene that is endlessly repeatable. One thing though ... if the choppers could find the enemy base so easily, then why the hell didn't they commit this orgy of death at the start? And an orgy it most certainly is. There is definitely a moment (or two) when Wallace indulges the bloodlust with protracted scenes of merciless mutilation. During the final high-velocity fusillade I can't help but think that I'm watching George Romero on acid and laying waste to swathes of zombies. For gorehounds, there are actually a few slightly different angles on the ubiquitous head-shots ... which is nice, and the stuntmen involved display incredibly genuine-looking reactions to multiple bullet-hits. Even the desperate ferocity of knife work is exhibited during the terrifying night siege. But when the situation calls for it, you have to “grab the enemy by the belt buckle”, as Moore stipulates, still wary about the trap that Custer got himself into.
“I don't know how to tell this story ...”
“Well, you've got to, Joe. You tell the American people what these men did here. You tell them how my troopers died.”
One element that I really don't like is the photo-montage depicting Joe Galloway rushing around the battlefield in horror and snapping poignant pictures of men in the heat of the fight or lying wounded or dead. It is a necessary aspect and is true to the real-life events, but I just don't like the way that Randall Wallace films it. A ghostly Galloway flits in and out of the raw imagery that he is recording for the people back home, but the style looks incredibly clichéd and contrived rather than moving, with Barry Pepper's haunted face peeping through the shifting sequence in utter dislocation from the images he is meant to be experiencing. But this is only a minor caveat, really. The film still proves to be a magnificent recreation of the chaos of war and the people who make it their business and as a tribute the soldiers, from both sides, who fought and died during the three days that signified the first major contact between American and North Vietnamese forces, We Were Soldiers does a mighty fine job. I love war films and particularly those that detail the peculiar madness of Vietnam, and Randall Wallace's adaptation of Hal Moore's and Joe Galloway's book is right up there with the best of the genre. It is, first and foremost, a combat movie and if the harrowing tragedies endured by the next of kin back in the States seem to slow things down a bit, I'm not going to condemn the film for, at least, attempting to tell their tale as well. Great war movie, folks ... and remember, this depicts just the first three days of the battles that Moore and his men underwent on that mission. Things actually got worse for them shortly afterward!
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