- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

"It was a royal straight flush," screenwriter-director Randall Wallace says the morning after attending an invitational screening at the White House of his new movie, the Vietnam War saga "We Were Soldiers."

"All the top people were there. They were very gracious to all of us and seemed to embrace the movie for the right reasons. There were so many people I would have loved to have gone up to and talked to for a while. I didn't know how to do that. My teen-age son was with me. Afterwards, he said, 'Dad, that was the quietest I have ever seen you.'"

Humbling moments seem to have a way of finding Mr. Wallace, who grew up in rural Tennessee and Lynchburg, Va., but who has spent most of his working life in show business.

He started as an Opryland animal talent coordinator soon after leaving Duke University in the early 1970s. Mr. Wallace emerged as a prestige movie writer with "Braveheart," the Academy Award-winning picture of 1995 for which he also began a professional partnership with Mel Gibson. Mr. Gibson won Oscars for directing and co-producing the epic celebration of the medieval Scottish warrior William Wallace, whom he also portrayed.

"We Were Soldiers," which opens today, reunites the pair, this time with Mr. Wallace calling the shots. Mr. Gibson, who was also in town for the White House screening, plays another authentic warrior, Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore, who commanded the first U.S. troops, an Air Cavalry battalion, to fight a pitched battle against North Vietnamese Army forces.

Mr. Wallace conducted press interviews at the Willard Inter-Continental Washington hotel between multiple invitational screenings. Elaborating on the White House event, he says, "People tend to jump to the conclusion that there's something political about the film. There isn't. It's meant to tell the truth about soldiers, about what war really is, at a certain point in our history. It's not an anesthetized version of war, but it reminds us constantly that soldiers are human beings.

"Not to sound highfalutin, but I think it was T.S. Eliot who said, 'All art is qualified by what went before and what came after.' I think audiences are only ready to hear certain things at certain times. During the Vietnam War, the politics became so caustic and the stakes seemed so high that the anti-war and pro-war sides in this country thought they were at war with each other. That argument had its time, but I think it distanced us from the humanity of the individual guys who were in uniform, and their wives and families.

"Now, for whatever reason, we can look at the experience without that bitterness and dissension. It's become easier to respect their sacrifices."

Although he was gratified for a White House showing of his movie, Mr. Wallace says: "I should add that my most sought-after approval was probably from men at Fort Benning, Georgia. I felt a connection not only because we shot a lot of the movie there, on the actual locations where Harold's men had trained. I had also gone through an abbreviated, two-week Ranger school at Fort Benning before the movie started."

Mr. Wallace relates that he wanted to be a writer "since my earliest recollections." A particularly fond recollection is of writing stories at an impromptu desk made from feed sacks and placed near the potbellied stove in a general store owned by his paternal grandparents.

"My parents really sacrificed so I could go to school," Mr. Randall says. "I went to Duke and majored in religion. We didn't have a minor at the time, but I studied creative writing as if it were a minor. Reynolds Price was there and a great inspiration. I also took Russian all four years. I wanted to be a writer but wasn't certain how to square that with my family's expectations."

The expectations seemed to point toward the ministry, at first. The Wallaces were devout Southern Baptists. Mr. Wallace even attended the Duke divinity school for a year after getting an undergraduate degree.

"I never saw myself as a clergyman," he says, "but I wanted to lead my life in a way that would gratify more than appetite or vanity."

Mr. Wallace had signed up for an officer training program sponsored by the Marine Corps while he was in college but never followed through on the paperwork.

"It was about that time that the My Lai massacre cropped up," he recalls. "I remember thinking, 'This is a different world. It's not the Confederate army keeping the Yankees from our women at the gates of Richmond. You better think through what it is you're gonna do and what you're prepared to live with.'

"I entered divinity school with a lot of uncertainty, thinking I might become a chaplain. By that time, I wasn't eager to kill anybody. A few years earlier, in high school, I had the Southern view that it was my duty to kill a commie for Jesus. While I was waffling and soul-searching, the war started winding down, and I was spared the necessity of making a choice."

Mr. Wallace abandoned divinity school for Opryland, which was just getting organized. He later migrated to Los Angeles, which has been his home since 1976. He gravitated to television there and left, frustrated by "the whole committee aspect."

He also tried his hand at novels. The first, "Russian Rose," was accepted by Putnam. The company also published its successor, "So Late Into the Night," about a White House speechwriter.

"I was fascinated with the notion of people who can influence events through their poetry and passion while remaining sort of anonymous," he says. Alas, the book sold about 1,500 copies, obliging him to take a second stab at TV writing. Mr. Wallace and his wife were expecting their first child.

During the late 1980s, he sustained a flourishing TV career and was mentored by the prolific writer-producer Stephen J. Cannell, best known for "The 'A' Team" and "The Rockford Files," but the two had a falling out.

"That rupture led to a period where I couldn't sell anything, couldn't get a meeting, couldn't get arrested. I had the whole ball of wax: big mortgage, Ger-man cars, a collapsing marriage," he says.

Mr. Wallace vowed to write only "the things I wanted to see." He literally prayed for strength and began a story that led to "Braveheart," after a roots-hunting journey to Scotland alerted him to the life and legend of Wallace. Rebecca Pollock, who worked at MGM and is the daughter of director Sydney Pollock, championed his "Braveheart."

Mr. Wallace acknowledges that he harbored directing aspirations while writing "Braveheart." They increased as a result of being close to the production.

"I never write anything with a given actor in mind," he says. "Mel naturally jumped to the top of the most desirable list when we began considering people who could play William Wallace. … Watching how he went about making the film and then seeing how close it was to what I had wanted to see all along reinforced my confidence. I thought I could get the job done, so I began to prepare myself for directing."

Mr. Wallace says that "the next thing I do will probably return to a large canvas. Those sorts of stories are especially satisfying when they turn out well. But I enjoy working with the whispers of the human heart as well as the shouts. Some of my favorite moments in 'We Were Soldiers' are the most subdued and intimate moments."

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