- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

"We Were Soldiers" adds a third estimable combat saga to the winter's bounty.

The two others with images of dedicated fighting men are "Black Hawk Down" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." All three involve close identification with combatants who defy strange surroundings and daunting odds while fighting so gallantly that questions of overall war policy can be suspended or postponed for a later date and different frame of reference.

"We Were Soldiers" places actors Mel Gibson and Sam Elliott at the forefront of a three-day battle in the Ia Drang Valley in an early phase of the Vietnam War.

"Soldiers" is based on a battle memoir written by retired Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and former United Press International photojournalist Joseph L. Galloway called, "We Were Soldiers Once … and Young." The pair evidently met under fire on the battlefield, called Landing Zone X-Ray.

Gen. Moore, then a lieutenant colonel, survived this deathtrap setting in November 1965 while commanding about 400 troops of the 1st Battalion of the 7th Air Cavalry. The unit found itself opposed by about 2,000 North Vietnamese troops, who had a base camp in the immediate vicinity.

Mr. Gibson portrays Lt. Col. Moore with a combination of grit, guile, sentiment and intellect that proves exceptionally appealing. Moore is not only responsible for a lot of lives on the battlefield; he has a lot to live for back in Fort Benning, Ga. His admirably courageous wife, Julie (Madeleine Stowe in a performance that seems a virtual resurrection, after her wifely tour of duty in "Impostor"), remains there with a lively brood of children and a community of military wives.

The initial emphasis on home-front training and domesticity in "We Were Soldiers" distinguishes it most conspicuously from "Black Hawk Down," which made room for only fleeting home-front impressions before placing soldiers in overwhelming peril.

Randall Wallace, the director and screenwriter of "Soldiers," who initially did Mr. Gibson a major favor by writing "Braveheart," backtracks historically with a prologue set in 1954, when a French unit is slaughtered on the same killing ground that awaits the Americans.

All the anticipatory enhancements prove effective, in part because the director and star are astute about softpedaling the touches that could be criticized as premature corniness and pathos. These include an interlude with the littlest of the Moore children, an impromptu prayer shared by the commander with an earnest new lieutenant, and the predawn departures that have Moore and others leaving their homes for an assembly point on the base.

Unexpected touches or shifts in emphasis tend to protect such vignettes from lingering or mawkish pitfalls.

The critics who picked quarrels with "Black Hawk Down" for shortchanging the Somali militia perspective will have a trickier time with Mr. Wallace. The director goes out of his way to eavesdrop on the North Vietnamese Army commander at pivotal times during the three-day battle. He acknowledges the aims, prowess and sacrifice of the enemy without surrendering an emotional and dramatic loyalty to the Americans.

Mr. Elliott is an enjoyably hard-bitten tower of strength as Sgt. Major Basil Plumley, an unlikely name for such a warrior figure. The character appears to be a fearless throwback to warfare as the oldest human profession.

Barry Pepper, the splendid sharpshooter of "Saving Private Ryan" and an admirable embodiment of Roger Maris in Billy Crystal's biopic "'61," has been cast as Galloway. Suddenly swept up in the battle, the Galloway character has insufficient opportunity to make himself indispensable to the audience. He also allows Mr. Wallace to get a little too opportunistically mocking about journalists who haven't shared a similar baptism of fire.

The battle simulations are consistently impressive. They may even help to clarify some things about the carnage of Vietnam that were obscured by the polemical conflicts of the period, including the practical benefits of napalm to troops threatened with collapsing lines of defense.

Mr. Wallace takes a seemingly enormous liberty with the time frame at one point, suggesting that death notices have begun to arrive back at Fort Benning even before the battle is over, but the director clearly has an aptitude for heroic and epic drama.


***1/2

TITLE: "We Were Soldiers"

RATING: R (for sustained sequences of graphic war violence and for language)

CREDITS: Written for the screen and directed by Randall Wallace. Cinematography by Dean Semler. Production design by Tom Sanders.

RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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