For this month's Genre Grandeur on Bestselling/Popular Novel Adaptations I chose to review Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers.
On 14th November 1965, the men of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, led by Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore landed at LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley. Immediately surrounded by 2000 soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), the Americans fought for three days to defend the landing zone - their only lifeline to the outside world. Based on the book We Were Soldiers Once...and Young by Lt. General Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joe Galloway, We Were Soldiers tells the story of the first major battle between US and North Vietnamese forces.
"Hollywood got it wrong every damned time", those are the words used by Hal Moore to describe every movie ever made about the Vietnam war. They're the same words that inspired writer/director Randall Wallace (Braveheart) to get this one right. Rather than attempting to glamorise warfare, Wallace went out of his way to capture the true brutality and horror of war. We Were Soldiers skips over the politics and controversy that surrounds the Vietnam war by simply focusing on the battle and how it was fought. And it's done in a way that is respectful of the men fighting on both sides.
Before filming took place, all of the actors playing soldiers - one for every member of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry - took part in a two-week boot camp, or what Mel Gibson called the "celebrity-wimp version". That may be the case but the movie feels more authentic because of it. They look like soldiers and their performances reflect who those men were; average guys serving their country. Mel Gibson is excellent as Lt. Colonel Moore. But it's Sam Elliott who is the stand-out, he delivers a masterful performance as the gruff and grizzled Sergeant Major Basil Plumley, the battalion's senior Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) and a veteran of World War 2 and Korea. His conversations with Ryan Hurst's Sergeant Savage are welcome light moments amongst the grim battle scenes.
In order to recreate the battle as realistically as possible, many of the effects were created practically, including the massive napalm explosions. All of the fighting is perfectly choreographed to show the savage nature of the situation. Several period aircraft were hired for the production, including six Hueys. Watching real aircraft fly by as the ground beneath it erupts into flames is breath-taking and horrifying all at once. One scene involving a friendly fire incident was all too real for Joe Galloway (a journalist embedded with Moore's unit during the battle), he was unable to even shake the hand of the actor playing the soldier he helped that day. When he saw the movie, he had to leave the cinema during that scene, Galloway said "That was my nightmare for 36 years. I don't want to see it again."
That desire for accuracy also extends to the home front as well. We Were Soldiers shows what the families have to deal with when soldiers go off to war. The movie focuses on Lt. Col. Moore's wife Julia (played by Madeleine Stowe), a woman who had to single-handedly care for five children and every family under her husband's command. Given that the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley was the first major engagement of US forces in Vietnam, the Army wasn't prepared for such a high number of casualties. Their solution regarding the issue of death notification was to say the least, despicable. Much like in the movie, Julia Moore took it upon herself to visit with the family of every soldier in the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry killed in action, as well as attending all but one of the funerals. Stowe, who spent time with Julia Moore brings a graceful strength to the role. In short, she was the perfect choice to play such a remarkable woman.
As with all depictions of historical events, We Were Soldiers isn't entirely accurate. Certain events have been changed or moved for dramatic purposes. For example, Sgt. Major Plumley's conversation with Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper) about non-combatants actually took place a week before the battle. And it wasn't with Plumley either; Galloway actually spoke to Major Charles Beckwith, the man who later founded Delta Force. But there are other parts of the story that are inexplicably left out, like the involvement of 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry and 1st and 2nd Battalions, 5th Cavalry, who were also involved in the battle. The end of the movie is depicted as an American victory whereas in reality they made a final push - led by 2nd Lieutenant Rick Rescorla of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry - in order to clear the perimeter of snipers and gather the last of their dead. After that Lt. Col. Moore handed control of LZ X-Ray over to 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry and 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry. 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry then withdrew by helicopter back to their base camp.
The next day, ground troops were ordered out of the area before a squadron of B-52's bombed LZ X-Ray and the surrounding area. 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry marched 3 miles to LZ Albany, whilst en route they were ambushed by North Vietnamese forces suffering heavy casualties. Men like 2nd Lieutenant Rick Rescorla, who had fought at LZ X-Ray had to return to the battlefield in order to help their friends at LZ Albany. Rescorla features prominently in Moore's book, he's also the soldier pictured on the front cover of the first edition. Moore described him as "the finest platoon leader I ever saw". Originally from Cornwall in England, Rescorla later worked security for Morgan Stanley in the World Trade Centre and is responsible for the survival of all but six of their 2700 employees in Tower 2 and a further 2000 in Tower 5 on 9/11. He was last seen on the 10th floor of the south tower, his body was never found. The only time Rescorla is seen in the movie is the moment where an unidentified trooper picks up a French bugle (this actually occurred at LZ Albany).
We Were Soldiers is a gritty and realistic recreation of the Battle of the Ia Drang. Randall Wallace tells this story in a way that is both historically accurate (for the most part) and respectful of the men who fought there. With its powerful performances, intense battle scenes and tear-jerking look at the families left behind, it's a shocking look at the brutality of war and the tragic effects it has on all those caught up in it.
If this story interests you I highly recommend you check out Hal Moore and Joe Galloway's book "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young" as well as these two documentaries: "The Man Who Predicted 9/11" (about Rick Rescorla) and "They Were Young and Brave" (follows Hal Moore and several other veterans on their first visit to the Ia Drang Valley since the end of the war), both can be found on YouTube. And don't forget to check out the other reviews in this month's Genre Grandeur.
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