The Viet Nam battle drama “We Were Soldiers” spends half an hour making us care about each of the characters and the rest of the movie blowing them up.
It is based on the book by Lt. Colonel Harold G. Moore, a devout Catholic who is as devoted a commander as he is a father. Moore was asked to develop the “air cavalry,” a system for using helicopters in combat. He led the Americans into their first major engagement in Viet Nam. They were hopelessly outmanned, with just 400 soldiers to 2000 Vietnamese. They fought bravely and did their best to look out for each other. And most of them were killed or wounded.
There have been thousands of war movies, and dozens of movies about the Viet Nam war, but this is one of the few to truly honor the men who fought and the women they loved. This is not a movie about politicians (though there are some digs at those who sent these men into battle without adequate resources) and it is not a movie about whether the US involvement stemmed from imperialism or a commitment to freedom. This is a movie about those who put their lives on the line not for their country but for each other.
The movie has some weaknesses that, in context, work very well. The battle action is often hard to follow, though perhaps that is a good way to replicate the relentlessness and disorientation of war. The characters and dialogue are clichéd, even corny. But in the context of the movie, they become paradigms. Mel Gibson, as Moore, is the man we would all want to lead us into battle, a true hero who promises his men that he will always be the first on the field and the last to leave, and that men may die, but none will be left behind. He trains his men to learn the tasks of the man above and teach their own tasks to the man below, and directs them, above all, to take care of each other, he gives them a purpose and a dignity that, sadly, the conflict they were sent to fight and the politicians who sent them there never could.
The movie also takes the unusual step of treating the soldiers on the other side with dignity as well, making them human beings with ability, honor – and wives left behind to mourn them.
Parents should know that this is one of the most brutally violent movies ever released, with up-close, graphic, and relentless violence and the deaths of many characters. There is some strong language and a mild sexual situation.
Families who see this movie should talk about how we decide to risk American lives in a war, and how, knowing that lives will be lost, we prepare and motivate our armed forces. They may want to discuss their own views on the war in Viet Nam and the treatment of veterans.