A Vietnam Battle Saga at War With Itself

For a simple-minded film, which is what it is, "We Were Soldiers" manages to evoke a complex series of reactions. It both frustrates with its unrelenting sentimentality and impresses with the overwhelming physicality of its combat sequences. These in turn are so powerful they take on a life of their own, sending a message that is probably quite opposite to the one the filmmakers intended.

"We Were Soldiers" is the first Vietnam War film with amnesia. It stars Mel Gibson as Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, who in 1965 took on 2,000 of the enemy with but 400 of his own men in the first major battle between North Vietnamese regulars and U.S. troops. It's the first film to pretend that the American soul-searching the war caused simply never happened. Intent on celebrating the undeniable heroism of American fighting men and taking advantage of the fact that the battle in the Ia Drang Valley took place before the war was on most Americans' radar, "We Were Soldiers," written and directed by Randall Wallace from the book Moore wrote with journalist Joseph L. Galloway, deftly sidesteps the messy question of why the United States was in Vietnam in the first place in favor of giving soldiers the heroic warrior treatment.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating genuine heroism. But this film's sincere brand of retro revisionism and depoliticization is going too far in the opposite direction, and Wallace's wholehearted embracing of the extremes of corniness in the film's noncombat sequences are nothing to applaud.

It's unfortunate that Wallace, who wrote Gibson's "Braveheart" as well as the recent "Pearl Harbor," has such an irrepressible passion for sappy situations and dialogue. The gee-whiz soldierly camaraderie he fondly depicts gets rapidly tiresome, as do the scenes of Moore's idealized family life with wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe) and five of just the cutest kids, including a little girl who asks, "Daddy, what's a war?"

Even in these situations, star Gibson is very much a strength, bringing the requisite air of quiet command to one of the most effective of his recent roles. Tough, brainy, someone who's as much a father to younger officers like Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear) and Jack Geoghegan and his wife (Chris Klein and Keri Russell) as to his own children, Gibson's Moore is a kind of John Wayne for the new century.

Except for an unhappy sequence of wives back home dealing with death announcement telegrams, "We Were Soldiers" becomes a very different film once the men go into combat and find themselves trapped and outnumbered. If not for the eventual presence of reporter-photographer Galloway ("Saving Private Ryan's" Barry Pepper), this story would probably have been even more unknown than it is.

The film's sentiments may be retrograde, but its savage action sequences, most impressively shot by Dean Semler using anywhere from four to 11 cameras, are indelible, even as part of us is saying, "Oh no, not another state-of-the-art battle film." The combat in "We Were Soldiers" has a brutal, savage, unrelenting quality, with enough of the blood, the screaming and the life-and-death chaos of hand-to-hand combat to make the terror on the soldiers' faces more than believable.

As the battle goes on and more and more innocent young men are cut down without a prayer, "We Were Soldiers" undercuts its avowed aims and becomes, paradoxically, less and less the "tribute to the nobility and uncommon valor of those men under fire" the press notes say it wants to be and more like the classic antiwar films "Paths of Glory" and "All Quiet on the Western Front."

Heroism and courage are not the words that come to mind after witnessing what we see here but rather slaughter and terrible waste. We feel the pointlessness of these deaths, the awful devastation on both sides. Especially because we cannot forget what this film prefers to avoid knowing, that bravery and self-sacrifice without a reason are not cause for celebration but rather one of the saddest, most regrettable of human activities.