It wasn’t so long ago that U.S. war movies opened like other movies, with premieres attended by movie stars and journalists who describe what they’re wearing. Nowadays, the context is changed, and war movies like Black Hawk Down are opening with solemnity and a sense of mission, with ceremonies attended by non-Hollywood notables like Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney and the Mrs. The latest movie to garner such attention is We Were Soldiers, which star Mel Gibson screened for G.W. at the White House on 27 February.
Using big, splashy Hollywood movies to promote patriotic spirit and domestic enthusiasm for U.S. war-making is hardly a new concept: think John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Gary Cooper, even Yankee Doodle Dandy Cagney. Though the thorny U.S. involvements in Korea and Vietnam (goodness, even Hiroshima) made such high profile self-love projects more difficult, they did not make them impossible. Aggressively anti-war in Vietnam movies were, of course, extremely visible — from Taxi Driver (1976), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979), to Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Boyz N the Hood (1991), not to mention the less visible, but influential Oscar-winning documentary, Hearts and Minds (1974): no one who’s seen it can forget General Westmoreland observing that the “Oriental” lacks a Westerner’s regard for human life, while the film cuts to a Vietnamese woman throwing herself into her dead son’s grave. Released just before the fall of Saigon in April 1975, this was a chilling image of the man who had been leading U.S. troops into battle.
Today, wars tend to be fought without the ideological padding of such overt racism, though carefully inculcated, dehumanizing bigotry remains the most efficient way to get young soldiers to kill other young soldiers (and “collateral damage”). But war movies (with the notable exception of David O. Russell’s Three Kings) still make out like any old racism will do: the “enemy” in recent movies — and on CNN and Fox News — looks exotic, inscrutable, and overly committed to a cause that remains unfathomable to innocently by-standing “Westerners” (read: mostly white, mostly middle to upper class, mostly U.S.).
It’s no surprise that those movies released after 9-11 are being deployed to boost wartime “morale,” even though they were plainly conceived and completed before 9-11: these include The Last Castle, Behind Enemy Lines, Black Hawk Down, Hart’s War, and We Were Soldiers (films must plainly be “historical” to be counted as serious). Each movie reframes a past U.S. war by revising popular conceptions (for instance, that the Mogadishu raid was disastrous, or that the Nazis were the only outright racists during WWII). And, at least in the cases of BHD and We Were Soldiers, the subjects are complex, confusing moral and military engagements, if not outright failures, however you define such a thing in terms of war, where, arguably, no one can “win.”
Mel Gibson himself seems to be under few illusions regarding war: “It’s all about money, isn’t it?” he says in Esquire (February 2002). And yet, the once-and-ever Road Warrior clearly understands the values and functions of representing it in particular ways, having worked hard to get “it” right in Gallipoli, Braveheart, and The Patriot. It’s perhaps instructive that he played characters who were part of the more or less “underdog” contingents in each of these films, fighting back against notoriously oppressive regimes, while in We Were Soldiers, well, he’s part of the invasive outsiders’ force. As Gibson puts it, the North Vietnamese “had a grievance. I mean, what would you do if someone came into your country?”
This is surely a question worth asking, repeatedly, even now, when the U.S. is in the long-term process of responding to such an attack. But while Gibson (no doubt sincerely) believes that We Were Soldiers is an anti-war movie, and not only an anti-war in Vietnam movie, it is also being used otherwise by the powers that be, or perhaps better, the powers that can’t help themselves. Touted and received as a movie about heroic soldiering, it’s not going to convince anyone that the U.S. needs to reconsider the upcoming increase in the Pentagon’s budget. On this, Gibson is right: war is about money (the WTC and Pentagon assaults demonstrated that the so-called “first world” is not the only body that thinks this way). And money is always connected, intimately and painfully, to property and payback.
Against this dense and difficult background, We Were Soldiers is, above all, an earnest film, working overtime (and a long time — at almost three hours) not to be a standard U.S. war movie where the good (white) boys fight against diabolical “others.” Though it is most certainly about U.S. troops’ fear and bravery when sent on an insane, impossible operation, it also attempts to show the Vietnamese as noble adversaries. So, while Gibson’s Lt. Colonel Hal Moore and men roar around up top, the North Vietnamese regulars (NVA) appear in tunnels, planning their resistance and preparing for battle (they even have subtitles so you can understand them, and one has a photo of a girlfriend that he carries with him into battle — and this dooms him, of course, as it would any movie soldier), and then, waging able and brutal war against their enemies. While this representation isn’t revolutionary, it is more respectful than that in the best known anti-war movies set in Vietnam — from the most heartfelt (Platoon), to the most rock ‘n’ roll (Apocalypse Now), to the most aggressively intelligent (Full Metal Jacket).
Still, there are times when the film just can’t get out of its own way. For one thing, it only takes this “equal” deference business so far. This is likely a “money” thing, too. Surely, it’s easier to sell a movie (during wartime and not) that takes a “rousing,” pick-a-side approach, than one caught up in balanced viewpoints. Viewers, the common wisdom goes, need to be able to root for a team. To this end, Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers tends to fall back, too easily, on its star (who also powered Wallace’s Braveheart). Gibson’s Lt. Colonel Hal Moore (whose book, We Were Soldiers Once… And Young, written with journalist Joe Galloway, is the film’s basis) is a rock of a character, gallant, tender, smart, and above all, heroic — when he walks through gunfire and explosions, he seems awesome. (But when Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore does the same thing in Apocalypse Now, he looks a little psychotic.)
This use of the rally-round-him hero is to be expected in a commercial-minded movie, but it’s still disappointing, since We Were Soldiers does raise some dicey questions (even if it does mostly drop them). It opens on a battlefield, the camera panning the Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam’s Central Highlands. (Actually, this bit of scenery has been shot near Fort Hunter Liggett in Central California, U.S. filming as in Vietnam is still… how to say?… impractical.) This image is accompanied by an earnest voice-over by reporter Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper), asserting that what follows is a “tribute to the people who died” in the legendary battle of Landing Zone X-Ray, 14-16 November 1965, the first major battle between U.S. troops and the NVA. The people who died, in other words, include Vietnamese as well as Americans.
To tell the story, Galloway continues, he must “go back to the beginning,” represented here as French troops who are about to be chased out of Vietnam in 1954 (after maintaining some form of colonialist fight with the Vietnamese since the 1850s). The camera continues to move across the landscape, as a French captain (Nicholas Hosking) lists the reasons he hates the war he’s in: the “fucking heat,” the “fucking grass,” the “fucking country.” Within seconds, the captain is killed.
This choice of “beginning” illustrates the dangerous sense of superiority and entitlement that convinced all varieties of invaders they would march into Vietnam and “win” (even if the choice does omit many other possible “beginnings” — for examples, Vietnam’s wars with China, Cambodia, and Japan, whom the U.S. used as to set up a “common enemy” connection between a youthful and democratic-minded Ho Chi Minh, whom the U.S. would then abandon to the French… and etc.) This choice also conveniently leaves the French bearing the bad colonialists’ weight and lets the film’s U.S. heroes-to-be operate without such political baggage.
These heroes — the Army’s First Cavalry Division (Airmobile) — are delivered by helicopters into the horrendous (“hot”) LZ, where they are faced with all kinds of gun, tank, and missile fire, then picked up and carried away afterwards, whether dead, wounded, or alive. As crazy as it sounds, this plot only hints at the absurdity facing U.S. soldiers told to “take” ground and then abandon it, kill thousands (some 2,000 Vietnamese died during the two day battle, along with 79 U.S. casualties), and then go to another site and kill some more. And the film spends a good long time underscoring the terrors of this particular battle, as it also represents what’s to come. And the terrors come pretty relentlessly, as soon as the guys are dropped off those choppers (one piloted by Greg Kinnear, an alarming thought in itself, but he does well enough in the role of Major Bruce “Snakeshit” Crandall, whose central function appears to be showing his increasing weariness, disgust, and dread as the hours wear on).
Crandall, as well as Moore’s right-hand guy, Sergeant Major Plumley (Sam Elliot), and the kids who come along (Chris Klein’s 2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan, Edwin Morrow’s Pvt. Godboldt, Mark McCracken’s “Too Tall” Freeman) end up looking bland compared to Moore’s towering charisma. That this performance includes recognition that war is hell and Moore, though he’s very good at it, hates it too, is part of the formula. He tells his men before they leave that he will leave no one behind, that they will all come back with him, dead or alive. It’s a heck of a speech, and Moore delivers it with a pride that’s part paternal and part self-involved. You get the feeling that this is one reluctant hero is totally ready and even determined to be exactly where he is.
There are teary eyes all round the high school football stadium where he delivers his speech, from the men as well as the women. His wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe) is especially sad, perhaps because she knows that he’s been obsessively studying Custer’s Last Stand (this is not a little distressing, as is the fact that he leaves her in the middle of the night without waking her to say goodbye: must be a stoic soldier thing). Moore is also a superb dad to five kids (I think I counted five), including one adorable cherub in a nightgown who asks him to define “war,” which he does by saying that it’s “something that shouldn’t happen, but it does.” She’s not quite satisfied, so he continues, it’s “when some people try to take the lives of other people, and my job is to go over there and try and stop ’em.” Yup.
Moore doesn’t so much develop during the film as he is proved right, repeatedly: he’s right about the bad idea of sending inexperienced men into battle, he’s right about the bad idea of using choppers in an area the planners don’t know, and he’s right that “some people try to take the lives of other people,” and that he tries to stop ’em. But We Were Soldiers is not about tactics or even character. It’s about the demands of war that no one can imagine ahead of time. There is really no way to describe the “job.” So the women (including Jack Geoghegan’s pregnant wife, played by Keri Russell) are left behind to contemplate their imminent losses, while finding ways to spend their time at the base (planning lunches, locating the best off-base markets) and peering out their windows, dreading the cab driver who will arrive with “Regret to Inform” telegrams in hand (ironically, the U.S. military was notoriously terrible at handling death).
Such scenes are harrowing. But the film’s time and place — 1965 Georgia — means that it must address at least a smidgen of the women’s daily lives, including racism. That it deals with racism via the women’s group rather than the men is an remarkable choice in itself, and, like the choice of the war’s “beginning,” it’s slightly disingenuous. The Big Moment comes when one of the white wives, chattering in front of the group’s only black wife, mistakes a “Whites Only” sign for a direction as to what laundry goes in what machine. That she must be instructed as to the actual meaning of the sign is upsetting, of course, but the wives are all so mutually supportive and sweet that she doesn’t feel too horrible.
But the weird part is that you don’t feel too bad either. And if anything, this scene should make you cringe. That this is a myth that pervaded (and continues to pervade) white America has everything to do with the longer book’s title, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. Naivete is not a good excuse for ignorance or racism. The film — in its ad campaign as well as in its thematic focus — clearly ants to include domestic effects of war (the words that most soldiers say when they die on the battlefield are, “Tell my wife I love her”). And so this scene with the wives stands out, as one where the reasons that U.S. soldiers go to war — to defend freedom and civil rights — were, then and now, in constant jeopardy, at home as well as “over there.”