We Were Soldiers is a 2002 American war film that dramatized the Battle of Ia Drang in November 1965, the first major engagement of United States military forces in the Vietnam War. The film was directed by Randall Wallace and stars Mel Gibson. It is based on the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young by Lieutenant General (Ret.) Hal Moore and reporter Joseph L. Galloway, both of whom were at the battle.
A French Army unit is on patrol in Vietnam in 1954 during the First Indochina War. The captain of the patrol curses the land when they see nothing. Then, the unit is suddenly ambushed by Vietminh forces who kill the officers and, although the unit kills many Vietminh, it is eventually overrun. Nguyen Huu An, hypothesising that if they take no prisoners the French will eventually stop sending troops, orders the execution of all surviving French soldiers.
Eleven years later, Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), a dedicated U.S. soldier, is deeply committed to training his troops, who are preparing to be sent to Vietnam. The night before their departure, the unit's officers hold a party to celebrate. Moore learns from a superior officer that his unit will be known as the 1st Battalion / 7th cavalry regiment. He is disquieted because the 7th Cavalry regiment was the unit commanded by General George Custer in the 19th Century when he and his men were slaughtered at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Moore is also dismayed because President Lyndon B. Johnson has decreed that the war would be fought "on the cheap," without declaring it a national emergency. As a result, Moore believes he will be deprived of his oldest, best-trained soldiers (a formal declaration of war would have meant mobilization and extension of the terms of enlistment for volunteer soldiers) - about 25% of his battalion - just prior to shipping out for Vietnam. Before leaving for Vietnam, Moore delivers a touching speech to his unit:
"Look around you, in the 7th Cavalry, we got a Captain from the Ukraine, another from Puerto Rico, we got Japanese, Chinese, Blacks, Hispanics, Cherokee Indian, Jews and Gentiles, all American. Now here in the States some men in this unit may experience discrimination because of race or creed, but for you and me now, all that is gone. We're moving into the valley of the shadow of death, where you will watch the back of the man next to you, as he will watch yours, and you won't care what color he is or by what name he calls God. Let us understand the situation; we're going into battle against a tough and determined enemy. I can't promise you that I will bring you all home alive, but this I swear: when we go into battle, I will be the first one to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together. So help me God."
After arriving in Vietnam, he learns that an American base has been attacked, and is ordered to take his 395 men after the enemy and eliminate them, despite the fact that intelligence has no idea of the number of enemy troops. He leads a newly created air cavalry unit into the Ia Drang Valley against over 4,000 well equipped enemy soldiers.
An emotional toll is taken back home, where Moore's wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe) and another soldier's wife take over the job of delivering telegrams that inform families (mainly wives like themselves) living at Fort Benning, Georgia, the unit's base of operation, of soldiers' deaths.
After landing in the "Valley of Death", the soldiers capture a Vietnamese lookout who informs them that the location they were sent to is actually the headquarters of an entire North Vietnamese division. Another American squad is isolated at some distance from the battalion's main position, after 2nd Lt. Henry Herrick sees a scout, and runs after him, ordering his reluctant soldiers to follow. The scout lures them into an ambush, resulting in the majority of the platoon members' deaths, including Herrick's. Sgt. Savage assumes command of the squad, and by calling in artillery and using the cover of darkness, holds off the Vietnamese from their position.
The story switches between the Vietnamese and American points of view several times. Despite being trapped near the landing zone, and desperately outnumbered, the main force manages to hold off the Vietnamese with artillery, close air support, and even calling a last resort "Broken Arrow" at their most desperate point, killing some of their own soldiers but eliminating most of the Vietnamese offensive force. The American troopers regroup, secure the area and charge up the mountain where the Vietnamese division headquarters is located. The Vietnamese have set up heavy gun emplacements near the hidden entrance of the underground headquarters spoken of by the scout. Hal and his men charge right at them, into a seemingly impending massacre, but before the Vietnamese can fire, Major Bruce "Snakeshit" Crandall flies in with his helicopter and kills the Vietnamese guards with his side mounted machine guns.
Meanwhile, the Vietnamese commander is alerted that the Americans have broken through the lines, and the headquarters has no troops between them and the Americans. He orders the headquarters evacuated. The stranded platoon led by Savage are rescued. Moore, having completed his objective, returns to the L.Z. to be picked up, and, after all of his men, dead or alive, are removed from the battlefield, steps on to a helicopter and flies out of the valley. Strong visual emphasis is placed on Moore's being the last American to set foot off the field of battle. At the end of the movie it is revealed that Hal Moore returned home safely after 235 more days of fighting.
The movie received mixed to fairly positive reviews. Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times gave the movie 3.5 stars out of 4 and praised the movie's battle scenes and how the movie follows the characters.
"Black Hawk Down" was criticized because the characters seemed hard to tell apart. "We Were Soldiers" doesn't have that problem; in the Hollywood tradition it identifies a few key players, casts them with stars, and follows their stories.
Lisa Schwarzbaum from Entertainment Weekly gave the movie a B and noted the film's fair treatment of both sides.
"The writer-director bestows honor -- generously, apolitically -- not only on the dead and still living American veterans who fought in Ia Drang, but also on their families, on their Vietnamese adversaries, and on the families of their adversaries too. Rarely has a foe been portrayed with such measured respect for a separate reality, which should come as a relief to critics (I'm one) of the enemy's facelessness in Black Hawk Down; vignettes of gallantry among Vietnamese soldiers and such humanizing visual details as a Vietnamese sweetheart's photograph left behind in no way interfere with the primary, rousing saga of a fine American leader who kept his promise to his men to "leave no one behind dead or alive."
David Sterritt from the Christian Science Monitor criticized the movie for giving a more positive image of the Vietnam War that didn't concur with reality.
"The films about Vietnam that most Americans remember are positively soaked in physical and emotional torment - from "Platoon," with its grunt's-eye view of combat, to "Apocalypse Now," with its exploration of war's dehumanizing insanity. Today, the pendulum has swung back again. If filmmakers with politically twisted knives once sliced away guts-and-glory clichés, their current equivalents hack away all meaningful concern with moral and political questions. We Were Soldiers" is shameless in this regard, filling the screen with square-jawed officers who weep at carnage and fresh-faced GIs who use their last breaths to intone things like, "I'm glad I died for my country."
Todd McCarthy from Variety said the film "presents the fighting realistically, violently and relatively coherently given the chaotic circumstances...". McCarthy further said "Mel Gibson has the closest thing to a John Wayne part that anyone's played since the Duke himself rode into the sunset, and he plays it damn well." He summarized with "Gibson's performance anchors the film with commanding star power to burn. This officer truly loves his men, and the credibility with which the actor is able to express Moore's leadership qualities as well as his sensitive side is genuinely impressive."
Hal Moore, who had long been critical of many Vietnam War films for their negative portrayals of American servicemen, publicly expressed approval of the film and is featured in segments of the DVD. Some soldiers were less pleased: Retired Col Rick Rescorla, who plays an important role in the book, and whose photo is on the cover, was disappointed after reading the script to learn that he and his unit had been written out of the movie. In one key incident, the finding of a vintage French bugle on a dying Vietnamese soldier, Rescorla is replaced by a nameless Welsh—not Cornish—platoon leader.
Notable musical elements
The mournful song heard during some of the battle sequences and the aftermath is called "Sgt. MacKenzie". An account of a Scottish soldier who fought and died in similar carnage, it was written by his descendant, Joseph Kilna MacKenzie. It was chosen for the film by Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace due to its haunting, desolate sound, of men prepared to stand their ground in battle for family and friends.
Mel Gibson - Lieutenant Colonel/Colonel Hal Moore
Madeleine Stowe - Julia Moore
Taylor Momsen - Julie Moore
Luke Benward - David Moore
Greg Kinnear - Major Bruce "Snakeshit" Crandall
Sam Elliott - Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley
Chris Klein - 2nd Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan
Keri Russell - Barbara Geoghegan
Barry Pepper - Joe Galloway
Don Duong - Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Huu An
Ryan Hurst - Sergeant Ernie Savage
Robert Bagnell - 1st Lieutenant Charlie Hastings
Marc Blucas - 2nd Lieutenant Henry Herrick
Josh Daugherty - Sp4. Robert Ouellette
Jsu Garcia - Captain Tony Nadal
Jon Hamm - Captain Matt Dillon
Desmond Harrington - Sp4. Bill Beck
Blake Heron - Sp4. Galen Bungum
Clark Gregg - Captain Tom Metsker
Erik MacArthur - Sp4. Russell Adams
Dylan Walsh - Captain Robert Edwards
Mark McCracken - Captain Ed "Too Tall" Freeman
Edwin Morrow - Private First Class Willie Godboldt