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We Were Soldiers

Based on the book We Were Soldiers Once... and Young by Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore (with Joseph L. Galloway), Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers tells the story of the first armed conflict between the U.S. military and the Viet Cong in Nov. of 1965, which pinned down 395 American soldiers behind enemy lines, costing many their lives and propelling the country into the Vietnam conflict — it would lead to 58,000 more U.S. fatalities over the next ten years and no clear victory. Mel Gibson stars as Lt. Col. Moore, a hard-assed combat officer with a taste for challenges. He previously had worked with experimental parachutes, and when the Army decided the only way to gain tactical superiority in the Vietnam wilderness was with helicopter-supported cavalry troops, Moore was chosen to train the first units (in 7th Cav, which was G.A. Custer's outfit in the previous century). However, events in Vietnam accelerate, and before the ambitious cavalry training is complete, Moore and his men are shuttled off to 'Nam's central highlands — specifically the Ia Drang Valley, known as "The Valley of Death" were French troops were previously massacred. Launching an assault against a moutaintop HQ held by the Vietnamese People's Army — who are armed, trained, and familiar with the land — the assault begins with a mere 60 troops and stretches over three days with reinforcements as Moore and his men attempt to control their landing zones and avoid getting flanked by the Viet Cong's superior numbers. With themes that constantly underscore the nobility of military brotherhood, We Were Soldiers will appeal to anybody with a connection to the U.S. armed forces. Thanks to the political boondoggle of Vietnam and Hollywood's ambiguous, often negative view of the conflict, there aren't many films out there that extol heroism under VC fire. In fact, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) may be considered endemic, with its clandestine mission, disillusioned assassin, and bickering, stoned soldiers. But Apocalypse occurs towards the end of the war; We Were Soldiers happens at the very outset, examining how an ill-advised mission challenges the still-intact idealism of the men who fight. That said, the film has its problems: There's an awful lot of talk for a "war" movie, and the first section of the story is given over to a lot of speech-making and prayer. Scenes can tend to draw out much longer than necessary, contributing to an over-long 2:17 running-time. The battlefield is as rife with clichés as it is with bodies — the script makes it easy to predict who will die horribly (tip: Don't get your wife pregnant, or even just act happy or relieved for a moment). And the death's-doorstep phrase "Tell my wife I love her" is uttered not just once, but twice. Additional sentiment is generated on the home front as Moore's wife (Madeleine Stowe) finds herself taking on the unpleasant task of notifying wives that their husbands have been killed, which is not necessarily a bad series of scenes, but does pull the story out of the action. The theater of war is where We Were Soldiers is the most cinematic, with battle scenes that are genuinely exciting, illustrating the horror and confusion of close-quarters, hand-to-hand combat (complete with Napalm drops). As Moore, Gibson turns in a sturdy leading part, joined by crusty Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott). But as the combat sequences flip-flop with the drama of Main Street, U.S.A., We Were Soldiers compares to such other sentiment-sowing films as Apollo 13 and Saving Private Ryan — the pulse-pounding stuff is so well done that the remainder only suffers by comparison. It's sort of like tapping the remote between the Discovery Channel and Lifetime, and it's hardly necessary. Paramount's DVD release of We Were Soldiers features a good anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with audio in either Dolby Digital 5.1 EX or Dolby 2.0 Surround (French audio and English subtitles are also on board). Features include an informative commentary from director Randall Wallace, the behind-the-scenes doc "Getting it Right" with comments from the film's principals, and 10 deleted scenes with commentary from Wallace. Keep-case.

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