Movie Review: We Were Soldiers

BARBARA NICOLOSI

"We Were Soldiers" goes much farther than "Braveheart" in telling the story of a man of faith who lived a martyr’s life in the name of duty and honor. In terms of cultural impact, this character is very cool, very smart, with integrity to burn, and very Catholic. We haven’t seen the best we can be like this up on the screen since "A Man for All Seasons".


On Sunday, November 14, 1965 at 10:48 a.m., Lt. Col. Hal Moore and 400 young American troopers touched down at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang (pronounced: Eye Drang) Valley, a place in Vietnam known as "The Valley of Death." In a matter of hours, they were surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. The ensuing battle was one of the most savage in U.S. history, and the first major encounter of the war that most of us prefer to forget. It was the one after all, that we lost, and at a very high cost.

We have seen, and mostly dreaded, Vietnam films before. From maudlin left-leaning whines like Coming Home, The Deer Hunter and Born on the Fourth of July, to the macabre savagery of Apocalypse Now, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, every one of these films falls down in so far as it tries to make a political statement. All of these films left us feeling alternately uncomfortable, alienated from God, goodness and each other, and sadly cynical.

We Were Soldiers, instead, makes a human statement about soldiers, and the sacrificial burden they assume on behalf of us all. It’s the same war as in the other films, but this film makes audiences want to be people of nobility and honor. Writer and Director Randall Wallace points to this as the driving motivation behind the project, “The film doesn’t try to deal with the question of why these American soldiers were there, but rather to confront us with the fact that they were there. We are so removed from what soldiers do, what they have to do. I wanted us to understand the terror, the physical struggle and suffering that came with being there.”

While most critics have given the film high marks, We Were Soldiers has taken some hard hits for the unrelenting theme of the relationship between faith in God and heroism. Faith is everywhere in this film. Especially lovely is a scene in which Col. Moore prays over the dead bodies of some of his men. There is lots of prayer, and it is very clear, that Moore is what he is because of his friendship with God. The film was created in a perpetual climate of faith starting on the first day of shooting with a prayer service at Ft. Benning, and continuing with the frequent celebration of Mass on the set.

But some critics have ravaged the film. Don’t be fooled into staying away because of their sneers.

National Public Radio’s John Powers bashed the movie calling it, “So devoutly square that you keep expecting John Wayne to turn up in a cameo…Its storytelling is so corny it would have audiences rolling their eyes half a century ago.” Powers admits with amusing embarrassment, “The film moved me more than it deserved to” in a “celebration of heroism that feels deliberately clueless.” The review goes on to ridicule the film for presenting a character who is, “A good family man, a good Christian, and a good soldier,” and for showing the GI’s as heroes and not showing any “drug use or even much cursing.” Not to say, but we’ve really gotten rather weird as a culture when this kind of thing is counted as a detraction against a work of art.

The undercurrent of NPR’s nastiness and rage toward the film seems to be, on behalf of its largely baby boomer audience, “How dare you take our Vietnam away! How dare you take away our excuse to be what we have been as a generation these last thirty wasted years!” There is also a simmering resentment that Christians should dare to make a classy, well-crafted, and articulate film. They might actually have to take us seriously!


As he did in Pearl Harbor, Randall Wallace beautifully remembers the women of the Vietnam War. As do the men on the front lines, their wives, mothers and children form another community of resolute heroes. Their suffering is as raw as that of their men, and their acceptance on behalf of the nation, just as moving. I hadn’t thought about those women before. I hadn’t cried with them.

“Crying with them” is the residue that remains with the viewer after We Were Soldiers ends. I cried during the film, not so much for the characters dying so brutally on the screen, but because I was so ashamed of myself for never having cried before. I was ashamed for every time I turned my face away from a homeless Vietnam vet. The violence in the film is appropriately graphic, and when I wanted to turn my head, the film reminded me that those guys who showed up, couldn’t turn their heads. They saw, and what they saw became a lifetime burden. Randall Wallace has done a good thing by adding this film to Hollywood’s canon of the Vietnam War.

(We Were Soldiers is Rated R for some stark battle violence. It is not suitable for young children.)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Barbara Nicolosi. "Movie Review: We Were Soldiers." Liguorian (November 2001).

This article reprinted with permission from Liguorian, One Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO 63057.

Liguorian is a general interest Catholic magazine written and edited for Catholics of all ages. Its purpose is to help readers better understand the gospel and Church teaching and to show how these teachings apply to life and the problems confronting them as members of families, the Church, and society.

THE AUTHOR

Barbara Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood. You may email her at Actone2000@aol.com.

Copyright © 2001 Liguorian


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