Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" paved the way for a different breed of war film. Thanks to the high intensity of the World War II heavyweight, War movies are no longer afraid get right into the face of the audience with fast-paced camera movements, intense close-ups and a true sense of reality. Violence, blood and gore are no longer softened. No longer is a soldier shot and only a dramatic pause, clutching of the chest and a final collapse the epitome of a death scene. Decapitations, blood gushers and gaping wounds now fully explore how a soldier meets their impending doom. War is hell. Spielberg showed that an honest War movie can be profitable and that audiences will not shy away from an accurate depiction of combat.
"We Were Soldiers," based upon the book We Were Soldiers Once... and Young that is written by two men who were involved in the actual combat event in which the story is based brings a reality of what it was like during the days of the Battle of la Drang. Instead of rushing the beaches of Normandy, we are given a violent and visual tour of the first combat experiences of the Army's Air Cavalry Division of the 2nd Battalion/7th Cavalry. "We Were Soldiers" throws the audience into the middle of landing zone LZ X-Ray and a realistic depiction of what it was like to combat an unknown enemy of unknown size in an unfamiliar country with new weapons and unproven military tactics. The 7th Cavalry was the same number designation give to General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn. This film delivers the story of the 7th Cavalry in its first Vietnam engagement.
The book was written by Colonel Hal Moore and journalist Joe Galloway. Moore, portrayed by Mel Gibson, was the man in charge and one of the architects of the notion of Air Cavalry. Joe Galloway, portrayed by Barry Pepper, came from family with a long history of wartime conflict, but felt he could best serve the war by spreading the story of what was happening to the people and could be more beneficial with a pen and not a rifle. Galloway earned Moore's respect by entering a hot landing zone and standing with him and his men during the conflict. When the American battle lines were broken, Galloway armed himself with an M-16 and though he was a non-combatant, Galloway fought alongside the American soldiers and became the only civilian to earn the Bronze Star for his courage during the conflict. The warrior and the writer of We Were Soldiers Once... and Young were both involved during this bloody fight.
I enjoyed the military aspect of "We Were Soldiers." The combat sequences were realistic, they were brutal and they were moving. There have been comments about the ways in which the North Vietnamese just ran into combat and how this must not have been realistic. The truth is, the enemy faced by the American soldiers did attack in this type of manner. There were accounts given where the Vietnamese would rush into battle with their rifles slung over their shoulders. Both sides suffered from not being fully prepared to first face their enemy. This is a realistic and accurate depiction of the events that occurred in the Vietnamese valley and they are painfully recreated in a way that is powerful and suspenseful. This is one of the most realistic films made to chronicle the Vietnam War and in this manner; "We Were Soldiers" succeeds.
What I did not particularly enjoy was the subplot where Julie Moore (Madeleine Stowe) and Barbara Geoghegan (Keri Russell) delivered the Western Union telegrams to the widows of the fallen soldiers. This part of the film felt emotionally cheap and came across as an attempt to manipulate the audience's emotions and war is not only hell, but that war is sad. I felt this was an emotional point that was well made by those that were subjected to loss on the battlefield and having widows cry and suffer on screen was an unnecessary device to force grief upon the audience. The sequences broke the momentum of the film's main plot and lessened the tension and fear of combat. The cliché line of "Tell my wife that I love her" was used more times than necessary by dying soldiers. It really was not necessary to show the grieving widow receiving a Western Union telegram that coldly proclaimed her husband was dead.
"We Were Soldiers" features an excellent cast. Australian native Mel Gibson is perfectly believable as U.S. Army Colonel Hal Moore. He has a commanding presence and a stubborn nature that perfectly befits the role of a Colonel who prefers to fight alongside his men and not from a safe distance. Greg Kinnear takes the role of helicopter pilot Major Bruce "Snake Shit" Crandall, who has earned his name because he flies his bird lower than snake shit. Kinnear has the arrogant bravado befitting of a combat pilot and shows the necessary emotions required in a role that has his character see so much carnage, yet courageously fly into a hot landing zone. Barry Pepper put forth one of the better performances as non-combatant journalist Joe Galloway. Galloway is a brave young journalist that enters the combat zone to get the best story possible. By the time the battle ends, Joe is a changed man who is saddled with a painful task of telling of the horrors he saw. Then, you have the man. Sam Elliot is a commanding presence when he is on the screen as Sergeant Major Basil Plumley. He is a battle tested warrior that is the toughest man in the Valley of Death and Elliot's portrayal of Plumley is that of a man you do not want to tangle with.
The film presents its audience with a visceral and violent look at conflict in the Vietnam War. This is a brutally realistic look at the human loss and devastating toll that combat takes. There is blood and there is gore. A man's skin is pealed from his legs after a napalming. The real-life story in engaging and leaves those that have watched it feeling uncomfortable after the images the film presents. I feel the film should be applauded for its story of American troops who overcome great diversity. The film falters a bit when it jerks emotions from its audience with a cheap emotional assault of interrupting the brilliant combat sequences with engineered moments of the fallen soldier's wives breaking into tears after learning of their husband's fate. I do not feel there was any great need in injecting this element into such a film and it does not fit properly in the film's running length.
To watch this movie is to be challenged by its level of carnage and its willingness to show you young men quickly losing their lives in a situation where they should not have been placed. The film does not hide the fact that the Army quickly fell into a mode where they expected their men to be lost and wanted only their decorated Colonel to be flown from the combat zone. If you are willing to sit through the uneasiness this film may cause, you will be rewarded with one of the best depictions of the Vietnam War. It rivals "Saving Private Ryan" in its hard-nosed honesty, but where "Saving Private Ryan" was centered in a true situation but involved fictitious characters, "We Were Soldiers" is a true story of true men that was written by the actual individuals that are seen in the film. This movie is far from perfect and shows fraying when it forces itself into a tearjerker mode, but it is worth to sit through the flaws to witness what it does great and that is to show combat in Vietnam and the bravery and strength of the young American soldier.
"We Were Soldiers" is presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen transfer and mastered in MPEG-2/1080p on the Blu-ray disc. When I first had watched "We Were Soldiers" in high definition on HD-DVD, , my faith was challenged in the first thirty minutes as to whether or not this would be a strong looking title. In the films early pre-deployment scenes, the picture quality was uneven and soft as and below Paramount's typical level of quality. It seemed that whenever Mel Gibson would have a facial shot on the screen, the picture was soft. I didn't know if a filter was being used to take away the weather torn facial features of the veteran actor or if the transfer was faltering. After the up and down nature of this first half hour, the Blu-ray transfer soon started to redeem itself and routinely looked as solid as the fifteen minutes I had watched a week earlier. The final majority of "We Were Soldiers" was strong visually and held up well, even during the combat scenes when a lot of smoke and dust were present in the image from grenades, gunfire and napalm.
The beautiful Vietnamese hillside that quickly transforms into a burnt and ravaged valley looks beautiful in high definition and shows great detail. There is a scene with a lizard that stood out and showed very good detail and when the picture takes these few minutes to show the beauty of nature before the hell of war, and is a quality Blu-ray release and looks identical to the older HD-DVD release of "We Were Soldiers." It doesn't take long before the weapons of war degrade the surrounding serenity of nature and when source materials allow for a highly detailed image, it remains so. When heavy smoke is present or the numerous night time scenes, the level of detail drops of some, but no more than can be expected. Colors are lifelike and nicely saturated after the first thirty minutes, fleshtones are properly represented and contrast is on target. The picture quality is not the most consistent, but when compared to the other Vietnam film on Blu-ray, "Full Metal Jacket," this is tremendously better and when the movie is in a scene where quality is high, "We Were Soldiers" can hang with the best of them.
"We Were Soldiers" is presented in Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround and DTS 6.1. Both French and Spanish 5.1 soundtracks are also included. Comparing the two mixes, the DTS track has a distinguishable amount of more clarity and definition than the Dolby Digital mix; a bit more "oomph." Early on, "We Were Soldiers" is a quiet film that lowers the volume when helicopters are flying over the skies of Fort Benning. Dialogue is the driving force of these early scenes and the loudest sounds heard are from the musical score. Even when the 7th Cavalry is loading into their UH-1 Hueys, the sounds of the chopper blades are subdued and a haunting song can be heard to announce their departure to combat. This is a strong contrast to the air cavalry of "Apocalypse Now" where the helicopters are noisy and loud and "Flight of the Valkyrie" blares through the speakers. The air cavalry flight scene is the kind of material to show off your sound system in that film, but in "We Were Soldiers," you are asked to wait a bit before the sound effects take assault.
You don't have to wait long until the bombs drop, the artillery shells explode and gunfire erupts. These sounds fully envelope the viewer in the listening space as all six speakers erupt loudly and frequently. When a platoon is separated from the rest of the company on a knoll, you know they are surrounded by the gunfire that is coming from every direction via the soundtrack. The combat scenes are quite impressive audibly. The .1 LFE channel thumps loudly with each exploding artillery shell or exploding napalm bomb. Jets and turboprop planes resonate loudly with strong bass tones. Dialogue holds up well in these combat scenes and Mel Gibson can be clearly heard barking out orders to his besieged troops. "We Were Soldiers" is a subdued soundtrack until the bullets start to fire, then all hell breaks loose.
All of the supplements from the standard definition DVD release and HD-DVD release have been carried over to the Blu-ray release. It is certainly nice to have all of the former supplements again available, but "We Were Soldiers" does not contain a large number of value-added materials. The Commentary by director/writer Randall Wallace covers many aspects of the making of the film. It does offer a good deal of insight into the real people involved in the story and any bits of creative license taken, but the commentary gets quite dry at times and Wallace likes to sit back and let you watch the movie with him a bit too often. It was worth sitting through, but not terribly easy. "Getting It Right" – Behind the Scenes of We Were Soldiers runs for thirty minutes and is worthwhile for the real combat footage shown and interviews with actual veterans of the Battle of La Drang. This 480i 1:33.1 documentary could certainly have been longer and I would have loved to have had more insight into the actual conflict, but it was an above average making of featurette. 10 Deleted Scenes with Director's Commentary is another half hour of supplements. The commentary can be turned on or off and the deleted scenes may be selected individually or played continuously. I would have preferred to see many of these scenes placed into the film instead of the wives segments. A Theatrical Trailer is included and remastered in high definition.
War is hell. That is the message that "We Were Soldiers" is not afraid to drive home. Young men fight bravely and they also die. The Battle of la Drang found the 7th Cavalry placed in a bad spot where they were heavily outnumbered and in unfamiliar territory. The men under the command of Colonel Hal Moore fought hard to overcome the odds and find most men survive the struggle. It is a brutal and honest look at the conflict. Mel Gibson is right for the part of Colonel Moore and his performance is only overshadowed by the scene stealing act of Sam Elliot as his Sergeant Major. The film would be brilliant if it were not for an abundance of scenes featuring crying and suffering women. I felt these scenes did not belong in this film. The Blu-ray release of this title started off slowly with questionable image quality, which was exactly the case for the identical looking HD-DVD release, but after a half hour, the picture quality cleared up and delivered a fine looking film. Sound was very good in combat scenes and the fifty plus minutes of supplements were nice inclusions on the disc. This is one of the better war films to come out of Hollywood and certainly shows the influence of Stephen Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." War films seem to be one of the few genres that is priding itself on honesty and this is an honest film.