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We Were Soldiers

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I don't know much about the early years of the Vietnam war.  I've read a couple of memoirs and other non-fiction books (Chickenhawk and The Tunnels of Cu Chi) about the war, but they've mostly been later, after the build-up.  (Those who understand statistics will notice that's a likely outcome.)

Vietnam was the first war where the US made heavy use of helicopters to insert combat troops and keep them supplied while engaged with the enemy.  This movie is about the formation of the US Army Air Cavalry and their first large scale engagement in Vietnam.

They deal very superficially with the training of the inaugral regiment.  A general tells Mel Gibson that he has the assignment.  Gibson goes and hand-picks his First Sergeant and the top helicopter officer.  They meet the young officers.   They evaluate the officers' performance.  Plus a couple of personal encounters, between Gibson and one officer and between Sam Elliot and another officer.   Just a few sentances in each case to move the story along.  Some shots of Gibson studying after hours.  Both the technical specs of the helicopters, and the literature published about the French war in Vietnam during the '50s.

Because the scenes are so short, the movie manages to avoid becoming formulaic.   They start down the road to the training sequences that one has seen in, for example, Full Metal Jacket.  But they cut it abruptly short each time.

One problem with those abbreviated scenes is pretty much all of the characters are mere charactitures, or archetypes.  Not even Gibson's character is really fleshed out.   Again, just a couple of sentances of back story and then they move on.

They tried to put in a little bit about the wives of the officers.  Not any of the rest of the families, and I think maybe not the enlisted men, though that's unclear to me.   Just the bare bones necessary for the plot device.  So that they could show scenes of a few wives getting the telegrams stating that their husbands were dead.   Again, the lack of character development maybe blunted these archetypical scenes just a little.  I guess they used the wife scenes to pace the fight scenes a little bit.  They weren't jarring or anything, but looking back they seemed a bit superficial and out of place.  I think the time could have been better spent fleshing out the characters of the soldiers themselves.

There's essentially no time spent on the living conditions of Vietnam.  Just an establishing shot or two of the base, and then they get their orders for the big attack.

Again, I don't know Vietnam very well at all, so I have no idea where in the country this battle took place.  But apparently it was in an area already riddled with tunnels from the earlier French war.  They had a few shots of the Vietnamese general's underground command post, and of troops running through the tunnels and popping out near the battlefield.

One thing they tried to establish was that the Vietnamese general and Gibson's character had a similar understanding of the tactics of their situation.  The general was spotting potential weaknesses and Gibson was repeatedly anticipating his attacks with just enough men in just the right spots.  I don't believe they were trying to show the American commander as superior.  Just that he was very competent at using the resources available to him.

This isn't a standard Vietnam film, as they didn't spend any time showing the horrors of confronting the Viet Cong.  This was early in the war and they were fighting Vietnamese Army Regulars.  There were bits of the conventional horrors of war, with some moderate gore.

They did touch on some of the squeemishness of the US high command, where Gibson was repeatedly instructed to return to headquarters to brief his superiors on the situation.   They didn't want to lose a colonel in battle.

They also touched on America's technological superiority, but I thought part of it near the end was pretty cheesy.  Basically, they went with lowest common denominator plot device, and it really felt out of place.  It felt like a cheat.

Despite the nits I've picked, the movie works pretty well.  The fight scenes are very fast-paced, implying chaos, yet for the most part giving the viewer enough context to follow along.  The big battle is the core of this movie, and by shortening all of the back story to a few sentences they manage to avoid nearly all of the movie cliches.

On my brother's Total Movie Value Scale, Matinee.  It skirts with becoming a sappy war movie.  Borders on formulaic.  I guess you could call it a modern-day John Wayne movie.  It works in the end.

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Last modified: June 14, 2004
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