If We Were Soldiers smells at all familiar, perhaps you're confusing it with the stink emanating from a nearby theater screening Black Hawk Down. After all, on their shiny blood-drenched surfaces, they're damn near the same movie. Both are based on books that recount true-life battles that claimed the lives of American soldiers; both offer painful and prolonged visions of hell's battlefield; both drop you in landing zones overcome by enemy gunfire and mangled corpses that look less like brave soldiers than raw meat. They mean to make you feel and smell and taste the ravages of war, not merely witness them from a safe distance. They're like cover versions of the same sad song, one performed by a top-of-the-pops pro and the other by a heart-on-his-sleeve singer/songwriter. The melodies are slightly changed, but the words ring with a sickening familiarity -- often, quite literally. The much-repeated quote from Plato that opens the film Black Hawk Down -- "Only the dead have seen the end of war" -- appears nowhere in newspaperman Mark Bowden's 1999 book. But it opens Chapter 25 of We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young, penned by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and journalist Joseph L. Galloway and published in 1992.
But where Black Hawk Down is little more than a visually stunning (but ultimately empty-headed) thrill ride boldly pretending to proffer deep discourse about the inhumanity of war, We Were Soldiers is unabashedly sentimental. Black Hawk Down, based on Bowden's account of a botched 1993 mission in Somalia that resulted in the deaths of 18 American soldiers, has little interest in humanizing war; the soldiers are faceless, almost nameless. And it portrays the hundreds of Somali militia members gunned down by U.S. troops as black-faced savages. The film plays like a big-screen version of the Medal of Honor video game, reveling in the giddy pop-pop-pop of its bitchin' weaponry and special effects.
We Were Soldiers, both the book and the big-screen version written and directed by Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart and Pearl Harbor), offers the flip side of the same terror. Set during the first protracted battle of the Vietnam War, in November 1965 -- when 450 men of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, were sent to Ia Drang, the so-called Valley of Death -- it provides a backstory, an explanation (though not a rationalization) for why soldiers were sent to such a faraway place to fight someone else's war. Hal Moore (a resolute and, ahem, brave-hearted Mel Gibson), Harvard-educated commander of the new airborne troops that fly in and out of hot spots by helicopter, was only doing his duty, following someone else's orders. He was a soldier and more, a father not just to his own children but the kids under his command.
In their book, Moore and Galloway (portrayed here by Saving Private Ryan vet Barry Pepper) paid due respect to the enemy, depicting the North Vietnamese not as a red-and-yellow menace but as soldiers just trying to keep their land from falling into the hands of Americans who didn't belong there. Wallace depicts Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu An (Don Duong) as nothing less than Moore's equal; he's as brilliant a commander as his American counterpart, a soldier sizing up the enemy with unyielding force. Duong gives the film's most understated performance; he wears dignity the way Gibson sports a scowl.
The film also shows us the gung-ho before and the painful after. It's as much about those left behind as it is those shipped off to war: the wives left to the everyday tasks of laundry and living, the children who naïvely ask of their soldier dads, "What is a war?" Wallace shows us the ravaged home front: the taxi drivers who clumsily delivered telegrams to newly minted widows, the wives left to raise their newborns alone. (The female-bonding scenes with the wives, afraid of being left alone but nonetheless proud of their husbands, recall moments right out of Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff.) Where Black Hawk Down couldn't be bothered by such things as context and condition, We Were Soldiers provides so much it's often overwhelming (to the point of inducing a few cringes).
We Were Soldiers, as pro-soldier as it is anti-war, also exists as a rare Vietnam film bereft of cynicism; it doesn't sharpen "politically twisted knives on the bones of our dead brothers," as Moore and Galloway write in their book of previous movies on the subject. Wallace doesn't need to remind us of how pointless a police action Vietnam was; the forgotten dead and disowned living don't need Hollywood's help to make that point. So Wallace lets his actors, all playing real-life soldiers (not amalgams), do the telling, among them American Pie's Chris Klein as Lt. Jack Geoghegan, a determined but ultimately doomed husband and father of a newborn; Greg Kinnear as Maj. Bruce "Snakeshit" Crandall, a fearless chopper pilot; Sam Elliott as Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley, a combat vet with little time for small talk; and Clark Gregg as Capt. Thomas Metsker, a young officer deep in shit but never in over his head.
In the end, of course, all films about war are anti-war -- save, perhaps, John Wayne's 1968 abomination The Green Berets, perhaps the only pro-Vietnam War movie ever made, or the sanitized and sentimental Pearl Harbor, which Wallace all but disowns. But where Black Hawk Down made you experience the horror, it didn't ask you to think too hard about it; it was having too much fun blowing shit up and playing with actors' fake intestines. We Were Soldiers might be guilty at times of the very same thing; Gibson looks as if he, too, is having a ball playing the fearless, ahem, patriot Moore, who stands tall as bullets whiz by. But it succeeds where its recent predecessor miserably fails because it demands that you suffer the dreadfulness of war from both sides. That might not make it a milestone, but it's a hell of an improvement.