We Were Soldiers (2002)  This is one of those movies that just kills me, pretty much from the opening scenes.  It tells the story of the first group of Army cavalry troops to eschew horses and tanks and leap into the air.  Relaying how the 1st Air Cavalry began behind Lt Col Hal Moore, the story takes us through their training to their deployment to Viet Nam, and the truly amazing, gut wrenching and deadly “last stand” in the Ia Drang Valley aka The Valley of Death.  Keep in mind this is a true story, the screenplay written from the book We Were Soldiers Once…And Young by Hal Moore and Joe Galloway.

We Were Soldiers shows the true hell of battle, in a no-shit “last stand” where the US Army won (instead of Custer’s debacle).  It should be noted that in a freaky coincidence, the regiment these soldiers belonged to was the 7th Cavalry, the same as General Custer’s, and Hal Moore took those lessons to heart long before going boots-on-ground in Viet Nam.

Ia Drang was one of the most violent battles in US history, with 400 soldiers holding off more than 2,000 Vietnamese Army regulars for three days…and then emerging victorious.

While I’m not a latter-year Mel Gibson fan, in this movie he was fabulous, as a Harvard-educated soldier who wanted the best, not only for his country, but for his men.  His performance was highlighted by kick-ass performances.  They’re soooo damn good, I’m going to run then down individually, rather than gloss over them!

Sam Elliott portrays hard-nosed Sergeant Major Basil Plumly to perfection; a paratrooper who fought in WWII, Korea and Viet Nam, and successfully made all four jumps in World War II.  This is the guy you want by your side when the shit hits the fan.

Chris Klein (perhaps best known for his American Pie role) is the newbie lieutenant who does the right thing for his men.  While his role is to be the “heartstring puller”, he does is very, very well.

Barry Pepper (and you KNOW I’m a total Barry Pepper fan-girl) plays AP stringer Joe Galloway, who covers the battle from inside the wire…he was the first journalist on record to pick up a weapon and help defend the encampment…and for that measure (and his truly great reporting over the course of his career), I’ll always trust him more than almost any journalist around.

As a side note, the helicopter pilot Maj Bruce Crandall, call sign Snakeshit (played by Greg Kinnear), received the Congressional Medal of Honor just last year…over thirty years after his hellacious and truly awe-inspiring bravery where, for 14 hours, he and another pilot flew their helicopters on 22 missions that rescued more than 70 wounded soldiers. The intensity of the ground fire forced Crandall and Freeman to switch helicopters three times to continue their missions.  You can read his citation and more about him here.

There were a few inconsistencies with the actual battle (which I expect in a movie), but perhaps the most disappointing was the gloss-over of The Lost Platoon-these men were separated from the main company, and spent almost the entire battle trapped between lines.  Notably, ABC correspondent Jack Smith (who was not a journalist at the time, but an infantry troop), survived the battle and later went back to Ia Drang with a group of fellow survivors, to meet with his old enemy, and retrace the steps of The Lost Platoon.  Talk about heart-wrenching!

I watched this movie for about the umpteenth time with my critique partners earlier this year (two women who have no military ties whatsoever), and I was struck by how truly “innocent” civilians are to the military lifestyle and reality.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been affiliated with the military for almost twenty years (and my father and father-in-law are Korean War vets), but the sections of this movie that made my heart pound and my eyes tear up weren’t the parts that affected my friends.  While I was totally drawn into the battle and the bravery of the men (on both sides of the line), they commiserated much more with the spouses left behind.  I guess I can understand that, but it really highlighted the difference between those of us entrenched in the military life, and those who have no real clue what goes on behind the scenes.

Sorry for that tangent *g*.  In the end, my recommendation is to see this movie, if you already haven’t, and really “see” it, because besides Saving Private Ryan, I haven’t seen a movie depict the “real” military quite so well.

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