We Were Soldiers

If “We Were Soldiers” were the first war movie ever made, it would be a great one. All those men from different walks of life, thrown together in an inhuman war, while their wives wait for them back home — such drama and pathos!

If the two men who say “Tell my wife I love her” as they die were the first men to do so in a movie, “We Were Soldiers” would be incredible. If we had never seen a soldier wear a necklace or bracelet to remind him of his wife, or if “We Were Soldiers” were the first film to show that keepsake subsequently being delivered to his widow, then this would be a fantastic film.

If we’d never seen images of yellow telegrams being delivered to women whose husbands had died in combat; if no little girl in a movie had ever asked, “What’s a war, Daddy?”; if a soldier’s dying words on a movie battlefield had never been, “I’m glad I could die for my country”; indeed, if no one had ever made a war movie before, then “We Were Soldiers” would be Oscar material.

But people have made war movies before. Lots of them. We know war is hell; we knew that long before movies started telling us. “We Were Soliders” offers no new insight on the matter, nor do its characters exactly spring to life (though it is better on that count than “Black Hawk Down,” to which it bears the most similarity).

The battle here is a bloody three-day skirmish at the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. It was the first major confrontation of the Vietnam War, and one of the nastiest, later documented by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and reporter Joseph L. Galloway in the book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young,” and adapted for the screen and directed by Randall Wallace, who also wrote “Pearl Harbor” and “Braveheart.”

Mel Gibson plays Moore, a paternal sort of commander who dispenses homespun wisdom to his men at every turn. The film’s first 45 minutes establish him and his wife (Madeleine Stowe), as well as some other characters, most of whom will die. Sgt.-Maj. Plumley (Sam Elliott) is a gruff old veteran who assists Moore; Geoghegan (Chris Klein) is an idealistic young fellow with a new wife and baby; Crandall (Greg Kinnear) is a hotshot chopper pilot; Galloway (Barry Pepper) is a photojournalist who wants to document the war in order to help people back home understand it; there are others not worth mentioning.

At times, the film is almost light-hearted, particularly in the affable relationship between Moore and Plumley — one of the better things about the movie. At other times, however, it is ridiculously gruesome, often gratuitously so. (When a man has been burned, it is not necessary to show the flesh stripping off his legs as men try to pick him up. That’s the easy way of getting a gut reaction from an audience, to be used only when you can’t find a better way of doing it. War is hell, yes, but the movie doesn’t have to be.)

The film attempts, rather unsuccessfully, to humanize the enemy; it is to be commended for even trying such a thing, though. And it is hard to fault a movie that lists, over the closing credits, the names and hometowns of the men who died in the real-life battle.

I do not doubt the sincerity of the filmmakers or of the men on whose account it is based, nor do I doubt the ghastliness of the Vietnam War. But a movie must do more than just recreate the facts, particularly if it is going to add so many Hollywood clichés to them in the process.

C (; R, abundant graphic violence, frequent harsh profanity.)