We Were Soldiers unfortunately, was a film that didn’t really find its audience, and was also a casualty of the 9/11 attacks. Whereas Black Hawk Down was released in late December 2001/early January 2002 and made almost $110 million, We Were Soldiers was released six months later, and made $30 million less. Figure in the then-recent surge of big studio films of that genre in recent years, notably Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, perhaps We Were Soldiers was the film …hat the moviegoing public wanted to take a break from.
Whatever the case may be, the film didn’t really get a fair enough look in its theatrical release. One of the differences between it and Black Hawk Down was the increased focus placed on the families in this film, including the initial delivery of casualty notices by taxicabs, an event that did occur for a period of time until the Army developed a group specialized in breaking that unfortunate news. Perhaps the focus on families, or family life, may have reminded some of scenes from The Deer Hunter, but this is still a movie full of emotion and heartache.
Based on the book “We Were Soldiers Once…And Young”, Mel Gibson (Signs) portrays Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore, new Commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, who is aware of a conflict that may involve his men and prepares them to be combat ready. His right hand man is Sergeant Major Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott, The Hulk), a veteran of World War II and the Korean conflict. The two men train the officers and soldiers, in anticipation of whatever combat they may face. Recognizable names and faces among the group under Moore are Chris Klein (American Pie), Marc Blucas (Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Riley) and Dylan Walsh (Blood Work). Moore and his men, 395 in total, were dropped into a small clearance in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley in November 1965, into a battle against North Vietnamese soldiers numbering somewhere around 2,000. Joe Galloway (Barry Pepper, The 25th Hour) was a reporter for United Press International, who came in with the troops, and helped document Ia Drang from November 14-16, 1965, recollecting the events that occurred and men who lost their lives.
Two things that I’ve taken away from this movie are how Director Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart) played the emotional chords of some of the characters, specifically Galloway. Galloway, who really was a non-combatant, but had to fire a weapon to defend himself, goes through what could be described as a “cheesy” scene where he realizes that he has to document these events, for fear that no one else will. It’s a somewhat unnecessary scene that explains his revelation or something, and it could have been edited out (or down). The other thing was Gibson’s outstanding portrayal of Moore, as a man conflicted by the prevailing thought that it was he who should have died, not his men. Officers, no matter the rank, do care a tremendous deal for the men they command, something that doesn’t get enough exposure to movie audiences. In the book, Hal Moore, Basil Plumley and others, managed to go back into Ia Drang 5 months later, just to recover the final remains of Moore’s soldiers that went unaccounted for in the November firefight. Today, Moore still does go to the Vietnam memorial, along with other members of 1-7 Cav, and Moore shares tears with all the men. They are, and will always be, sons, husbands and fathers that he was responsible for, that he could not bring home safe to their families, despite his actions.
We Were Soldiers comes to DVD in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that was pretty good, though the film grain, which I presume was to give the impression of a grittiness to the atmosphere, was fairly visible. There’s a very good black level, and the colors are fairly vivid. It’s not a huge leap up from the standard definition version, and perhaps it was wrong for me to expect otherwise, but oh well.
As is the case with most war movies, come for the story, stay for the cool ass sound spectrum. And you get your choice of a Dolby Digital Plus and DTS. The chopper rotors, gunfire, even the PA as Mel talks to the troops before deploying, you’ll find it all on this audio track. The one thing I didn’t remember when I watched this film was how active the surrounds are with ambient gunfire (if there is such a thing), but this was not as earth-shattering as I expected it to be. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t pleased…
Probably in large part due to the disappointing box office numbers, there aren’t a lot of extras on this single disc release. There is a featurette called Getting It Right, that is a look at the behind the scenes aspects of the film from pre to post-production. It includes interviews with Hal and Julie Moore (played by Madeline Stowe in the film), along with Joe Galloway and Bruce Crandall, a helicopter pilot played by Greg Kinnear (Auto Focus). Gibson, Kinnear and Wallace and others talk about how they found the project, and the things they tried to accomplish. It was OK, but there was a EPK on cable a while back that was a bit more emotional, and even included footage of Moore at the memorial, along with other surviving members of the 1-7, and that footage would have been nice to see here. There are also 10 deleted scenes totaling over 21 minutes in length and presented in non-anamorphic video. Some of the scenes are very good, but unfortunately had to be cut because of the already long runtime of the film. This included more in depth footage on the wives in the film, as well as a fairly humorous preface to the introduction of Sergeant Major Plumley. Wallace provides optional commentary on each. Wallace also provides an engaging director commentary, providing some detail into the shoot, and how he communicated with the actors, and the soldiers being portrayed in the film (Moore and Galloway, who wrote the book, were consultants on the film). He also shares a lot of quotes that have the words “that really did happen” a lot, so for those who may be doubtful after watching the film, listening to the commentary and reading the book, I’ve got nothing left for you.
An underrated war film that perhaps didn’t receive the fairest of shakes when it was released, but it’s just enough to recommend not only renting and viewing for those who haven’t seen it, but a marginal upgrade recommendation for those who have the SD versions.
Special Features List
- Director Commentary
- Deleted Scenes
- Making of Featurette