Paying Tribute to Heroes: Hollywood's Vietnam Mythology Takes a U-Turn with We Were Soldiers. (Americana)

Article excerpt

Wayne Lewellen, president of distribution for Paramount Pictures, which released We Were Soldiers, Mel Gibson's tribute to Americans who served in Southeast Asia, observed: "I certainly think the Sept. 11 incident puts people more in the mood for wanting to cheer American soldiers."

But even before 9/11, audiences had tired of movies that portrayed U.S. forces in Vietnam as drug-crazed sadists and soul-less killing machines. With the exception of John Milius' 1990 Flight of the Intruder, such films had for decades been excruciatingly monotonous in defaming Americans who fought there.

For Hollywood (whose consciousness was stunted by the sixties antiwar movement), U.S. involvement in Vietnam was the most demented phase of a paranoid Cold-War crusade. It followed that Americans who fought in the jungles and rice paddies were misguided at best and malevolent at worst, a rabble of toked or drunken frat boys with M-16s. The result was The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Casualties of War (1989) and similar cinematic peace marches. With classic understatement, a review of We Were Soldiers in the Canadian Press comments, "It's a rare Vietnam movie that presents U.S. soldiers in a good light as honorable comrades in arms."

It took two men who were there in the thick of it--retired Lt. Gen. Harold Moore and U.P.I war correspondent Joseph Galloway (authors of the best-selling book We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young, upon which the movie is based)--to begin to set the record straight.

We Were Soldiers tells the story of the engagement between U.S. forces and several thousand North Vietnamese in the battle of Ia Drang. In 1965, Moore led 400 U.S. air-cavalry troops into a trap Hanoi had set. The communists wanted a rout--an American Dien Bien Phu--to demoralize the U.S. early in the war and prevent the introduction of large numbers of combat forces. In fighting that raged for several days, and after taking heavy casualties, Moore's men managed to break out of the trap and overrun the enemy's command post.

We Were Soldiers lacks the relentless gore of the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. But the action is all the more credible by portraying the desperation of close-quarters fighting and the agony of severely wounded and dying soldiers without the camera almost lovingly dwelling on severed limbs and geysers of blood as in Stephen Speilberg's epic of the Normandy invasion.

Gibson plays Moore with both gravitas and humor. …