It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"I wonder what Custer was thinking," Lt. Col. Hal Moore says, "when he realized he'd moved his men into slaughter." Sgt. Maj. Plumley, his right-hand man, replies, "Sir, Custer was a p----." There you have the two emotional poles of "We Were Soldiers," the story of the first major land battle in the Vietnam War, late in 1965. Moore (Mel Gibson) is a family man, and a Harvard graduate who studies international relations. Plumley (Sam Elliott) is an Army lifer, hard, brave, unsentimental. They are both about as good as battle leaders get. But by the end of that first battle, they realize they may be in the wrong war.
The reference to Custer is not coincidence. Moore leads the First Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry, Custer's regiment. "We will ride into battle and this will be our horse," Moore says, standing in front of a helicopter. Some 400 of his men ride into battle in the Ia Drang Valley, known as the "Valley of Death," and are surrounded by some 2,000 North Vietnamese troops. Moore realizes it's an ambush, and indeed in the film's opening scenes he reads about just such a tactic used by the Vietnamese against the French a few years earlier.
"We Were Soldiers," like "Black Hawk Down," is a film in which the Americans do not automatically prevail in the style of traditional Hollywood war movies. Ia Drang cannot be called a defeat, since Moore's men fought bravely and well, suffering heavy casualties but killing even more Viet Cong. But it is not a victory; it's more the curtain-raiser of a war in which American troops were better trained and better equipped, but outnumbered, out maneuvered and finally outlasted.
For much of its length, the movie consists of battle scenes. They are not as lucid and easy to follow as the events in "Black Hawk Down," but then the terrain is different, the canvas is larger, and there are no eyes in the sky to track troop movements. Director Randall Wallace (who wrote "Braveheart" and "Pearl Harbor") does make the situation clear from moment to moment, as Moore and his North Vietnamese counterpart try to outsmart each other with theory and instinct.