We Were Soldiers is an American war film that dramatizes the Battle of Ia Drang in November 1965, during the Vietnam War. Directed by Randall Wallace and starring Mel Gibson, the film is based on the book We Were Soldiers Once … And Young (1992) by Lieutenant General (Ret.) Hal Moore and reporter Joseph L. Galloway, both of whom were at the battle.
The Battle of Ia Drang (14–18 November 1965) was the first major set-piece battle between U.S. Army forces and regulars of the Vietnam People’s Army (PAVN) during the Vietnam War. The two-part battle took place at two adjacent landing zones (LZs) west of Plei Me in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. While being ferried to LZ X-Ray by Huey helicopters, the 450 men of 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry were attacked by a much larger force of PAVN. After two days and nights of heavy fighting (14–16 November 1965), the Americans were able to hold out and survive as a unit. On 17 November the North Vietnamese ambushed and obliterated the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry near LZ Albany. In the end, both sides suffered heavy casualties; the U.S. side had about 300 soldiers killed, and the North Vietnamese lost more than 1,000 men. Twenty-five years later, after a research trip to Vietnam with Lt. Gen Harold “Hal” Moore (USA-Ret.), the commander at LZ X-Ray, Joe Galloway (the only journalist present at the battle), published “Vietnam Story,” a detailed account in U.S. News & World Report that earned a 1990 National Magazine Award. Galloway and Moore expanded Galloway’s article into a book: We Were Soldiers Once … And Young: Ia Drang—The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam (1992). Published a year after the stunning success of “Operation Desert Storm”—when renewed pride in American military prowess made the public more receptive to the ideological rehabilitation of the Vietnam-era soldier—We Were Soldiers sold an astonishing 1.3 million copies. Randall Wallace, a former seminarian from Tennessee turned novelist/filmmaker, read the book and was captivated by it. He approached Moore and Galloway to option the film rights in the fall of 1993, which they sold to him in 1995, some months before the release of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, a property written by Wallace, which made him a Hollywood force to reckon with.
Having written the screenplay, Randall Wallace co-produced We Were Soldiers (with Mel Gibson’s partners at Icon Entertainment, Bruce Davey and Stephen McEveety). Wallace also directed the film—his second directorial effort after The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)—and cast Mel Gibson, the star of Braveheart, to play Lt. Col. Moore. After Wallace had his key players meet their real-life counterparts, he put the cast through a Hollywood version of boot camp at Fort Benning, Georgia. With cinematography by Dean Semler (an action movie specialist and frequent Mel Gibson collaborator), We Were Soldiers was shot between 5 March and 30 June 2001. The battle scenes were filmed at Fort Hunter Liggett, a 167,000-acre Army training reservation in Monterey County 150 miles south of San Francisco that doubled for South Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Training scenes were filmed at Fort Benning, and domestic scenes were shot in Pasadena.
Prologue: during the final year of the First Indochina War (1954), Viet Minh forces ambush a French army unit on patrol and wipe it out. Cut to Fort Benning, 12 years later. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) is chosen to train and lead a newly created air cavalry battalion. Soon after arriving in Vietnam, Moore’s unit is ferried into the Ia Drang Valley by helicopters at a site that turns out to be the base camp for North Vietnamese Army units totaling some 3,000 men. After arriving in the area, a platoon of soldiers led by 2nd Lt. Henry Herrick (Marc Blucas) is ambushed. Herrick and several others are killed and the surviving platoon members are surrounded. Sgt. Ernie Savage (Ryan Hurst) takes over the command and utilizes the darkness to keep the Vietnamese from taking over their position. Meanwhile, helicopters constantly drop off reinforcements. On the second day of the battle, the outnumbered U.S. force keeps the enemy at bay using artillery, mortars, and helicopter airlifts of supplies and reinforcements. The PAVN commander, Lt. Col. Nguyen Huu An (Duong Don), orders a large-scale attack on the American position. On the verge of being overrun by the enemy and with no options left, Moore orders 1st Lt. Charlie Hastings (Robert Bagnell), his Forward Air Controller, to call in “Broken Arrow” (an emergency call for all available combat aircraft to attack enemy positions, even those close to U.S. lines). The aircraft strafe, bomb, and napalm the enemy, killing many PAVN and Viet Cong troops. The second Vietnamese attack is stopped, and the surviving U.S. soldiers, led by Sgt. Savage, are brought to safety. Back in the United States, Hal Moore’s wife, Julia (Madeleine Stowe), has taken on a leadership role among the soldiers’ wives on base. Meanwhile, Moore’s unit organizes, stabilizes the area, and waits at the bottom of a hill. Lt. Col. An organizes a final siege on the American troops and sends most of his own to stage the assault. The Vietnamese get in position, but Hal Moore and his men go on the offensive, charging forward with fixed bayonets. Before the Vietnamese can fire, Major Bruce P. “Snake” Crandall (Greg Kinnear) and other men in helicopters gun down the Vietnamese. An is forced to evacuate his headquarters. With their objective reached, Moore and his men return to the LZ for pickup. The film ends with the revelation that the landing zone reverted to the North Vietnamese as soon as the American troops departed.
Made at an estimated cost of $75 million, We Were Soldiers did quite well at the box office: $78 million in domestic receipts and $36.5 million in foreign ticket sales for a total of $114.6 million—a healthy profit after promotion expenses. The critical response was, however, mixed. Many mainstream film reviewers lauded the movie’s graphic simulated realism, narrative coherence, and even-handed depiction of the soldiers on both sides of the fighting. However, some critics found We Were Soldiers clumsy and ideologically suspect, that is, rife with John Wayne–era war clichés and nationalistic righteousness obviously designed to revise the image of the Vietnam War in the popular imagination and glorify the U.S. soldier—while studiously avoiding any hint that the war was misguided or, worse yet, a catastrophic exercise of American imperialism. Indeed, the film’s right-wing pedigree was amply demonstrated when President George W. Bush held a private screening of We Were Soldiers at the White House on 26 February 2002 (three days before its national release). In attendance were Moore, Galloway, Wallace, Gibson, and other cast members, spouses, and studio executives, as were Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In all the patriotic hoopla, no one seemed to notice the exquisite irony of the occasion. Whereas Moore, Galloway, and Powell were genuine Vietnam War veterans (“heroes,” if you will), hawkish ideologues Wallace, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld carefully avoided Vietnam, though all of them could have served.
Reel History Versus Real History
Although much of the relentless combat action depicted in the film is accurate in broad terms, the decisive, culminating bayonet charge led by Lt. Col. Moore is a total, absurd fabrication. In point of fact, the North Vietnamese broke off the engagement of their own accord but not before wiping out Moore’s sister battalion, the 2/7, at LZ Albany—a crushing American defeat expunged from the movie for obvious reasons. Historian Maurice Isserman plausibly suggests that the mythical bayonet charge in We Were Soldiers was meant to evoke Gettysburg (1993): “Actor Sam Elliott, who plays a tough and gravelly voiced master sergeant [Basil L. Plumley] in We Were Soldiers, had played a tough and gravelly voiced cavalry officer [Brigadier General John Buford] in the earlier film. As a casting choice, Elliot’s presence works at a subconscious level, and probably intentionally, to link the two films and the battles they depict in the audience’s mind” (Isserman, 2002). Isserman goes on to characterize We Were Soldiers as an “idealized, abstracted, and ultimately cynically manipulative fantasy of generic American heroism under fire.”