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We Were Soldiers

review by Zach B.

 

 

Rated: R (For Sustained Sequences of War Violence, and for Language)

Running Time: 138 minutes

Starring: Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Keri Russell, Barry Pepper

Based upon the book "We Were Soldiers Once... And Young" by: Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) and Joseph L. Galoway

Written for the Screen by and Directed by: Randall Wallace

 

Studio: Paramount

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Randall Wallace, "Getting It Right" Behind-The-Scenes of "We Were Soldiers", 10 Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by Writer/Director Randall Wallace

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (19 Scenes)

Released: August 20th, 2002

 

 

When we get down to it, there's something we must realize and face: when it comes to the filmmaking talents of Randall Wallace, he's done the good (Braveheart), the bad (Pearl Harbor - ok, so I enjoyed it a little) and the just plain ugly ("The Man In The Iron Mask"). "We Were Soldiers," which he adapted from the pretty famous book by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and journalist Joseph L. Galloway and also directed, Wallace crafts an engrossing, incredibly satisfying and rather heartfelt war epic.

Re-teaming with Mel Gibson, "We Were Soldiers" is the true story of Hal Moore (Gibson in a very commanding role), a commander for a special group of a few hundred United States soldiers. Their mission was to land right at "The Valley of Death," in what would become of the biggest, most intense and terrifying battles in the Vietnam war and United States history. Faced against a few thousand Northern Vietnam troops, what Moore and his men would experience would be nothing short of remarkable, powerful and just plain sad.

Randall Wallace, who I thought did a decent directing job with "The Man In The Iron Mask," shows he has what it takes to play with the big boys. Not only is his directing style much sharper, more concise and more direct with "We Were Soldiers," it really shows he has a natural talent to tell his written work visually. Wallace has a keen eye and sense of how to tell this story balancing it with horrific but amazing shots all while letting the story of the men - and their families - speak for themselves. There's a lot of details and a lot to capture emotionally in the film. It can be touching, but moreso dark and brutal.

What really impressed me however is just how well and authentic the movie feels. It looks realistic, it sounds realistic and it really puts you directly in the battle, as if you were part of the journey the troops took in. How Wallace stages such amazing, gripping battle scenes this side of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down really, really impressed me. The editing in the film is fantastic as well, capturing so many excellent shots and angles as if it's some moving mural of what war tends to be, especially in how senseless Vietnam was. Really, really marvelous stuff. The film certainly deserves kudos in the editing and sound departments, but I fear the film was released too early for Wallace to be considered in the directing category. I hope he scores an Oscar® nod for his directing and adaptation.

I actually thought the film worked best in its more subtle, quieter and softer moments. Scenes such as the men leaving by train, where Moore's wife decides to break the news of losses to her fellow friends, Joe Galloway and Hal Moore talking at the end of what they went through and a scene early on in the film where Moore and Jack Geoghegan have a heartfelt chat about fatherhood and being a soldier, trying to add up what it all means. I never read the book, but the film is well paced and truly well written. Character development is pretty strong and the dialogue in the battles do add to the story more. This truly ranks as one of Wallace's best screenplays, right up there with Braveheart.

The performances are superb, even if some supporting roles could have used more fleshing out. Mel Gibson always tends to amaze me in how he morphs himself into so many different screen characters. Like others, his role as Hal Moore is so vastly different than what some tend to stereotype him in more clichéd action flicks. Gibson is an amazing actor as we know, but for this part, he really does transform himself. With his fine accent, his pride, his emotional and physical strength all topped with such a caring attitude as he vows to not leave his men behind. It's really a tour-de-force performance. Smaller roles from Madeleine Stowe, Keri Russell, Chris Klein, Greg Kinnear (I wish there was more of him) and Barry Pepper as Joseph Gallow are really terrific and add much to the film.

I've seen a lot of war films, be contemporary flicks or modern classics. "We Were Soldiers" does rank with the best of them when it comes down to it. It has the visual flair and a strong story with memorable characters to back it all up. While the film doesn't exactly capture the politics that were Vietnam nor the emotional, mindnumbing terror of the soldiers (like Platoon), its different perspective of the families back home and the soldier battles leading up to the target of the la Drang Valley, makes "We Were Soldiers" a fabulous effort that is well worth watching.

 

"We Were Soldiers" is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio, that being 2.35:1... and it's all here in anamorphic widescreen. It's a good transfer, but given the caliber of the film and that this is a recent theatrical release, I actually expected better. It's actually a bit soft in some scenes, but what I found most of annoying is that it's incredibly grainy, and that gets in the way. But given the little flaws, there's a strong and hard look to this transfer that shows. It looks realistic and nice with fleshtones that are perfect and downright wonderful, fine color saturation with much boldness. Detail is very nice as well, but despite the goodness, I felt it could have been a bit more sharper and even more polished.

 

"We Were Soldiers" features a pretty stellar 5.1 Dolby Digital mix in English, but even better, this is Paramount's first EX encoded title. This is the perfect film to take advantage of the extra sound, given that this is a splendid little war film. Dialogue is quite clear and isn't muddled in the mix, while the music, be it big band songs, classic 1960s music or the really nice Nick Glennie-Smith score, uses the channels appropriately and gives off a fine mix to it all.

Still, what gives the track many punches and a nice boost are the war scenes. Bullets flying by, explosions, screams, marching, helicopters coming by, running... it's all hear, and it sounds incredibly crisp and downright real, as it puts you into the battle. While they're may not be many EX people out there just yet, it is quite an experience. Thankfully, the track sounds just as good with just regular 5.1. Dynamic range and fidelity are quite nice, and it's really solid and balanced. No complaints here at all, and it gives you more of an experience to compliment the film (given your equipment is good). Also included on this release are English subtitles, English closed captions and Dolby Surround tracks in French and English.

 

It's not packed, but there's no denying that "We Were Soldiers" features excellent supplements overall. The Getting It Right featurette feels more like a short documentary. It is in full frame, and features actual footage of the battle the movie features from the war. This is not promotional at all, and this is one quality made piece with so many covered points. With behind the scenes footage and clips from the film itself, Randall Wallace is interviewed and seems quite knowledgeable about the war. Author Hal Moore is also featured, plus Mel Gibson, director of photography Dean Semler, special effects coordinator and much more from real people involved in the actual story and the film crew. Wallace discusses what attracted him to the movie in the first place and Moore praises all the work done. Also included is boot camp for the actors, how technical and special effects were accomplished and much more. From the history of Vietnam to the making of the movie... it's nicely paced, well edited and gives you a fantastic look at the making of the film. It lasts twenty-five minutes and thrity-two seconds. One of the best features for a DVD I've ever seen. It's not only entertaining, but rings all these tones of truth. Very well done and realized.

We also have ten Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary from Writer/Director Randall Wallace. The scenes are in non-anamorphic widescreen, and are fully edited. All of these scenes are excellent, and it's a shame they were cut from the film. Wallace laments on the commentaries why he liked them so much and why they had to be cut. Very good stuff here with good comments to back it all up quite nicely. There's even some humorous stuff here (does every Randall Wallace flick need a guy with his ass sticking out?) too. Do check all of this out if you enjoyed the film. These scenes are that good, and not useless filler.

Finally, Randal Wallace delivers a full-length Audio Commentary for the feature itself. Wallace's track here is a bit on the dry side, but it's certainly one of the better ones I've heard lately. Wallace shows that he is very knowledgeable about the Vietnam war, and he discuses excellent artistic choices, his process of getting down to the core of the screenplay and story in identifying what heroism and war is, praise for all sorts of things and tons of facts on Vietnam (pay attention, history buffs!). I found Wallace's words pretty interesting and he keeps on talking without too many gaps of silence. Wallace sure knows what he's talking about, picking out key scenes that represent the story and characters, as well as how he dramatized the film in some areas (but nothing in a bad or disrespectful way). He also gives off some cool tidbits about the crew and talents of the cast. By the end of the track, I was amazed how much I learned not only about the filmmaking process, but so many important little things about the Vietnam war. It's almost like killing two birds with one stone.

I would have liked to see a commentary with the authors of the book (Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway) to discuss the realism and how the adaptation squares off (not to mention how their own characters are portrayed), but you can't ask for everything (besides, Moore is featured on the "Getting It Right" feature). Still, the only thing really missing? The theatrical trailer. I know some of you can't stand trailers, but I don't know, I always feel without a trailer on a DVD, something is missing. I saw the "We Were Soldiers" trailer was good when I was subjected to it many times over, but who knows why it's not included here. No big deal...

 

There is no doubt that "We Were Soldiers" is a gripping war film, complete with wondrous battle scenes that are painfully realistic, fabulous acting, a good script and overall strong production values. This DVD does not disappoint either with a fine commentary, nice deleted scenes and a strong featurette. If you enjoy war films or happen to be a fan of this fine film, this is one DVD that's certainly worth picking up!