It Real: "We Were Soldiers" Strives To Tell It Like It Was
"We Were Soldiers" carries an unusually heavy burden for a Hollywood movie. It hopes to show the Vietnam War in a way no film has done before: as it really happened.
Luckily, the film's cast and crew had good raw material to work with: the book "We Were Soldiers Once and Young," a painstaking account of the first bloody battle of the Vietnam War in the Ia Drang valley, later dubbed the valley of death. The authors, Joe Galloway and Lt. Gen. Hal Moore (USA-Ret), had the first-hand knowledge and the passion to back up such a detailed account. Hal Moore was the dedicated CO of 1st Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, and Galloway was a reporter for UPI who charged into the battle for his story, eventually fighting alongside the soldiers in their most harrowing moments.
When Moore and Galloway began work on the book in 1982, they were men on a mission; they had something to say. "We knew what Vietnam had been like, and how we looked and acted and talked and smelled," they wrote in the prologue. "No one in America did. Hollywood got it wrong every damned time."
For decades after the war ended, movies showed Vietnam veterans as drug-fiends or dysfunctional misfits. Every movie, Galloway believed, had a political axe to grind.
To write an account free of political motivation is a daunting, if not impossible, task. Moore and Galloway wanted to narrow the focus of their account to the men in battle. They wanted to show that the boys had nothing to do with the complex political machinations that put them in that valley so far from home. Most didn't choose to be there at all. But once they were there, they fought with valor and courage, for each other. "In battle," the authors wrote, "our world shrank to the man on our left and the man on our right and the enemy all around."
Galloway and Moore thought that if they could show people what really happened in that one battle, then the American people would understand that the boys who fought were decent, ordinary people, and they hoped that the veterans would finally get the respect they deserved.
When Moore and Galloway's book came out in 1992, it spent 17 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The Marine Corps Commandant chose it as the book of the year, and commanding officers still use examples from the book to illustrate training techniques and leadership on the battlefield.
"If we can settle the books on Vietnam, at least in that corner of the story, as regards the boys who fought, and who they were, and what they did and why they died, and who they died for-each other-then it's okay," said Galloway.
Making the Movie
Hollywood directors came calling, but Moore and Galloway rejected their proposals, wondering if they'd ever see their book made into the kind of movie they wanted to see. When Randall Wallace ("Braveheart," "The Man with the Iron Mask") approached them in 1994, it seemed like the right fit. He was devoted to the project; he was a former Army Ranger and karate black-belt; and he wanted his actors to go to boot camp. He also encouraged them to meet with their real-life counterparts, not just Moore and Galloway, but Moore's wife, Julie, Moore's right-hand man, Sergeant Major Plumley, and Major Bruce Crandall, a chopper pilot responsible for pulling off 22 missions into the valley during the battle.
Moore, Galloway and the other real-life characters who gathered to help make the movie had to put their trust in Randall and in the actors he chose. It was tough, at times, to reconcile the conflicting demands of drama and authenticity.
The book is packed full of small authentic details that neither advance the plot nor add to character development, but are part of the random and seemingly meaningless mess of real life and real war. To make the movie, Wallace needed to streamline and simplify, to imbue certain events with a weighty, dramatic significance, and to omit others.
Sam Elliott, ("The Contender," "The Big Leibowsky") who plays the laconic, battle-hardened Sergeant Major Plumley, described how Wallace wanted him to carry two .45 caliber pistols, in essence using hardware to ratchet up the character's perceived toughness. But Elliott, having developed a rapport with the real Plumley, knew that he never carried two pistols. When Elliott insisted that he carry only one in the movie, Wallace came around, understanding that this was a meaningful detail that couldn't be dramatized.
The Truth is in the Details
When asked how he thought "We Were Soldiers" differed from other movies about the Vietnam War, Joe Galloway explained, "I don't think there's been a movie made to this point that Vietnam veterans can sit down and watch and identify with The soldiers always look for the truth. They don't care about some weenie story. They don't care that Apocalypse is based on a Conrad novel. They want it to look like how they remembered."
In other words, for the veterans, the truth is in the details, in the sounds and smells of the battlefield. It's in the 'whup, whup' of the helicopters rising above the trees, the heat of the explosions, the stench of bodies left three days on the battlefield, the sound of bullets thwacking the dirt.
Wallace and his crew strove to make these details as authentic as possible on film. Wallace sent the actors to a boot camp run by Army Rangers in Fort Benning, Georgia, where they woke for 5 a.m. runs and handled Vietnam-era weapons. The film's make-up artist was a Marine Corps captain and a winner of a silver star in the war. Explained Wallace, "He knew what a man looked like who had been napalmed. He knew what a gunshot wound really looked like."
The helicopter scenes were filmed in real time on the set, as opposed to flying in front of a blue screen and adding the shooting and explosions in afterwards.
Greg Kinnear ("Nurse Betty," "As Good as it Gets"), had to learn to pilot the choppers for his role as Major Crandall. "I thought, naively, that we would add the effects later," he said. "When you see 10 helicopters come in on a sequence dropping off these guys, pulling guys on, firing squibs and explosions going off around us, and a look of horror in my eyes, quite often it's not acting."
All this effort at authenticity may sound overwrought. After all, the movie was filmed in Northern California, with Hollywood celebrities, some of whom had never handled a gun before. But "We Were Soldiers" has passed at least one important test: it earned the approval of Joe Galloway and General Moore.
Galloway admitted he couldn't sleep the night after seeing the movie for the first time. He said, "Did they dramatize some of it? Sure they did this is Hollywood. This is entertainment. This is truth and entertainment. But I would say to you that there's less Hollywood in this movie than any movie I've ever seen."
General Moore agreed that the film was accurate especially in portraying the noise and the confusion on the battlefield. He praised also the way the movie showed inside the mind of the Vietnamese commander, General An, whom Moore had met several times while researching the book.
But will the movie live up to the purpose Moore and Galloway envisioned for it? "Movies have a tremendous power to move you. And I think this is a great movie that will move many people," said Galloway.
"The veteran really has not gotten his due," said Moore's wife, Julie. "I don't think the veteran wants a parade. He just wants respect. He's never gotten that, and I surely hope that this movie is finally going to get respect for the Vietnam veteran."
Getting respect for Vietnam veterans: that's a tall order for a Hollywood flick. But maybe it's an idea whose time has finally come.