This (story) is about what we did, what we saw, what we
suffered in a thirty-four-day campaign in the Ia Drang Valley…
when we were young and confident and patriotic and our
countrymen knew little and cared less about our sacrifices.
--Lt. General Harold G. Moore.
Unlike most of the other script reviews for WE WERE SOLDIERS ONCE… AND YOUNG, I took the time to stop and read the book. I could have rushed a review out weeks ago along with the other 2 or 3 reviewers, but none of them bothered to read thedamn book. And though I do agree with the argument that ascreenplay is a screenplay, and can be judged as such, regardlessof what the source material was, I am thankful I read the book.
Screenwriter Randall Wallace has been much maligned of late, andwith good reason. His writing for PEARL HARBOR was verydisappointing for critics and moviegoers alike. Wallace is not only the screenwriter for SOLDIERS, but the director as well. This is his second attempt at directing, THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (1998) was his first.
SOLDIERS is based on the poignant and "eye-stinging" book ofthe same name by Lt. General Harold Moore and military correspondent Joseph L. Galloway. A book so powerful it was difficult at times to comprehend what I was reading.
"They were shooting and machine-gunning our wounded and laughing and giggling. I knew they'd kill me if they saw I was alive. When they got near, I played dead. I kept my eyes open and stared at a small tree. I knew dead men had their eyes open. Then one of the North Vietnamese came up, looked at me, then kicked me, and I flopped over. I guess he thought I was dead. There was blood running out of my mouth, my arm, my legs. He took my watch and my .45 pistol and walked on."
The description of the fight leading up to this point (above quote), where his entire squad was overran and killed, except him, is just as horrific in its telling.
The acts of heroism, pain, suffering, and death in this book is unlike anything I have ever read. As I finished the book, all 400 plus pages, I thought to myself, "how would I write a screenplay for it?""Where would I begin?" (This being before I read Wallace's script.) My answer: I couldn't, and wouldn't have a clue as to where to begin. The book is one massive military campaign, and fairly complex in its descriptions of the battles and maneuvering. Having read the book I can better appreciate what it took to adapt such a story.
Before writing the screenplay, as I understand it, Wallace meet with many of the survivors and talked with them, and their spouses. This must have provided much inspiration and reflection concerning the events, more then the book could ever convey I'm sure. Those conversations would play an important part in the story as well
The script I'm reading is dated February 6, 2001 and is the third revised draft. The script should be pretty close to what was actually shot. If you read the book, the first 20-30 minutes of this movie will surprise you, and for the better. The script opens with a voice over describing what it is we are about to witness. This story is not about the Vietnam war, it is not about the politics of its time or the society that scorned the war, and rightfully so. It is about the love and the camaraderie among men in battle. Fighting for their lives.
Today, you often hear sports announcers and the athletes, especially football players, talk about "going to war" with someone and how they would or wouldn’t want to. Well, this movie will be about those who did go to war together. It will be a powerful statement about the sacrifices given and the toll it took on them.
The fist 40 pages of the script is character development, and exposition. We get to know Harold Moore (played by Mel Gibson), who is married and a father. We meet chopper pilot Bruce Crandall (played by Greg Kinnear) and Sergeant Major Basil Plumley (played by the likable Sam Elliott). There are several other important characters as well, the rest of the important cast breaks down like this: Chris Klein (Lt. John L. Geoghegan), Denis Leary, Barry Pepper (Joseph L. Galloway), Keri Russell, Madeleine Stowe, Robert Bagnell, Marc Blucas, Joshua Daugherty, Jsu Garcia, Jon Hamm, Desmond Harrington, Ryan Hurst, Joshua McLaurin, Taylor Momsen, and Dylan Walsh.
The book has countless, maybe hundreds, of recollections from the soldiers who fought on the field. There were many heroes and to identify all of them in the script would be impossible. So Wallace had to condense the deeds of many soldiers into just a few for the sake of the story. He had to collapse timelines and simplify things. All of which he did, as far as I can tell. That effort alone was impressive in the script. To really appreciate this script, you had to read the book.
Harold Moore is portrayed in the script as a larger-than-life leader who seemed to always make the right move. In a newspaper interview the real Harold Moore was quoted as saying that he would have liked John Wayne to play him, indeed. But what supports this presentation in the script is the book. I know, he wrote the book, and could present himself any damn way he wanted. But when you read the book, you get the sense of a humble, honest, and heroic solider who was not going to let his men down, he would rather face death then face the widow of a solider who he did not return home from the battlefield, dead or alive. He wasn't trying to be a hero, but just doing his job.
There were no cowards on that battlefield. There were only heroes, no matter how they died, or how they fought. From the book, Harold Moore, as recollected by one of his men who was going home after being wounded:
Colonel Moore shook my hand and said, 'Thank you and 'Go back home.' I was the second or third guy he spoke to and he had tears in his eyes. I remember what he said: 'I see that you are married; you have a wedding ring on. Just go home, pick up the pieces, and start your life all over again.' And that's what I did… If it wasn't for him and all his knowledge and training, I don't think any of us would have survived.
The fighting in the script is every bit as intense as described in the book, only I think Wallace held back a little, perhaps for the sake of the loved ones of those who died. There was carnage beyond description during that battle, and not all of it needs to be seen. The screenplay by Randall Wallace, though not his best, is certainly his most important. I can’t think of a better screenwriter to write I became immersed in the heartache and desperation of the men fighting for each other, and of the wives back home who had to deal with death and the constant unknowing.
Though PLATOON will still be the best movie dealing with Vietnam when SOLDIERS comes and goes, SOLDIERS will be admired for its heady and even portrayal of soldiers, both ours and of the enemy. There will be no pot smoking, pillaging, and raping as portrayed in earlier Vietnam pictures such as APOCALYPSE NOW and PLATOON. The war those movies depict is a much different one then what we see here in 1965, when people still believed in what they were fighting for. These are men who fought for each other, not for us, or love of country. Though they are patriots. In that moment of hell and fury they had to rely on one another.
Wallace's script also tackles the home front, where Moore's wife Julie (played by Madeleine Stowe) is every bit as much a leader and protective of her group than is her husband. Julie organizes the wives and takes on the sad job of informing loved ones of the death of their husband or father. Some very emotional scenes that I think really supplemented the main (fighting) story line. The actors selected will do a great job, and I especially love the casting of Sam Elliott as Plumley.
I'm looking forward to this movie, it looks to be a very good film, and I think everyone who knows something about the book, and Vietnam, will appreciate and respect the effort Randall Wallace has put forth. It must have been a truly overwhelming experience, both emotionally and physically, for him, the crew, and the actors. I can only imagine.
Look for it at the end of this year.
-- Christopher Wehner