When I’d first seen this film I was unsettled by its unabashed patriotism and machismo, especially with what I’d percieved as a bias retelling of the Vietnam war during at the same time as the Bush administration and post-September 11 invasion of Afganistan and Iraq. I’d re-watched it with director Randall Wallace’s DVD commentary as I’m curious to know a director’s thoughts on making a film I consider flawed or controversial.
I can’t think of any war movie, specifically a Vietman movie, that represents a conflict in such an optimistic, heroic or positive light. The last Vietnam film before this had been Tigerland (2000), which arguably wasn’t a war film at all but story about self-discovery and sacrifice against an oppressive military authority.
I’d felt a similar way watching Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016), which displayed a hideously literal and pious depiction of war,  relying on a heavy dose of testosterone combined with spectacular pyrotechnics, gore and slow-motion effects. Hacksaw Ridge, despite being set in World War 2 about the US battle against the Japanese, almost feels like a sequel to We Were Soldiers, and a counterpoint to Kathryn Bigelow’s and Olive  Stone’s harrowing and morally culpable Platoon (1986) and Hurt Locker (2008).
On Stone’s DVD commentary for Platoon he discribes the general feeling of confusion and discontent among the draftees; the lack of leadership, apathy, hatred of the ‘gooks’, officers, and casualties caused by either friendly fire or revenge.
I believe Wallace’s argument for the film is that when the US entered the Vietnam they’d done so for naive political reasons, whereby the generals and politicians believed like the British soldiers joining the First World War ‘it would all be over by Christmas’. This itself seems like an almost unbelievable underestimation of the scale and cost of those conflicts. Wallace films his story, set in 1965, in such a nostalgic and wholesome manner it feels like a Disney film with vitually no acknowledgement of the counter-culture and civil rights moments that would epitomise that decade. Wallace’s adaptaton of Lieutenant General Hal Moore’s biographical novel We Were Soldiers explains very little about either the Battle of Ia Drang or the Vietnam war, only that hundreds of American soldiers were killed in the first three days of the war along with thousands of Vietnamese.
It takes a similarly one-sided approach to those events as Black Hawk Down (2000), arguably an event which few knew about and still remains largely forgotten as an example of when US intervention goes badly wrong. However, Black Hawk Down feels superior in that it doesn’t attempt to downplay the absurdity or mistakes of the soldiers trapped behind enemy lines and fighting for their survival. An event that happens in a part of the few Americans care about or understand, a contrast to the flag-waving and patriotism of the We Were Soldiers, although perhaps this was Wallace’s intention all along.