We Were Soldiers is a 2002 American war film directed by Randall Wallace and starring Mel Gibson. Based on the book We Were Soldiers Once… and Young (1992) by Lieutenant General (Ret.) Hal Moore and reporter Joseph L. Galloway, it dramatises the Battle of Ia Drang on 14 November 1965.
A French unit on patrol in Vietnam in 1954, during the final year of the First Indochina War, is ambushed by Viet Minh forces, probably the Battle of Mang Yang Pass. Viet Minh commander Nguyen Huu An orders his soldiers to “kill all they send, and they will stop coming”.
Eleven years later, the United States is fighting the Vietnam War. U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) is chosen to train and lead a battalion. After arriving in Vietnam, he learns that an American base has been attacked, and is ordered to take his 400 men after the enemy and eliminate the North Vietnamese attackers, despite the fact that intelligence has no idea of the number of enemy troops. Moore leads a newly created air cavalry unit into the Ia Drang Valley. After landing in the “Valley of Death”, the soldiers capture a North Vietnamese soldier and learn from him that the location they were sent to is actually the base camp for a veteran North Vietnamese army division of 4,000 men.
Upon arrival in the area with a platoon of soldiers, 2nd Lt. Henry Herrick spots an enemy scout, runs after him, and orders reluctant soldiers to follow. The North Vietnamese scout lures them into an ambush, resulting in several men being killed, including Herrick and his subordinates. The surviving platoon members are surrounded with no chance of retreat and are cut off from the rest of the battalion. Sgt. Savage assumes command, calls in artillery, and uses the cover of night to keep the Vietnamese from overrunning their small defensive position. Meanwhile, with helicopters constantly dropping off units, Moore manages to secure weak points before the North Vietnamese can take advantage of them.
On the second day, despite being trapped and desperately outnumbered, the main U.S. force manages to hold off the North Vietnamese with artillery, mortars, and helicopter airlifts of supplies and reinforcements. Eventually, Nguyen Huu An, the commander of the North Vietnamese division, orders a large-scale attack on the American position.
At the point of being overrun by the enemy and with no options left, Moore orders 1st Lt. Charlie Hastings, his Forward Air Controller, to call in “Broken Arrow” (a call for all available combat aircraft to assist and attack enemy positions, even those close to the U.S. troops’ position, because a position is being overrun and can no longer be defended). The aircraft attack with bombs, napalm, and machine guns, killing many PAVN and Viet Cong troops; but a friendly fire incident also results in American deaths. The second North Vietnamese attack is repelled, and the surviving soldiers of Herrick’s cut off platoon, including Savage, are rescued.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, Julia Moore (Madeleine Stowe) has become the leader of the American wives living on the base. When the Army begins to use yellow cab drivers to deliver telegrams notifying the next of kin of soldiers’ deaths in combat, Julia personally assumes that emotional responsibility instead.
Moore’s troops regroup, secure the area, and stop at the base of a hill. Nguyen Huu An plans a final assault on the Americans and sends most of his troops to carry out the attack. The North Vietnamese have set up strong emplacements near the hidden entrance of the underground passage to the command post. Hal and his men charge at them, but before the North Vietnamese can fire, Major Bruce “Snake” Crandall and others in helicopter gunships attack the North Vietnamese, destroying the bulk of the enemy force.
Nguyen Huu An is alerted that the Americans have broken through their lines and that there are no soldiers between the Americans and their command post. Since he had deployed his reserve forces to the final offensive, and the base camp has no troops to call upon for defence, Huu An quickly orders the headquarters evacuated.
Moore, having achieved his objective, returns to the helicopter landing zone to be picked up. Only after everyone (including the dead and wounded) is removed from the battlefield does he fly out of the valley. Some time later, Nguyen Huu An and his men arrive on the battlefield to collect their dead. He claims that the Americans will “think this was their victory. So this will become an American war.”
At the end of the film, it is revealed that the landing zone immediately reverted to North Vietnamese hands after the American troops were airlifted out. Hal Moore continued the battle in a different landing zone, and after nearly a year he returns home safely to Julia and his family. His superiors congratulate him for killing over 1,800 North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong soldiers. An older Moore visits the Vietnam War memorial and sees the names of soldiers who fell at Ia Drang.
We Were Soldiers Once… and Young is a 1992 book by Lt. Gen. Harold G. “Hal” Moore (Ret.) and war journalist Joseph L. Galloway about the Vietnam War.
It focuses on the role of the First and Second Battalions of the 7th Cavalry Regiment in the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the United States’ first large-unit battle of the Vietnam War; previous engagements involved small units and patrols (squad, platoon, and company sized units).
Trivia & Goofs
- One of the real-life officers, who survived the battle, was Lieutenant Rick Rescorla, who is the main figure on the cover of General Moore’s book, on which the movie was based. A biography of Mr. Rescorla’s very interesting life was published in the mid 2000s, called “Heart of a soldier”. He died in the 9/11 attacks, while employed as Head of Security for Morgan Stanley, while making sure all of the company’s employees had gotten out of the World Trade Center (they had).
- Although many of the names are never really seen, or said, throughout the movie, very careful attention was paid to ensure every member of the company was represented properly in the film. For every person that was a member of the company in real-life, there was an actor on-screen, most of whom resembled the actual soldiers themselves.
- Joseph Galloway (Barry Pepper) was awarded a Bronze Star for gallantry for carrying wounded men to safety at the Battle of Ia Drang in 1965. He was the only civilian awarded the Bronze Star during the Vietnam War.
- The movie’s six Huey helicopters were rented from private donors, not the military.
- Lieutenant General (Retired) Hal Moore died on 10 February 2017.
- Keni Thomas, who acted as a Military Advisor, Technical Advisor, and an extra in this film, fought in Mogadishu with the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in 1993, the battle depicted in Black Hawk Down (2001).
- Some Vietnamese actors in the movie had actually been in the North Vietnamese Army.
- A total of three soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for the battle represented in this film. Joseph Marm, Jr. received his shortly after the battle, Ed Freeman on 16 July 2001, and Bruce P. Crandall on 26 February 2007. Freeman and Crandall were helicopter pilots who flew frequent relief and resupply missions into the heart of the battle when medevac choppers could not approach.
Production & Filming Details
- Director: Randall Wallace.
- Producers: Bruce Davey, Stephen McEveety, and Randall Wallace.
- Writer: Randall Wallace.
- Music: Nick Glennie-Smith.
- Cinematography: Dean Semler.
- Editor: William Hoy.
- Production: Icon Productions, Wheelhouse Entertainment.
- Distributor: Paramount Pictures.
- Release Date: 01 March 2002.
- Running time: 138 minutes.
- Country: US & Germany.
- Language: English, Vietnamese, French.