We Were Soldiers is based on a book by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore, of the U.S. Air Cavalry, and Joseph L. Galloway, a former war correspondent, who met for the first time on November 14, 1965, in the midst of a bloody battle at Ia Drang, in the highlands of Vietnam. Both men, now longtime friends and long retired, played a pivotal role in what turned out to be the first major military engagement between the U.S. and Communist North Vietnam. The battle raged for three days and nights, resulting in hundreds of dead and wounded on both sides, and sealed America's military involvement in Vietnam.

According to Moore and Galloway, Hollywood has had it all wrong when making movies about Vietnam, And upon seeing this very personal and very powerful film--powerful because it is personal--viewers may agree. Even the presence of a Hollywood megastar like Mel Gibson doesn't detract from the vividly authentic look and feel of the battle scenes, which are at the heart of We Were Soldiers. Gibson, in fact, admirably keeps his star wattage turned down, assuming an appropriately commanding but humble demeanor as Lt. Col. Moore, the commander who trained the very first helicopter-borne cavalrymen and led them into a bloody conflict that could easily have become a massacre.

In the time-honored tradition of war movies, the early part of We Were Soldiers is devoted to introducing its leading characters--all with real-life counterparts. They are: Moore's wife Julie (Madeleine Stowe); correspondent Galloway (Barry Pepper); Maj. Bruce Crandall (Greg Kinnear), a hotshot helicopter pilot who becomes an angel of mercy; Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott), the 'grandfather' figure who'll kill anyone who calls him that; and Lt. Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), a painfully reflective young soldier who leaves behind his painfully innocent young wife (Keri Russell) and a newborn daughter.

Family is the underlying theme of this story. Col. Moore was the kind of leader who instilled in his men a sense of being part of a family, and his book credits family loyalty with inspiring the heartbreaking bravery of the U.S. soldiers who fought on--and on--at Ia Drang, in the face of overwhelming odds. The wives back home are seen as no less brave than the husbands they sent off to war--and while this is an admirable point to make, the sentimentality can be a bit hard to swallow. However, the mushy moments do give viewers some relief from the relentless gunfire and gore--relief not available, of course, to the men on the battlefield.

In 1965, no one thought Vietnam would turn into such a protracted and disastrous war. If a film such as We Were Soldiers had been made then--showing the actual carnage, the determination and skill of the enemy, the dangerously dense and unpredictable terrain--one cannot help but wonder if it would have made a difference. The questions raised by We Were Soldiers resonate today, which make it a more important film than it might have been at some other time.

--Shirley Sealy