2012 Film Challenge #58 - We Were Soldiers

War films are action films, I suppose. At their worst they try and do for you what other action films try to do: satisfy that deep seated human urge to see things explode. Things like bridges, tanks, submarine depots and heads.

At their best they set out to demonstrate that war is a pathetic display of humanity at its worse, in which ordinary people do unspeakable things to each other in the name of a cause beyond their comprehension.

We Were Soldiers, I think, does just that. It can stay.

It stars Mel Gibson, so you know that there's going to be no small amount of madness visible onscreen even before the air is peppered with the electric popcorn.

His character seems to see war as a very good thing. To his assembled troops and their wives he says that whilst in America they're attacked for their race or religion, in war such labels cease to matter.

He doesn't go as far as pointing out that the reason such things cease to matter is because people are generally more concerned with the abject horror and misery of man's inhumanity to man than they are with petty prejudice, but heigh-ho. Swings and roundabouts.

Mel's character also happens to be a praying man. He asks God to ignore the “heathen prayers” of his enemies and to assist him in killing them and sending them to hell.

Jesus Christ. I wouldn't be surprised if that line wasn't in the script to begin with. I suspect it may have been added at the insistence of Mel.

War, then. It's not all bad, is it? Look at the camaraderie. And the fact that nobody's being racist to each other. And aren't we having fun, flying around everywhere in our awesome helicopters?

But then the battle commences, and things get intense, graphically violent, stressful, horrifying and nauseating very quickly.

Two men splutter the same line seconds before death: “Tell my wife I love her.”

The latter, who receives some truly horrific burns severe enough to make the skin peel smoothly from his bones, had earlier sealed his fate by announcing that he had, that day, become a father.

It's hackneyed, but powerful all the same. Through featuring about 80 gruelling minutes of  prolonged battle, it draws you in to the extent that you can ignore the tropes and the flag waving.

It scores extra points in my book through not only treating the enemy as an entity in its own right (rather than just “the baddies”), but also through covering life at home as it continues whilst the battle rages.

The military wives might be lacking in strong personalities of their own, but it's nice that they're considered as being part of the whole sorry affair.

Best of all, though, is the arc of the journalist who jumps into battle with neither a helmet or a gun. I was convinced that he'd die within seconds, but instead he took pictures. Lots and lots of pictures.

It's a brilliant nod to Vietnam's status as the first war in which the media played a significant role. His hardened exhausted expression by the end, worlds apart from the inane witterings of the journalists flown in to photograph the spoils, perfectly reflects the changing attitudes to war that would be brought about by such hard-hitting coverage.

Thanks in no small part to the media's involvement, war would soon be shorn of all its romanticism and allure.

Which is perhaps why few war films from the first category were made after the 1970s.

Plenty of videogames, but fewer and fewer films.

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