‘We Were Soldiers’ is a film that attempts to expose the devastation and desperation of war within Vietnam. During my essay, I will focus on the significant aspects of this cinematic interpretation of one of histories most brutal wars. Although war has several points of view, my aim will be to explore the diverse perspectives of both the Americans and Vietnamese in hope to find that the director has captured both sides equally and with realism. Ultimately, I must question whether the music, light effects and camera shots depict the moment authentically.
The opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ set a new benchmark in war films, one that ‘We Were Soldiers’ has raised to yet greater heights of goriness. It is never romanticised and purely focuses on the explicit imagery you’d expect in a war film, unlike ‘We Were Soldiers’ where Mel Gibson stars as Lt. Col. Harold Moore whose bravery and determination ensures his survival. The close-up battle scenes are not for the squeamish, particularly the images of Vietnam victims, who throughout the film are seen as the weaker side.
The film, originally a book by Randal Wallace, reflects on the general and recognisable images of war, with various close-up and point-of-view camera shots focusing on bloody and disturbing death scenes. The rapid pace of the footage we see and dramatic music we hear set the scene perfectly. This adds a sense of accretion, by the gory close-ups presumably building to a climax. We instantly recognise that the war is set in relatively modern day times because it uses explosives, gunfire and sophisticated fighter and bomber planes that imply the war is an ambush.
We are then introduced to Mel Gibson, where he faces the emotional task of saying goodbye to his wife and children. This particular scene is filmed with much silence and feels moving by the heart-stopping case of a father potentially saying his ‘final’ farewell to his family. In the background, melancholy music plays which substitutes the use of speech effectively. It is apparent to the audience that Mel Gibson’s character is unsure if he’ll return or die. Music is an aid that helps give the scene this atmosphere.
His wife pretends to be asleep so that she can avoid a sombre farewell; however when she later tries to find him, the camera juxtaposes to a shot of him already leaving. Moments like these make people’s heart sink, when they feel they are embroiled within the storyline and attached to the characters’ emotions. The final shot of the scene where we see Mel Gibson walking down the street in the distance uses a long shot, to show that the audience is left behind, and ultimately showing how Mel Gibson has to be somewhere else. We see a dark silhouette gradually decreasing in size as he walks further down the street.
After the sadness of the last scene, the following part of the film builds tension and suspense, showing soldiers arriving on buses to be escorted to war. There is a limited use of light, and a constant alarming style of music. Dim lights and ambient sound muffle the speech and imagery, with a range of close-up shots building to a climax. The sound of running feet and whistles can be heard in the distance as it builds to a sharp stop. We then juxtapose to daylight, which is a complete contrast and helps progress the film in terms of its duration.
The next scene shows the army arrive in Vietnam. Dismal music is applied to epitomize the depressive feeling within the soldiers. The scene includes slow motion effects which emphasize the slow progression of time that, for the soldiers, is time spent without loved ones. A shot of Mel Gibson’s foot landing on Vietnamese soil is shown, symbolising that Vietnams opposition has arrived. Later on in the film, the same shot is shown but in reverse, indicating that Mel Gibson had managed to survive and, as he promised his men, would be the last to leave.
Subsequently, complete destruction takes place with the camera zooming in on huge explosions, countless gunfire shots and corpses. Like many times in the film, it juxtaposes to the Vietnamese camp underground creating contrast. The loud shouting and explosions are quietened to signify the camera is underground and subtitles can be seen at the bottom of the screen when the Vietnamese speak. ‘Saving Private Ryan’, unlike ‘We Were Soldiers’ is dedicated to Captain John Miller, whereas ‘We Were Soldiers’ is dedicated to both sides of the war. The two films do have their similarities as well as differences, like both contain objects that we can recognise symbolically like the trumpet in ‘We Were Soldiers’ and a water bottle in ‘Saving Private Ryan’.
Later on in the film, the situation of war on the screen is alleviated by the camera juxtaposing to a domestic scene. The director shows Mel Gibson’s wife cleaning the house so the audience can witness how people are affected by the war and how they cope with the situation. In addition to this, we see women deliver telegrams to the wives of the soldiers. This helps the audience to see the disparity between war and back home, and both male and female reactions to death.
At the ambush scenes, lighting effects are cunningly used to distinguish night from day. We see blue light glowing on the soldiers faces so we know that is early evening. As well as this, soldiers appear to keep sentimental pieces with them throughout the war to remind us of the contrast between the masculine, fighting soldier, and his true, human feelings.
As the film evolves, we become more engaged by the increasing dramatic effects. The moment where a Vietnamese soldier suffers burns to his face intensifies his pain through the music. In ‘Saving Private Ryan’ similar techniques are used to help the audience believe that what they are seeing is real. The director uses a shaky hand-held camera effect to completely involve the audience, giving the feeling of being one of the men at the battle site. The most significant part of the battle scene is when Tom Hanks, playing the lead role in the film, stops next to a barricade and looks around to view the chaos that is surrounding him. The hand-held camera is positioned from Tom Hank’s view to deliver a clear image to the audience of what Tom Hanks is feeling and viewing.
Towards the end of ‘We Were Soldiers’, black and white images of the dead are shown one after the other, helping the audience to reflect on the lifelessness that’s left.
After these images are shown, the pace of the film slows down, and the camera begins to film from low down on the ground. Doing this show’s the audience the level at which the dead soldiers’ lie and what surrounds them.
Overall I think the film is truly realistic, although I was never there to witness what happened. It appears to be an accurate rendition; one that embraces compassion, love, death and symbolism to make the audience think as well as watch. The camera angles allow the audience to witness the war from different perspectives, whilst the variety of music is an aid to embellish the overall effect.
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