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Unknown Soldiers

uke alumnus' Randall Wallace's latest war saga, We Were Soldiers, is the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan repeated over and over and over again.

The entire film is a re-enactment of a single Vietnam War battle, and as much as a battle scene works for the first five, 15 or even 25 minutes, at some point a war movie's brutal and gruesome violence has to take a breather to let us learn about the people actually doing the fighting. No chance here.

Soldiers stars Mel Gibson as Col. Hal Moore, the leader of a group of soldiers with whom the Army has decided to try out a new tactic: Helicopters drop America's finest deep into enemy territory and come back only if they need help. What results is a massacre for both the U.S. and the Vietnamese.

In a film titled We Were Soldiers, what is most disheartening is how little we learn about the actual soldiers. The only recognizable characters are those we have seen in a dozen other movies: Gibson, Chris Klein, Sam Elliot, Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper. Of the five, only Kinnear, a helicopter pilot, and Pepper, a journalist, come close to giving us a glimpse at the men behind the camouflage. They're also the only characters who are given scenes in which they show they can do more than pull a trigger.

Gibson, who directed Wallace's Braveheart script to Academy-Award winning success, shows none of the complexity of his Scottish alter ego. With seven kids and a wife back home, he has vowed to his men to be the first person to get off the helicopter and the last one to get back on. That's as deep as his character runs.

Just like their colonel, we never learn anything compelling about any of the other soldiers. To say they are faceless would be an understatement. Soldiers--both American and Vietnamese--come on screen, speak a line or two and a gunshot or grenade explosion later become casualties.

Wallace, who directed the film and adapted his screenplay from a book written by Gibson and Pepper's characters, attempts to give his heroes a little humanity by showing their wives back home.

We are introduced to the wives in one of the most ludicrous scenes ever written, in which the women sit around in a living room briefing each other on the ins and outs of the army base. At one point, one wife tells the others that the laundromat in town is strange because according to the sign, colored clothes are not allowed. The wives' reactions are just as horrified as the audience's are.

This idiotic line withstanding, the wives are just as squandered as their husbands. Once the war begins, we cut back to the home front for no more than six minutes, wasting what might have been absorbing performances by Madeline Stowe (Gibson's character's wife) and Keri Russel (Klein's character's wife).

To its credit, Soldiers succeeds where Saving Private Ryan crashes and burns, as in its effort to show that war is hell, it is able to avoid taking sides in the conflict. The last half hour of Ryan is an excruciating work of propaganda that paints the Germans as the evil Nazis and the Americans as patriotic heroes.

But Soldiers shows us the conflict from both points of view (the Vietnamese side is probably more interesting, in fact) and refuses to infuse any political undertones into its story. Instead, Wallace gives us a film that takes no chances other than to say that soldiers are heroes because they leave their families behind to go die for their country. That may be true, but if we don't even know their names, how can we care if they perish?