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War Torn

We Were Soldiers wants to be a pure battle flick, but politics and Mel Gibson keep stealing center stage; Borstal Boy punishes the audience.

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Bombs away: Barry Pepper, left, as Joe Galloway and Mel Gibson as Harold G. Moore in We Were Soldiers.  

The Vietnam-themed We Were Soldiers, like the recent Black Hawk Down, presents itself as a "pure" war movie unencumbered by politics or the usual star turns. But politics intrudes anyway, the film does indeed have a star, Mel Gibson, and he is far from self-effacing. Having already made Gallipoli, Braveheart and The Patriot, he appears to be on a personal crusade to fight in all of history's wars. Writer-director Randall Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and Pearl Harbor, is no stranger to corn, and he goes in for a lot of husking here. The free-form camerawork, which is supposed to provide hyperrealism in the gritty battle scenes that make up most of the movie, keeps clashing with the tear-jerk, knee-jerk dramaturgy.

Based on the book We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young, by Lieutenant General Harold G. Moore (depicted here by Gibson) and civilian war correspondent Joseph L. Galloway (Barry Pepper), the movie is about the first major conflict between U.S. soldiers and the North Vietnamese, which occurred in November 1965 when Moore and about 400 of his troops touched down at Landing Zone X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley and found themselves surrounded by nearly 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. A near massacre ensued. Much is made of the fact that Moore's regiment, the First Battalion of the Seventh Cavalry, is the same as General George Armstrong Custer's. Before Moore embarks for battle, we see him -- in between being a super-affectionate husband to his wife, Julie (Madeleine Stowe), and a loving daddy who leads his cuddly brood in prayer à la Patriot -- poring over accounts of Custer's last stand. Although the film strives for evenhandedness in its depiction of the North Vietnamese, Wallace can't resist playing cowboys-and-Indians anyway. And his idea of evenhandedness is to cook the Vietnamese soldiers in the same corn oil as the rest of the film; and so, for example, we're given the obligatory shot of the scared combatant with a photo of a pretty girl tucked away in his diary. You can be sure that photo will make a reappearance.

We can also guess that the ID bracelet of a newborn baby, worn by the baby's father, Second Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan (Chris Klein), will provide a somber payoff, and that Moore's second-in-command, the gruff, old-school Sergeant Major Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott), will stick with his .45 pistols in battle instead of M-16 rifles. (For that cowboy effect.) Wallace can't resist showiness, even if it doesn't make sense. For example, he periodically cuts to scenes of the soldiers' wives at Fort Benning as they receive the news, initially delivered by a taxi courier, of their husbands' deaths. These sequences are the most chilling in the film, but then Wallace wraps up the movie with a moment in which Julie is aghast at the apparent arrival of a telegram informing her of her own spouse's demise. But instead of a telegram, it's Moore arriving by taxi. My question is: Wouldn't this devout family man have called ahead to let everyone know he was heading home?

Movies about real-life warfare and heroism and sacrifice have to be held to the same standard as movies about imaginary conflicts. To do anything less would be disrespectful to the men and women who endured the events in this film. We Were Soldiers is fitfully effective as a battle movie, and Mel Gibson does his rugged best to take center stage without seeming to. But the movie is self-righteous in a way that's frequently unseemly. Is it un-American to pick this movie apart? The people who made this one seem to think it's our civic duty to applaud.

In Borstal Boy, loosely based on Brendan Behan's memoir and starring Shawn Hatosy, the young Irish scamp is generally so well-behaved that you spend much of the movie trying to spot telltale traits of the legendarily raucous, poetry-spouting, Guinness-chugging writer he would become. This portrait of the artist as a young man leaves out the artist; what we get instead is a fairly conventional rendering of Behan's three years at an East Anglia borstal, a reform school for juvenile offenders, where he was sent at the age of 16 after being nabbed in Liverpool with explosives provided by the IRA. The point of the movie, which was directed by Peter Sheridan, is that Behan wasn't really a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, and that the borstal experience tenderized his hatred of the British. None of this violates the letter of Behan's book, but missing is its spirit, its ribald, full-throated humor. Sheridan has wanted to make a movie about Behan for many years -- at one time, Sean Penn was involved -- but Borstal Boy doesn't carry the force of obsession. Sheridan has a rather dewy imagination: Behan's artistic flowering is depicted in a scene where he recites his Gaelic poetry to the adoring daughter (Eva Birthistle) of the borstal's benevolent governor (Michael York); his bisexuality is dramatized in tentative, smoochy scenes with fellow offender and all-around good guy Charlie (Danny Dyer), who's English and Jewish.

In reality, Brendan Behan left the borstal in 1941 only to return to jail after shooting at a police officer in Dublin, and this was not the last time he was imprisoned. Sheridan's Behan, on the other hand, seems charted for another course entirely; returning to Ireland during wartime, he ambles into the mists like someone who has a rosy future all mapped out for him. The rosiness isn't meant to be ironic; we are not supposed to think of the rages and contentious fame that ensued before Behan died at 41 after collapsing in a Dublin bar. Behan's coming-of-age, as depicted here, is intended as a balm to the writer's memory. For all its triteness, Sheridan's sentimentality has its poignancy: This adolescent boy is all set up to live out a halcyon life he'll never have.

Josh Hartnett plays a winsome stud who forgoes sex during Lent in 40 Days and 40 Nights, a teen pic that sets out to demonstrate that life is about more than having sex. Inadvertently -- I think -- it ends up showing us just the opposite. As if we didn't already know.

We Were Soldiers
Directed by Randall Wallace; starring Mel Gibson and Madeleine Stowe.
Borstal Boy
Directed by Peter Sheridan; starring Shawn Hatosy.


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