Jeff Jensen
March 08, 2002 AT 05:00 AM EST

The U.S. Army Training Base at Fort Hunter Liggett is a vast expanse of rolling hills, dense forests, and gurgling brooks — an idyllic preserve of unspoiled California. But there’s a dell deep within its interior that can pass for the grassy scrub jungle that is the Ia Drang Valley, site of one of the most savage battles in the Vietnam War. Here, on a scorching afternoon last April, the cast and crew of Paramount’s We Were Soldiers have come to re-enact that brutal clash.

Lying prone in the coarse grass are two dozen young Hollywood bucks, decked out in Army drab and equipped with M-16s. The sun beats down as they await the order from their director, Randall Wallace. Surveying the scene from under the brim of his Panama hat, the tall, toned Wallace calls for action. The eruption of weaponry rings like a choir of sledgehammers. Adding to the cacophony are the scores of squibs buried in the soil that are popping like firecrackers and kicking up dirt to simulate return fire. In the middle of this melee, Mel Gibson — as commanding officer Lt. Col. Hal Moore — is screaming orders: Calm down! Understand the situation and communicate clearly! Suddenly, Gibson spots a North Vietnamese soldier sneaking up behind him. He pivots and shoots. Stage blood spurts out of the enemy actor’s back, spraying the grass. It will remain there for days, a sticky, crusty, crimson puddle.

Finally, Wallace waves his arms: Cut. Gibson, surging with adrenaline, unleashes a bellowing war cry: ”YEAH!” But the drama isn’t quite over. Sprinting off the battlefield is actor Josh Daugherty. During the firefight, a rifle casing has found its way inside his uniform. ”Those f — -ers are hot,” Daugherty yelps, peeling off his olive shirt. His back is flushed tomato red, dotted with a few white welts. Wallace places a proud hand on the actor’s shoulder as he’s treated with Lanacane. ”Son,” says the director, ”you just earned your close-up.” Daugherty grins sheepishly. ”Man,” he says. ”I just hope this story can help me get my girlfriend back.”

Wallace laughs, his assistants groan, and Gibson, inexplicably, comically, belches. It makes for a light, Hollywood moment — incongruous for a $75 million production that unabashedly aspires to be neither light nor Hollywood.

Like the 1992 memoir on which it’s based (We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, by Moore and photojournalist Joseph Galloway, who covered the battle), the film — which also stars Sam Elliott, Greg Kinnear, and Barry Pepper — chronicles the three-day siege at Ia Drang in November 1965, when Moore and the 450 Army rangers he led on a mission into the valley were ambushed. More than 200 U.S. soldiers were killed, and Moore walked away from the battle forever grief-stricken over leading his men to slaughter.

Wallace, who last directed 1998’s The Man in the Iron Mask and penned the script for Pearl Harbor, discovered the book in 1994. At the time, he was earning buzz for his screenplay for Braveheart, which would become an Oscar-winning triumph for Gibson. ”I was just taken by the tale — the blood, the sweat, the immediacy,” Wallace says during a break in filming. On the monitors, footage from yesterday’s labor: six vintage Huey helicopters, pounding the hills with howitzer machine guns. ”I just knew it had to be a movie.”

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