Let's go do what we came here to do!'' Lieut. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) commands his troops in We Were Soldiers before plunging with them into one of the most savage battles of the Vietnam War. More than 200 of Moore's 450 men died in that November 1965 Ia Drang Valley combat, surrounded by about 2,000 enemy troops, who also suffered heavy losses; it was the first major encounter between American soldiers and those of the People's Army of [North] Vietnam and, we now know, only a taste of the terrible war and national soul-searching to come. And when Moore -- now 80-year-old Lieut. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.) -- told his story in the book ''We Were Soldiers Once...And Young,'' cowritten by veteran journalist Joseph L. Galloway, who was with Moore in that Valley of Death, the authors stressed the bravery of soldiers on both sides, doing what they came to do.
Randall Wallace does what he comes here to do too: The writer-director bestows honor -- generously, apolitically -- not only on the dead and still living American veterans who fought in Ia Drang, but also on their families, on their Vietnamese adversaries, and on the families of their adversaries too. Rarely has a foe been portrayed with such measured respect for a separate reality, which should come as a relief to critics (I'm one) of the enemy's facelessness in ''Black Hawk Down''; vignettes of gallantry among Vietnamese soldiers and such humanizing visual details as a Vietnamese sweetheart's photograph left behind in no way interfere with the primary, rousing saga of a fine American leader who kept his promise to his men to ''leave no one behind dead or alive.'' Nor do pauses for compassion slow down battle scenes captured by ''Dances With Wolves'' cinematographer Dean Semler and ''Saving Private Ryan'' production designer Tom Sanders with all the attention to the agony of burned and bloody flesh we've come to expect in a post-Ryan war pic. (Always grateful for instances in which expressions of specific religious faith are incorporated naturally in movies like the everyday occurrences they can be, rather than hysterically like the unidentified spiritual woowoo Hollywood usually thinks they have to be, I'm particularly refreshed by the delicacy with which Wallace and Gibson demonstrate the effect of Moore's Catholic faith on his character.)
On the other hand, such old-fashioned storytelling emphasis on virtue and bonding -- both among brothers-in-arms as well as between soldiers and their families back home -- too often becomes the filmmaker's weakness, particularly when humans speak to one another in banner-headline sentences, rather than gesture in battlefield's silent semaphore. It's no coincidence that Wallace wrote the script for ''Braveheart,'' that blue-faced, thunder-hooved Oscar-winning 1995 saga about a charismatic warrior-leader, which Gibson directed and in which he starred. Or that none of that movie's five Academy Awards went to the screenplay. ''Tell my wife I love her,'' ''I'm glad I could die for my country,'' ''I know God has a plan for me,'' and ''I'll never forgive myself that my men died and I didn't'' are among the fortune-cookie proclamations uttered by the fighting men of ''We Were Soldiers.'' (''Daddy, what is a war?'' is the cringe-maker piped by one of Moore's five little kids; ''Custer was a pussy -- you ain't,'' is the headstone reject intoned by the officer's second-in-command, a rawhide-tough coot played by Sam Elliott.)
The young actors who play Moore's men are lithe and engaging. Greg Kinnear, as risk-taking helicopter pilot Maj. Bruce Crandall, does that thing he does better and better with each role he takes, siphoning humor into a serious situation. Barry Pepper, who expertly steers war correspondent Joe Galloway's shifting course from battlefield observer to participant, is rapidly becoming the go-to guy for Gen-X combat casting. Finally, though, this is Mel Gibson's movie to win or lose. And he discharges his duties maturely and successfully -- so much so that his career is worth analyzing even after discussion about the current national interest in soldiers' tales has run its course. In a Hollywood war being waged right now by two attractive stars in their 40s, there's that dancer-with-wolves gone flat-footed, 47-year-old Kevin Costner (''Dragonfly,'' ''3000 Miles to Graceland,'' ''Message in a Bottle''), apparently outfoxed by middle age, and currently out of ammo. And there's Gibson, a road warrior who, at 46, knows himself well enough to subdivide his large personality into projects as varied as ''What Women Want'' (romantic-comedy Gibson), ''The Patriot'' (violent, weird Gibson), ''Chicken Run'' (delightfully silly Gibson), and this honorable expression of Catholic, conservative, suburban Gibson. Randall Wallace and Lieut. Col. Hal Moore are well served by an actor who fights so handsomely for the right to to be free.