We Were Soldiers

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A 2002 movie set in the Vietnam War focusing on the Real Life campaign of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry (cavalry with helicopters not horses that is) in the Ia Drang valley in 1965, the first major battle between the United States and North Vietnam. Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) has to lead a batallion of 400 American soldiers against a force of 2,000 North Vietnamese troops. Notable in that, unlike most films about The Vietnam War, it portrays both sides sympathetically and nobly.

Tropes used in We Were Soldiers include:
  • Ace Pilot: Bruce "Snake Shit" Crandall and his right-hand man, Too Tall, are UH-1 Huey pilots, who fly in and out of heavily contested landing zones to drop off troops and supplies, and to collect the wounded.
  • Acrophobic Bird: Some of the American planes seem to be flying in a lot lower than is strictly necessary for delivering air support. Air-dropped bombs typically have a blast radius measured in hundreds of feet, which especially includes the area directly above where the bomb lands.
    • In Real Life, at least one of the American pilots met his end this way: fragmentation from a bomb dropped below the minimum safe altitude flew back up and hit his plane, causing it to crash.
    • Evidently, his practice of invoking this trope in a transport helicopter is what earned Major Bruce Crandall the nickname "Snake Shit". Justified in this case, as flying at low altitude and high speed is a popular method of avoiding anti-aircraft fire (known as "Nap-Of-The-Earth").
  • Adaptation Distillation: From book to movie, there are noted historical differences between the two, supposedly to make a more condensed product for the movie. Even the title fits the trope. The book was originally called We Were Soldiers Once...and Young.
  • Agony of the Feet: Private Godbolt ends up with some nasty blisters on his feet during training.
  • Apron Matron: Julia Moore, who is a very queenly Team Mom to all the Girls back home at the base.
  • Awesome McCoolname: Sergeant Savage.
  • Badass Bookworm: When Hal arrives on base he is carrying a stack of books so heavy as to make any proper nerd drool.
  • Badass Grandpa: Sergeant Major Plumley. Don't you dare tell him that.
    • Before that Hal lampshades this when brings up a folkloric tale claiming that in the days of Crazy Horse (the opponent of the old Seventh Cavalry of course), every veteran Sioux warrior was called "grandfather."
  • Bash Brothers: Lieutenant Geoghegan and Private Godbolt end up becoming quite the team on the battlefield. They both die after Geoghegan tries to carry mortally wounded Godbolt to safety.
  • Battle Epic
  • Bearer of Bad News: The taxi driver, and later, Julia Moore.
  • Benevolent Boss: Lieutenant Geoghegan, who makes a point of making a soldier take off his boots so he can inspect his feet for blisters when he sees him wincing while marching, and reminding the other men to do the same.
  • Body Horror: The film shows the horrifying effects of napalm when a canister is accidentally dropped on a group of American troops.
  • California Doubling: Apparently, northern California is a dead ringer for Vietnam.
    • Truth in Television. The Ia Drang Valley looks a lot like the filming location. Not all of Vietnam was jungle or city.
  • The Captain: Moore.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Moore, as noted above, is the father to his men type. Plumley is there to kick them in the ass whenever they need it. (And sometimes just because).
  • The Cavalry: Strictly speaking, when the Lost Platoon is rescued by the troopers late in the film, they were being rescued by The Cavalry (even if it was their own unit, and even if everybody was on foot and moving slowly to avoid ambushes).
    • The Revised Ending plays it more straight with a helicopter gunship curb stomping a large portion of the NVA defenses just before Moore's bayonet charge is about to get slaughtered.
  • The Chains of Commanding: After the battle, Moore suffers a brief Heroic BSOD over the fact that so many of his men have died yet he is still alive.
  • Chekhov's Minigun: Before the training sequence, the officers of the soon-to-be 7th Cavalry are seen standing around a minigun on a table. The minigun makes its appearance later during the aformentioned Gunship Rescue.
  • Colonel Badass: Hal Moore
  • Combat Breakdown: One engagement between the Lost Platoon and a group of North Vietnamese soldiers devolves to a desperate brawl, with one American soldier beating a Vietnamese troop to death with a helmet.
    • Another, less extreme example is when the North Vietnamese overrun the Americans' lines and briefly end up fighting Moore and his officers in their own headquarters, with the wounded American soldiers that had been awaiting medevac now fighting the enemy soldiers at point blank range. The Americans end up having to call an air strike on their own position to force the North Vietnamese off (granted, they didn't mean for the strike to land quite as close as it ended up - the American jets end up killing several of their own troops by mistake.)
  • Comically Missing the Point: When the officers and their wives dance and sing along to "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die" while celebrating getting to go off and fight in Vietnam.
  • Communications Officer: On both sides, we see radiomen with backpack radios passing information back and forth. Several end up getting killed throughout the movie.
    • Of particular note is Colonel Moore's personal radioman, who got that job during training after he managed to tune in on a radio transmission from a firefight happening in Vietnam, on the far side of the world. This scene was Truth in Television, due to a quirk of UHF radio signals. The signals can actually bounce off of the upper atmosphere, effectively bank-shotting the signal around the Earth.
    • Another radioman had the primary responsibility of calling in artillery strikes and air support. According to the book the film was based on, he was a fighter pilot who was trained to serve specifically in this role.
  • Cool Guns: Discussed and subverted. Colonel Moore seems to like the new M-16 rifle. Sergeant Major Plumley thinks it feels too much like a toy compared to the weapons he's accustomed to. So instead he decides to play the trope straight with his Colt Model 1911 handgun (he uses an M14 for a rifle, as a lot of older soldiers did at the beginning of the war). He picks up an M-16 only once in the entire movie to hand to the photojournalist to defend himself with during a fierce NVA attack.
  • Dare to Be Badass: Sgt. Major Plumley to Joe Galloway, who he finds trying to take pictures of the battle while also lying flat in the grass to avoid getting shot.

You ain't gonna get any pictures down there, boy.

  • Death From Above: The American forces invoke it with artillery, helicopters, and attack planes. Mostly used against the North Vietnamese troops, but a mis-aimed napalm bomb leads to Nightmare Fuel and Body Horror.
  • Death Notification: Due to the Rule of Drama, we see the notices being delivered as each soldier dies in combat, although in reality there was likely several weeks of delay. Also Subverted; the notices are delivered by a taxi cab driver, who really isn't enjoying the experience.
    • Julia Moore and Barbara Geoghegan take it upon themselves to deliver the letters themselves, both to save the taxi driver from some of the anguish and out of a sense of responsibility to their neighbors.
    • Subverted again in the film's climax, when a car with two men in uniform stop in front of Julia's house... and one of them is Hal Moore, home from the war.
  • Dirty Communist: Subverted mostly. The enemy are brave soldiers and neither side's darker behavior is shown; it is for the most part a movie about heroic badassery rather then the nastiness of the real war. Once at the beginning though they are shown shooting a wounded Frenchmen coldbloodedly and announcing bluntly that it is for the propaganda effect of killing as many as possible.
  • Ensign Newbie: One of the platoon commanders leads his men into the woods in pursuit of some fleeing NVA scouts, and end up cut off from the rest of the American troops. He is very quickly killed attempting to lead his men back to safety, leaving Sergeant Savage in charge of the cut-off platoon.
  • Fatal Family Photo: One per side.
  • A Father to His Men: Hal Moore, and the North Vietnamese commander.
    • A Mother to her Women: While Hal is providing leadership in battle, Julie is doing so to the army wives at home.
  • Foreshadowing: During their training, Moore, wanting to make a point, declares that one of the platoon commanders, Lieutenant Herrick, is now "dead", and that the platoon sergeant next to him is now in command. He then declares the platoon sergeant dead, because he hesitated. Sergeant Savage takes charge and orders the men to get off the chopper. Once the fighting starts, two of the first men to be killed are Lieutenant Herrick and his platoon sergeant, leaving Sergeant Savage in command of the platoon.
  • Genre Savvy: Both Colonel Moore and Sergeant Major Plumley, due to their lengthy military experience.
    • Moore arrives at a section of the American Line that's too quiet. When asked what's wrong he explains, "There's nothing wrong here...except that there's nothing wrong..." He orders his troops to fire a few shots at anything they see that looks suspicious, inciting a massive gunfight as the hidden Vietnamese troops return fire.
      • Another example of Truth in Television. This strategy of flushing out the enemy with random gunfire is called "The Mad Minute"
  • Gentleman and a Scholar: Lt. Colonel Moore holds an advanced degree from Harvard and is an astute student of military history, but both the testimony of his fellow officers and his subsequent conduct on the field prove that is is not an out-of-touch "intellectual" (as one officer contemptuously puts it). True to form, he is an excellent father and husband.
    • While Moore had indeed undertaken graduate studies at Harvard, he had also graduated beforehand from West Point (where he got his Bachelor's Degree). As well, Moore had served in combat during the Korean War and won the Bronze Star Medal there.
  • Good Cannot Comprehend Evil: One of the officer's wives sees a laundrymat with a sign that says "Whites only" and think's it is for color of clothes. She is shocked to learn that it means that only white people's clothes are good enough for it and a friend of hers whose husband is risking his life in part for that town cannot wash her clothes there.
  • Good-Looking Privates: When the soldiers are in their Class A uniforms at the ball before shipping out.
  • Glory Hound: While observing their troops during a training exercise, Moore makes note that Lt. Geoghegan is a great leader, while Plumely points out another lieutenant who's yelling at his men, and says that that LT just wants to win medals.
  • Greater Need Than Mine: A wounded soldier gives up his spot on a chopper to a more seriously wounded soldier saying he'll get on the next one. While patting the other soldier as the chopper is about to leave, he's shot and killed.
  • Gunship Rescue: The American forces use liberal amounts of air support to fight off the NVA offensive. Also plays a key role in the final battle, when an actual gunship saves the American troops from a prepared ambush.
  • Hopeless War: Even though the US troops win the battle, Moore foreshadows a few times during the film the real life issues the US will end up facing in Vietnam and ultimately prevent them from achieving victory. Lt. Col. An also says something at the end of the movie along the lines that a lot of people will die to land both sides in the same place they were in before (although that could be extrapolated to saying that this is the end-result of all wars ultimately).
  • Iconic Item: Galloway's camera and rifle, Sergeant Major Plumley's M1911, the French bugle, the NVA trooper's diary, and Lieutenant Geoghegan's bracelet.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Joe Galloway, hitches a ride in a Huey headed to the battle so he can get a first-hand look at what's going on.

Lt. Colonel Hal Moore: Where you from, son?
Joseph Galloway: Refugio, Texas, sir.
Lt. Colonel Hal Moore: Well, that's the first thing I've heard today that makes any sense.

Sgt. Major Plumley: Sir, Custer was a pussy. You ain't.

  • The Laws and Customs of War: Hal finds a journal with a woman's photo on an NVA corpse. Latter we see it in the hands of the same woman presumably delivered by the Red Cross.
  • Leave No Survivors: During the film's prologue.
  • Meaningful Echo: Sergeant Savage's greeting to Sergeant Major Plumley early in the film: "Good Day, Sergeant Major!" When he first uses it, Plumley's response is less than friendly. Later variations on the greeting result in heavier doses of spite. Finally, towards the end of the film, Sgt. Savage is standing and looking around at the battlefield, surrounded by dead and wounded, himself covered in dirt and blood after having spent the night with his platoon cut off and fighting for their lives. Sgt. Major Plumley looks him in the eye and says "Now it's a nice day, Sergeant Savage."
  • The Men First: Moore refuses an order from his superiors to evacuate just him, telling them that he will not abandon his men.
    • Also, just as he promised earlier in the movie, he is the first man to set foot on the battlefield and the last one to leave at the end.
  • Mood Whiplash: See Prayer of Malice
  • More Dakka: The point of the "Mad Minute," mentioned above under Genre Savvy. If you suspect the enemy is hiding somewhere, perforate that somewhere with sustained automatic fire.
  • Nom De Guerre: Amongst the Air Cavalry pilots, we have Too Tall and Snake Shit[1]
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Moore promises his men that "Dead or alive, we will all come home together."
  • Not So Different: US Army and North Vietnamese Army.
    • Also lampshaded by Moore when he is praying to God for protection for his troops, acknowledging that the North Vietnamese troops were no doubt making similar prayers.
    • Several scenes emphasize this: both Lt. Col. Moore and Lt. Col. An look up at the same moon; Moore predicts the pattern of the NVA attack because it was how he would do it, and in the climactic bayonet charge An's radioman is killed by his American counterpart. Also Jack Geoghegan's wife reading the letter that Moore sends her is played alongside the woman whose photograph is in the journal of the vietnamese soldier who tries to bayonette Moore as she reads his journal.
  • Now You Tell Me: Colonel Moore's radio operator calls Crandall's helicopters to tell them they have a hot LZ. Crandall receives this message as his Hueys are being peppered with small arms fire.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Moore laments about the actions of US President Lyndon B. Johnson prior to being sent to Vietnam, which will leave his battalion understrengthed.
  • Oh Crap: When the American brass hear Moore calling out "Broken Arrow", they realize that the situation is much much worse than they thought.
  • Old Soldier: Sergeant Major Plumley, in spades. He has one of the page quotes
  • Portent of Doom: Being designated as the Seventh Cavalry is the most obvious.
    • The soldiers getting on buses in the rain to head out on campaign to ominous music has an esoteric resemblance to the Death Coach of Irish Mythology.

"Oh, yes, and one more thing, dear Lord, about our enemies, ignore their heathen prayers and help us blow those little bastards straight to Hell. Amen."

  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Picking up radio transmissions from the far side of the world is very possible with UHF radios such as the ones used by many military forces, due to a quirk of signals in that frequency: they have a tendency to bounce off of one of the upper layers of the atmosphere, using it like a reflector to bankshot transmissions around the curvature of the Earth.
    • The scenes that critics complained were cheesy, corny, melodramatic or unrealistic tended to be the ones lifted directly from real life! This includes lines said by soldiers as they were dying. In the director's commentary the director himself brings this up, which makes the rather ironic point that it would have been far more unrealistic if the soldiers had said something witty or clever as they were lying dying in enormous pain with little mental faculties left.
  • Recruiters Always Lie: Discussed, in a half-joking fashion, by Sgt. Major Plumley.

Kinda makes you wish you'd signed up for Submarines, don't it?

  • Religious Bruiser: Hal Moore is a devout Catholic as well as a deadly professional soldier.
  • Retirony: Jimmy Nakayama.
  • Revised Ending: The bayonet charge in the finale never happened in Real Life. Moore's troops were reinforced by two other battalions and then evacuated before a B-52 carpet bombing strike moved in to finish off the enemy headquarters
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: The enlisted men and the NCOs (and most of the officers) are rightfully terrified of Sergeant Major Plumley.
  • Sergeant Rock: Sgt. Major Plumley
    • A deleted scene has a soldier telling his buddies a story about Plumley, whom he knew from his old unit. He describes his old platoon sergeant. Big scary dude, with scars on his face. When their new platoon leader, a 2nd lieutenant fresh out of ROTC, gets in his face about not wearing all his decorations, he goes back to the barracks, and comes back wearing only his boots, all of his ribbons and medals pinned directly to his chest, and not one but two Medals Of Honor. (The LT then promptly salutes him per military custom.[2]) The soldier telling the story then reveals this sergeant is not Sgt. Major Plumley, but works for Sgt. Maj. Plumley and is terrified of him.
  • The Seventh Cavalry: Due to the ways military heraldry works, Colonel Moore's unit is a descendant of the Trope Namer. This does inspire a bit of discussion on the parallels, leading to the quote for Last Stand.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Sgt. MacKenzie, a mournful Scottish dirge, plays over some of the more intense action sequences, including the Big Damn Gunship blasting the NVA base camp just before Moore's battalion overruns it, to emphasize the horror and sadness of the war even in victory.
  • Sympathetic POV: The NVA gets their scenes as well, and they are portrayed as normal people fighting for their own country, and not as Dirty Communists.
  • Talking Bugling Is A Free Action (Nope.)
  • Team Mom Julia and a group of the other army wives take it upon themselves to deliver the Death Notification telegrams to each other, preferring to become a hated bearer of bad news than to let their friends' hearts be broken by an anonymous courier in a taxi cab.
  • Trapped Behind Enemy Lines
  • Trial by Friendly Fire: The Americans are forced to call in air strikes on their own positions when they are nearly overrun by the North Vietnamese. While the strike swings the balance of power back their way, several American troops die or are horribly wounded when two of their own planes accidentally drop bombs on top of them.
  • Unusual Euphemism: Major Bruce Crandall is addressed by his subordinates with the less-than-dignified nickname of "Snake Shit". He refers to it as an "Affectionate Appellation" when asked about it by Colonel Moore.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: A true story from a book of Similar Name that the movie was made from. Mediated though by the fact that some of the actual people involved were on set to make sure the filmmakers were getting the spirit if not the details right (although some scenes/lines were ripped straight from reality apparently). See Adaptation Distillation above
  • War Is Glorious: Despite the gruesomeness described below, there is little of the things we would like to forget about Vietnam like terrorism, corruption, atrocity, domestic discontentment and the like. It is mostly about honorable soldiers blowing the heck out of each other.
  • War Is Hell: Particularly for Lt. Herrick's platoon, who spend most of the battle cut off from the rest of the battalion and pinned down by the enemy. Nevermind poor Jimmy.
    • Also the napalm: fire which sticks to you.
    • Another scene that reinforces this is when the helicopter full of reporters arrive after the battle. Moore and Joe are deluged with questions from the reporters, and the men can only stay silent and turn away in disgust.
  • Won the War, Lost the Peace: A deleted scene has Moore meeting with General William Westmoreland and US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara after the battle and explaining, as history showed, that this will inevitably prevent the US victory in Vietnam.
  • Worthy Opponent: The North Vietnamese Army.
    • Lt. Col. An, Hal Moore's NVA counterpart, even makes it a point to be the last to leave his bunker when Americans threaten it, just as Moore himself promised to be the last off the battlefield. When the battle's over and the NVA are policing the battlefield An notices a miniature American flag stuck in a broken tree. He holds it briefly before putting it back.
  • Villainous Valor: to no surprise. Special mention goes to the PAVN soldier who breaks through, if only for a moment, to the American command post. Moore recovers the man's diary in a Tear Jerker near the end.
  • You Are in Command Now: Sergeant Savage
    • In Real Life, something of a subversion. He was not the highest ranking man still alive amongst the platoon, but he was the only NCO near the platoon's radio operator, and he was the man who took command when the platoon's senior leadership was killed.
  1. An "Affectionate Appellation" by Major Crandall's men, referring to the fact that he flies lower than snake shit.
  2. It's a de facto rule that anyone who has won the Medal of Honor is entitled to a salute from all personnel present, regardless of rank.