When I was asked to pick a military film for review for Father’s Day, there was one film that popped immediately into my mind, and that was Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers. We Were Soldiers is based on the book We were Soldier Once …and Young by LTG (ret) Hal Moore and journalist Joseph Galloway and recounts the first major ground battle of the Vietnam War in 1965. Unlike other films about the wartime experience, it touches on the themes of fatherhood in a number of ways.
Early in the film, we meet Lt. Col. Harold (Hal) Moore portrayed by Mel Gibson, traveling with his wife (Madeleine Stowe) and kids to their new home on Fort Benning, Georgia. Moore is shown as a strong and involved father who lovingly interacts with his kids, helping them settle into their new quarters on base. Moore must prove to his family and his unit, that he has what it takes to lead the Army into a new age of warfare.
Moore has been tasked with helping implement the Air Cavalry concept, a revolutionary approach to battle involving a large combat unit that moves exclusively by air, relying on a new kind of cavalry mount, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, which came to be known affectionately as the Huey. Present at the Huey’s role in the Air Calvary’s birth, Moore is a founding father to the new “Air Mobile” concept. He may not have designed it, but he certainly brought it into the world on the battlefield. (And aren’t fathers the ones who raise their children, regardless of biology?)
The audience then gets to see Hal Moore in another paternal role, one that we see repeatedly, as a firm but caring commander. His officers are in their early 20s, while many of the troops under his command are still teenagers. Moore’s concern for all his men resonate in scene after scene — during periods of training for war and in battle, and in the moments in between.
Director Randall Wallace focuses on Moore’s interest in and involvement with some of his key subordinates, in particular, – 2nd Lt. Jack Geoghegan, portrayed by Chris Klein – who incidentally, becomes a father himself shortly before deploying for Vietnam. Moore also has a filial relationship with Sgt. Maj. Plumley, a crusty and implacable stalwart non-com embodied with a jarring strength and rigidity by Sam Elliot. Though it’s clear that Moore is the commander, when he’s rocked by the overwhelming surge of the enemy forces, it is Plumley who provides guidance, reminding Moore that his actions will be his testimony.
Faith is its own character in this film and is revealed in a personal, intimate way. Moore and Geoghegan bond through their common faith, illustrating a theme that’s close to Gibson’s offscreen personna as a devout Christian. Moore is able offload much of his fear and anxiety in battle into the hands of a greater power, allowing him to focus his attention, intention and creativity on the struggle at hand. Moore’s portrayal by Gibson personifies the principle that courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act in spite of it.
While the men fight against the NVA in Vietnam, they are also fighting for each other and the families they left behind. Throughout the film, we are reminded of who Moore and his men have left behind. In the absence of their husbands, the wives bond to take on additional roles within the larger military family, with Moore’s wife courageously stepping into a leadership role. Moore continues to fight until the last moment to ensure his men and their fallen are finally returned home. As the father figure of the unit, he waits until every member of his team is airlifted from the battle before he finally steps off of the battlefield.
In more ways than one, We Were Soldiers was an easy choice for Father’s Day; it’s a reminder that in times of polarization and conflict, there are figures like Hal Moore, who emerge and rise to the challenge of the moment. It is an encouragement that we should keep in mind as we observe this notable holiday. We should honor all the fathers who serve or have served.