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GIBSON, MEL - WE WERE SOLDIERS

BY THEIR GRAVE
Just before production began in April 2001, the 79 year old Hal Moore who was to be portrayed by Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers, took Mel and the film’s producers to the graves of the fallen men under his command back in 1965. In Sydney this week, Mel Gibson recalls the dramatic moment. Andrew L. Urban reports.


Sitting at a microphone-laden table at a function room of Sydney’s InterContinental Hotel, Mel Gibson is telling the media how impressive Hal Moore is and how this film is different from other films about Vietnam “because it’s less cynical.” 

We Were Soldiers is the story of Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson), who leads his men into the first major battle of the Vietnam War at Ia Drang, in November 1965, and finds himself up against a smartly led North Vietnamese army that outnumbers his 400 men by some 5 to 1. The film is based on a book that recounts the true story of the battle of Ia Drang.

Responding to this writer’s question about what he had learnt about himself in the making of We Were Soldiers, Gibson recounts the visit to the graves of the fallen soldiers from the battle.

"It was a profound responsibility"

“Hal took us out to the graves and introduced me individually to each of the men, as if they were still there. It was a profound responsibility he laid on me . . . to honour them. I felt then the experience of war and the desperation of it. Hal let me in to a private place of his, and it was very emotional. There we were with our shades on, with the waterworks going on behind,” he says without embarrassment. He had wept for the men, but he had also wept for the tragedy of war. “As Hal says, hate the war, love the warrior…”

Writer director Randall Wallace says of We Were Soldiers; “I'm not really telling the story of any individual character, or even this individual battle. I'm telling the story of soldiers, on both sides, and not just in Vietnam, soldiers in all wars." Casting the part of Lt. Col. Moore was crucial in conveying this emotional truth, and since Wallace had worked with Mel Gibson previously on Braveheart, it was obvious to him that Gibson was the appropriate actor to inhabit Moore's character .

"I've never written a story with any actor in mind and I didn't write this with Mel in mind," admits Wallace. "It's just when I finished it, as with when I finished writing Braveheart, I looked at the story and thought, who is the actor who can capture this combination of bravery and sensitivity, who can bring his heart to the role? It was Mel Gibson" Throughout production, Wallace adds, Gibson's approach and attitude affirmed his casting instinct.

“Actors are often afraid to play heroes," says Wallace. "They know that the camera's going to tell the truth and see inside them. But a guy like Mel finds the role as he goes, and he brings so much desire and commitment to a role that he inspires everybody ." Adding that Gibson "embodies the character," Wallace points out that Moore, a career military man, and Gibson, a respected actor known for his genial disposition, have more similarities than differences.

"Mel is an absolute dream. He is so respectful of everybody who's involved, and he is the consummate professional, and both of those qualities are part of Hal Moore," Wallace says. "And even though Mel is a joyful, unrestrained spirit, which seems like it would be the complete opposite of a West Point, button-down, by-the-book guy, he's perfect for the role because in reality Hal Moore isn't really by-the-book and Mel Gibson is not so unrestrained. He's actually a disciplined actor who brings his full heart and soul to the work. No director could ask anything beyond that."

Gibson is equally as complimentary of Wallace, likening the director's leadership to that of a general in battle.

"Randy had his tactics down," says Gibson. "He was prepared, and he set an example, approaching the film with kindness and love. And he's not selfish or egotistical. He wanted our input. I'd never worked with him before on that level and it's been a very cool experience." Hal Moore, 79 years old when production began, is an engaging, forthright man not given to gratuitous compliments. He is also pleased with his cinematic counterpart, and after meeting Gibson prior to production, he visited the set frequently.

"an extraordinary man"

"We first had a long lunch together, shot the bull for about three hours, and I was very pleased that Mel took on this project," says Moore. "We met several times after that, on set and at my home in Alabama, and in the short time I've known him, Mel strikes me as being very empathetic, very perceptive, and a very quick wit."

Moore adds that after a discussion about Gibson's acting techniques, he was even more convinced with Wallace's casting choice.

"Mel and I had a little discussion once about acting and I asked him how he goes about playing all these roles and memorizing these lines, and he said, 'Memorizing is not difficult. But when I get into a role, I trust my instincts.' I liked that because that's what I have always done in my life. Whenever faced with a decision that I had to make quickly, sometimes within seconds or milliseconds, I always trusted my instincts."

Gibson, in turn, had nothing but praise for Moore, adding that by talking with him about his attitudes about the war, about battlefield commanding and about life, he really got to know the man as well as the leader.

"Hal is an extraordinary man," says Gibson. "He's got a kind of light around him. When we talked, we covered a wide range of topics, and I found him to be very interested in the fine details of things. For example, he's a real historian and has read books on all the battles. He's also the original Boy Scout, you know? He's always prepared and he always has the scenario figured out. I mean, the man never gives up. He has incredible determination, grit and willpower. The kind of battlefield commander he was, his men could either love him or hate him, and his men loved him because he loved them like they were his sons."

According to Gibson, this regard for Moore extended to those involved with the film production.
"Many of the guys on the set were in the service," says Gibson, "and even though most were too young for Vietnam, they knew about Hal's book because it's recommended to military schools as the textbook on battlefield command. So they knew what he endured and they were in awe of the man. So was I."

Playing such a complex character -a military genius with religious convictions who prayed for his own men as well as for the enemy, a brilliant strategist, and an instinctive commander -was quite a challenge for Gibson, especially since Moore was not a fictional character, but also a living, breathing hero.

"a responsibility to be accurate"

"It's an unusual thing to do a characterization based on someone who's still alive," Gibson remarks, adding that not only did he spend time with Moore, but some of the other actors got to meet the real men they were portraying. "There is a responsibility to be accurate as much as possible and to be true to the essence of who these men were. You want to make them proud, to vindicate them in a sense, because a lot of them were very badly treated when they came back from the war. In that way, it's more personal than most films. It's been very enriching and enlightening, and almost as if we've been making a moving monument to them."

Published April 25, 2002

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