While the Vietnam War remains a haunting and troubling chapter in American history, it has inspired a wide range of cinema, including some great films (Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.) We are drawn to the muddy moral dilemmas of the war. Should America have become involved? Was our objective worth the cost of so many lives? Was it a civil war that we should have left alone? What did we accomplish? Why do so many veterans tell horror stories not only about the combat with a resourceful enemy, but about the misbehavior of American soldiers?

We Were Soldiers, the new film written and directed by Randall Wallace (who wrote Braveheart), may be distinguished as the Vietnam film devoid of any politics. It stands out from the pack of dark, cynical, and bleak portraits of the war, focusing on the virtues of men who will follow orders bravely. We watch the heroic Colonel Hal Moore lead a group of youngsters into the first major land battle in Vietnam, the bloody and chaotic disaster in the I Drang, "the Valley of Death." As they sacrifice their lives, these Americans look more like the heroes of John Wayne films than the frightened fighters of Apocalypse Now or the soul-searching boys of The Thin Red Line. But were they really, as the film claims, giving their lives "for their country"? Why did this battle have to happen?

The movie doesn't say. This avoidance of political details has disgruntled some critics. "Essentially, We Were Soldiers assimilates Vietnam into the Second World War," argues David Denby (The New Yorker). "It recapitulates the many movies … which portrayed the Americans as good people fighting for a just cause. Only this time no one says what the cause is. Communism is never mentioned. Neither is China or Russia, and there's no sign of … the South Vietnamese. 'I'm glad I can die for my country,' one young soldier says, his face turning white as the life drains out of him. That unlikely line indicates what [the film] believes in—dying well as an American, and making a speech about it." Jeffrey Wells (Reel.com) says the film recalls Gibson's The Patriot, this time glorifying the "invaders who want to dominate their country culturally and economically."

Others, however, praise the central lesson of the film—that however suspicious the political context, American soldiers care about each other in a way that provokes them to bravery and selflessness. This is a story about how men worked together to achieve difficult objectives, defend their honor, and defend each other. Further, many praise Wallace's respectful and even compassionate perspectives on the wives and children of the soldiers and on the Vietnamese soldiers "who died by our hand."

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Some are also impressed at the emphasis on faith. Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) writes: "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."

Religious press critics were particularly pleased with the film, largely because of its favorable portrayal of men with spiritual discipline.

Phil Boatwright (The Movie Reporter) complains about the recent proliferation of war films, but then adds, "If I were to recommend a war film, this would be the one." He praises Gibson's portrayal of Col. Moore as a passionately religious and prayerful man: "He reminded me of what King David might have been like when heading his armies." But Boatwright also cautions us, "The violence here is even more explicit [than in Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan.]. Yet, because the filmmaking is so involving you simply can't look away."

The U.S. Conference of Cathlolic Bishops' critic writes, "Despite slim characterizations and a few clichÉs … Wallace's harrowing true story depicts war with raw, graphic imagery that underscores the wrenching loss of human life as it touches briefly upon the formidable struggle to reconcile Christianity and warfare."

Ed Crumley (Preview) says, "It is a wonderful and cleansing exoneration to see the American military perform valiantly even in our most unpopular war, but the highly graphic wounds and deaths in the battle scenes are not for the squeamish."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) raves, "For mature audiences, it is a must-see movie, a great film about faith and valor in memory of the men who lost their lives in the thankless battles in Vietnam."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) writes, "A bit melodramatic at times … Soldiers has its heart in the right place, wanting to honor the memory of the men who gave their lives in what turned out to be a divisive and politically incorrect war. It is gut-wrenching to see a platoon of khakied commandos attack a hill like John Wayne or Audie Murphy, only to be unceremoniously mowed down by an enemy hiding in the brush."

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Jonathan Rothgeb (Christian Spotlight) says, "It makes clear that war, though horrible, is sometimes necessary and is fought by courageous and dedicated people. It shows clearly that God is with us always and guides us to great courage and fortitude."

Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) writes, "Wallace may very well have made the best Vietnam War film to date. In addition to the realistic depiction of war, he gives us clearly defined and compassionate characters, a look at the trying emotional times endured by the wives back home, and a hint at the poor decisions being made by American leaders unprepared for the war in which their country was now engaged."

I find myself disagreeing with most of these reviews. While I was indeed impressed by Wallace's emphasis of Moore's faith, the film's violence struck me as excessive, taking valuable screen time that could have been used to develop other characters. Sure, it's a war film, and combat is ugly. But eventually I quit thinking about the story and wondered, "How did they make that soldier's head explode so convincingly? And how did that one burn up without injuring the stuntman?" The film might have been called 101 Ways Bullets Can Shred a Soldier. At one point, Moore shouts into his radio, "It's getting pretty sporty down here!" Indeed—like a sports highlight reel of killings. Kirk Honeycutt (Hollywood Reporter) goes so far as to call the film "war pornography." Violence included merely to stir the emotions of the audience is gratuitous.

I have been criticized for defending violent films before—gangster flicks like Pulp Fiction and Miller's Crossing, and war films like Three Kings and Private Ryan, to name a few—but I only defend onscreen violence when it moves the story forward and helps develop characters. Soldiers only has one well-developed character and about a thousand brutal onscreen deaths. What Michael Elliott describes as "clearly defined and compassionate characters" seemed to me to be anonymous action figures being ripped apart—in grisly slow motion—by enemy fire, one after the other.

Saving Private Ryan has set a new standard for combat realism in war films. "Gory details" worked for Spielberg because his attention to detail extended to the soldiers' personalities and personal histories as well. Several years later, I still remember vivid distinguishing characteristics of each man in that squad. I remember their stories, what fears they overcame, and how they responded to their commander in subtly different ways. But I can't tell you any interesting anecdotes about Colonel Moore's brave boys, and I saw it just yesterday. Wallace has advanced the science of fake bloodshed, but who will come along to advance the storytelling?

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To be fair, there are three memorable performances here. In his best performance since Hamlet, Gibson is the backbone of the film. Colonel Moore is given a lot of personal details: he's devoutly Catholic, hard-working, and devoted to his wife and kids. By avoiding his trademark macho expressions, Gibson makes Moore a real character. You never see that legendary Gibson rage—you know the moment—that instant when he turns from the scene of a tragedy and rises, eyes half-closed, jaw set, ready to unleash fury with a rifle or a sword or a hatchet. Instead, he charges in and does his job amid a hail of bullets. He's riveting.

Gibson gets help from Private Ryan's sharpshooter Barry Pepper, who brings personality to the mix as a bold journalist in the film's last, long 30 minutes. But the delight of Soldiers is the legendary Sam Elliott. Elliott makes the most of the film's few flashes of humor, bringing fresh life to conventional combat scenes. Unfortunately, his scenes are few and far between.

Soldiers is being praised for portraying the struggle of frightened, grieving wives. I didn't see memorable women; I saw a bunch of actresses given nothing to do but scowl, cry, and offer small talk about laundry and babies. Most women I know would be offended by such a shallow portrayal of womanhood. As Moore's wife, the wonderful Madeleine Stowe has nothing to do but worry, wring her hands, and offer a teary-eyed gaze of sympathy to the other wives. Another of the film's many missed opportunities.

At the conclusion of Soldiers, a devastated Colonel Moore exhorts the journalist, "Tell the American people how my troopers died." Oh, We Were Soldiers definitely does that, ad nauseum. But it doesn't bother at all to tell us how they lived. If I were a wounded Vietnam veteran and somebody asked to make a film that would honor me, I would say, "Please, show something more about me than how my faced burned away."

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Hollywood is often accused—and found guilty—of presenting teen sex as a normal part of adolescence. Hollywood's figureheads often respond saying, "We're just telling it like it is." It's a classic chicken-or-the-egg dilemma—Are movies causing teenagers to believe this is acceptable behavior, or are these moviemakers merely reflecting the culture?

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Surely the answer falls somewhere between the two extremes. But the arrival of Michael Lehmann's 40 Days and 40 Nights will certainly add fuel to the fire of those who blame Hollywood. The film tells the story of a popular senior whose girlfriend breaks up with him, and he responds with a series of one-night stands. Shockingly, he finds these exchanges to be unsatisfying. So he takes a vow of abstinence … for a little more than a month. Unthinkable? The movie treats his attempt as a ludicrous idea. But do most people agree that it's well-nigh impossible for a high schooler to go a month without sex? Has sex become so cheapened that abstinence has become a joke? If this movie is reflecting the experience of today's high schooler, we're in deep trouble.

I'd like to hear from you. Are the movies reflecting the realities of the contemporary high school experience? If so, which movies are most true? Have you seen any films that show admirable high schoolers? What are they? Write me here.

The folks who made 40 Days are responding to criticism with scorn, as if to say, "Hey, relax, it's only a comedy. We're not trying to be serious." But then again the star of the movie, teen idol Josh Hartnett, was recently asked by Yahoo if he had tried going a month without sex. He laughed and said he didn't think he could do it. Yahoo, indeed. What a role model. Hartnett deflected the criticism of religious filmgoers, claiming his Catholic grandmother thought the film was funny. Is Hartnett himself Catholic? "I'm kind of an ex-Catholic. I went to Catholic school. I really kind of have minimal religion right now. I'm kind of a spiritual person, but not all that religious."

Religious press critics are, as anticipated, very displeased with the film. The U,S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says, "Snickering at the Catholic Church's teaching on pre-marital sex … Lehmann's one-joke film exploits the holy season of Lent as a cynical pretext for abstinence."

Phil Boatwright writes, "40 Days is one long sex joke aimed to arouse the viewer as much as the film's protagonist."

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) remarks, "40 Days and 40 Nights does nothing more than celebrate illicit sex by, among other things, demonstrating how intolerable life is without it. That's a boldface lie, but it's a lie that a lot of folks have given in to."

Mainstream critics dismissed the film as empty-headed. Roger Ebert gives the director Michael Lehmann some credit, saying he "has a sympathy for his characters that elevates the story above the level of a sexual sitcom. He uses humor as an instrument to examine human nature, just as he did in the wonderful, underrated The Truth About Cats and Dogs. Amazing, what a gulf there is between movies about characters governed by their genitals, and this movie about a character trying to govern his genitals." But he argues that the ending of the film is unfortunate, disappointing, and even offensive.

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Regardless of these widespread critical condemnations, the movie took second place at the box office this week. Parents, did you let your kids go see it? If so, you might want to talk to them and find out if they found it true to their own experience.

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Last week, differing reactions to the ghost story Dragonfly led me to ask readers about the ethics of ghost stories. Scripture warns us against trying to contact spirits of the dead. Yet, heroes are seen doing this all the time in the movies. Should we then avoid these movies? Or are these onscreen stories intended as symbolic tales rather than literal prescriptions for our daily lives?

Film critic Peter Chattaway writes in about two ghost-related films that impressed him—The Sixth Sense and Ponette. Sixth Sensetells the story of a troubled boy followed by frightful ghosts, but Chattaway says, "I think this film was more about overcoming fear and being open and honest in how we communicate with each other than it was about the afterlife. At least, it is on that level that the film works for me." Ponette is an astonishingly convincing account of a very young girl coping with the loss of her mother and talking with other youngsters about death. "I loved this film," says Chattaway. "Seeing the little girl try to come to terms with her mother's death was just heartbreaking." (For what it's worth, I found Ponette to be a valuable and memorable meditation as well. It changed the way I interact with children, increasing my respect for their abilities to understand and investigate the world around them.) For Chattaway, ghost stories provide opportunities for reflection "on this life, not for clues as to how the next life works."

Some Film Forum readers don't see a difference between actively dabbling in the occult and telling ghost stories. Laurie J. writes, "The more stories we tell about ghosts and how these encounters benefit the living … the more people will be inclined to try it for themselves. Satan has a very subtle way of making the bad seem good or okay, and we become desensitized to the evils around us as they become part of our lives or thinking."

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True, we should resist the Devil's influence in our minds. But can we "renew our minds" so we can discern meaning in these tales without being tempted? I know a lot of believers who value ghost stories that have never sought to contact the dead themselves. And the Bible itself gives us stories in which spirits speak from beyond the grave (Saul and the witch of Endor, Jesus speaking with Elijah and Moses, Jesus' parable about Moses in heaven answering spirits who call to him from the abyss). Don't these demonstrate that ghost stories, if carefully told, can be useful?

Laurie argues, "When the dead speak to the living, it is the evil angels that are speaking, not the actual dead person. Ecclesiastes says, 'The dead know nothing.' Even Lazarus didn't have much to say about his journeys when he was dead for four days. God has written examples for us in his word because his word is good for reproof, correction, etc … so that we don't make the same mistakes as Saul, David, Abraham, and the list goes on."

Cate writes in to say, "Actually, ghost stories have always been some of my favorite kind of stories. Then I met Christ and began to feel like I may be dishonoring him by watching them." She testifies that ghost movies leave her with "a nagging sense of guilt."

Others believe that pursuing contact with spirits is a very different affair than telling make-believe ghost stories.

Nick Alexander says A Christmas Carol is "the ultimate Ghost movie that Christians around the world have enjoyed. … There is no better example of promoting repentance and living Gospel values in a story that doesn't really mention God all that often."

Manuela Torres also says that Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol "is permeated with our Christian concepts of what is right and what is wrong. Much of the symbolism in the story pertains to what you could describe as a religious experience by Scrooge. He is forced by the ghosts to examine his past and to come face to face with that which hurt him and ultimately hardened his heart (his symbolic turning from God and his complete loss of faith). After being forced to see the fruit of his behavior (the future), he realizes that he is on a collision course with death and will ultimately die utterly alone (separation from God). Just watching the movie every year renews a feeling in my heart … that we are not alone and that we are not meant to be alone; that our feelings for, and behavior toward, one another can be a reflection of God's grace in this world."

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Laree Rudee enjoys the films Ghost and Ghost Dad as a way of affirming "our desire in this life to have [our loved ones] be safe and secure." She explains that to appreciate this sort of story, "Christians must realize it's 'pretend.'"

Doris Bookhart mentions Ghost, where the spirits of evildoers are shown "being dragged off screaming" while good people were shown "being lifted in a beautiful, peaceful brightness up into the sky."

I was surprised that two writers thought to mention Ron Howard's Cocoon, which, while not dealing directly with ghosts, showed aliens shaking off their human costumes to reveal a luminescent, spirit-like form. Jo Heiliger writes, "[Cocoon] brought a visual picture to a scriptural truth that has been helpful to me."

Scott Parsons praises The Sixth Sense, saying it encouraged him to think about some of his own past experiences and the reality of "the seen and the unseen." He also praised Stir of Echoes. Parsons argues, "I believe Christians need to be critical thinkers and should be equipped to respond with integrity to whatever they watch or are exposed to."

Randy Evans sifts through the strengths and weakness of What Dreams May Come and he finds some things that are "powerful and provocative." The film's portrayal of hell—a dark wasteland where isolated souls are buried up to their necks in mud—was a particularly troubling image to him: "Horrid … another urge to repentance for those who have eyes to see. Of course, much of it was Hollywood fluff and New Age hopeism, but I enjoyed it on many levels."

Linda LaFianza, copublisher of The Phantom Tollbooth, highlights Places in the Heart: "It's a harrowing movie, surrounded by deaths, and infidelity and hard, hard times. The thing that ultimately hangs it all together? A common faith best exemplified by the last scene, in church, where communion is being served. Everyone is there. At first, we think it's just [the heroine's] family and friends, but the camera travels to show everyone with lines—Danny Glover, who's already been driven out of town, the people who drove him out … the camera looks further back, and we see dead people … her husband … the man who shot him. There is a statement in there about death, and the communion of saints, and the passage of time, and relative importance of our petty problems that, even to this day, gives me chills. It also permanently opened my eyes to how we can be united in God's eyes despite our very big differences, a continuing source of humbleness."

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Diana Lewis takes a different approach, appealing to the importance of one's individual conscience. Perhaps some people's personal history could make them sensitive to ghost stories in a way others are not. Such people should proceed with caution, but be careful not to judge others. "Several years ago I made a promise to God. I told him I wouldn't watch any movies that portray a ghost. For the most part I have kept this promise. I believe [movies having to do with ghosts] can open doors in the imaginations and spiritual lives of people who are given the gift of seeing the 'powers and principalities.'

"I'm not saying that no Christian should ever watch a movie with a ghost in it. Some will see God in such movies. Some will experience attacks of spiritual evil. I'm saying that I'd rather look to Jesus than look to ghosts. Surely there are plenty of ways to discuss deep issues regarding our spiritual lives and the afterlife without using ghosts. Those are the ways I choose."

Diana's emphasis on the role of conscience in her decision is important. Scripture assures us that "all things are lawful" (1 Corinthians 6:12) for believers, "but not all things are profitable." We are to "take every thought captive" (2 Corinthians 10:5) and "examine everything carefully" (1 Thessalonians 5:21), glorifying God with our thoughts as well as our behavior. Rather than writing off ghost stories, which clearly have troubled but also ministered to different people, perhaps it is better to determine, prayerfully and with careful discernment, the Spirit's desire for us in everything from behavior to our choice of art and entertainment.

Next week: The Time Machine.

Related Elsewhere

Past review roundups are available in the Film Forum archives.