The 1960s were a time of peace protests, racial tensions and the loss of leaders, a precursor to a period of cynicism extending to the present day. It was also a time of war.

“We Were Soldiers” is a harrowing account of the United States’ first encounter with the North Vietnamese army at the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. The battle in this valley (lovingly referred to later on as the “Valley of Death”) lasted three days and more than 200 American soldiers died. The film is based on the autobiographical book, We Were Soldiers Once … And Young, co-authored by Lt. Gen. Harold Moore (ret.) (played by Mel Gibson), who was a lieutenant colonel at the time of the battle, and civilian photographer Joseph Galloway (Barry Pepper).

After being chosen to lead the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry – the same regiment led by Gen. George Custer at Wounded Knee – Lt. Col. Moore proceeds to train his officers for battle. Before they are called to war, Moore gives his soldiers the usual pre-war pep talk, informing them that some of them may die and that he will be the first to set foot on the ground and the last to leave. He later quips, “I wonder what Custer was thinking when he realized he’d moved his men into slaughter.”

His friend and right-hand man, Sgt. Maj. Basil Plumley (Sam Elliott) replies, “Sir, Custer was a pussy.”

Moore’s unit is doomed from the start when a third of his 400-soldier regiment is reassigned to other divisions. When they are finally sent into combat, they are ambushed, quickly flanked and outnumbered by two thousand soldiers from the North Vietnamese army. Moore vows not to leave any of his men behind, alive or dead.

The film – aptly scripted and directed by Randall Wallace (“Braveheart”) – presents characters with lives outside of the military as new fathers and devoted husbands, giving audience members something to identify with. We get a glimpse of this when we see some of these soldiers spending a little down time with their wives and children. In comparison to Ridley Scott’s characters, which appeared to be more static in last year’s “Black Hawk Down.” While I enjoyed “Black Hawk Down,” it didn’t leave me with that feeling of sadness and remorse for the fallen. “We Were Soldiers” however, hits you hard. “Dances With Wolves” cinematographer Dean Semler captures some stirring combat scenes – which are not for the faint at heart – with intensity. Combined, Wallace and Semler make the combat scenes a frightening account of what war is like.

“We Were Soldiers” is a powerful film that shows us the horrors of what soldiers face in wartime. It not only shows the United States Army’s perspective but that of the North Vietnamese army as well. Gibson plays the part of Moore with authority and the supporting cast members play their roles well. Each character learns, in his own way, the tragedies of war, whether through combat or at home.