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Randall Wallace: A Profile
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Randall Wallace—We Were Soldiers
Randall Wallace has been called the “least cynical filmmaker in Hollywood.”
It’s a jab that he insists is a compliment.
Wallace has a flair for the epic, in both life and art. The writer of “Braveheart” and “Pearl Harbor” and writer/director of “We Were Soldiers” genuinely believes in the bold, grand themes of heroism, conscience, and redemption that permeate his films.
And when you sit with him to talk about his own life and goals, it’s hard to imagine anything but the grand, broad strokes of his “Braveheart” hero—and direct ancestor—William Wallace.
The reality is that Randy thinks big, and no matter how hard he might try (and I doubt he does so) he can’t really help it. The fact of the matter is that at the core of his life and worldview, he writer/director is committed, at his core, to eliciting the biggest, broadest most immediate emotions from those who are paying attention. But unlike many of his Hollywood colleagues in the pursuit of the blockbuster, Wallace is also committed to identifying and celebrating intimacy, to finding moments of genuine humanity and grace—actual subtlety—in the midst of the sweeping bombast of his films.
Wallace’s most recent film, “We Were Soldiers” (recently released on DVD/Video), stars Mel Gibson as Col. Hal Moore and is on one level every bit a typical epic, post-“Private Ryan” kind of war movie. Its battle sequences are graphic, exquisitely choreographed balancing acts that carefully elicit both the horrific chaos and almost lovely science of the battlefield. And like “Black Hawk Down” (Ridley Scott’s paean to the disaster of US military intervention in Somalia in 1993) the attention to detail which Wallace brings to his battle scenes can border on fetishism.
But “Soldiers” is unique among Viet Nam movies in its insistent, deliberate focus on the intimate and universally human themes that arise in spite of, and perhaps because of, battle. Despite the fact that nearly half of the movie is a detailed recreation of one of the most devastating firefights in US military history, Wallace manages to keep the film solidly focused on the very personal struggles and details of the men caught up in this most incendiary period of recent US history—on both sides of the battle lines. (In fact, Wallace’s movie is perhaps the only American Viet Nam movie to aggressively and deliberately paint the Viet Cong as not only as admirable foes in battle, but sympathetically human, as well.) And unlike “Saving Private Ryan,” whose extended opening battle sequence was so intense that it inevitably overshadowed Speilberg’s finely drawn characterizations, the viewer walks away from “We Were Soldiers” profoundly focused on the character-making choices that the battlefield shaped in those soldiers forced to fight there. In other words, there’s not much of a political ax being ground here, of any ideological stripe.
“I'm drawn to the grand moments of revelation,” says Wallace, “both the revelation of one's true self and the revelation of mystery and majesty beyond our own imaginations.”
Because it is not fundamentally about “the war” but instead about the impact of that war on the common soldiery and their families “Soldiers” has been criticized as politically naïve; how could a movie about Viet Nam not be about the politics of Viet Nam? It’s an unfair question, really, to ask of any story teller, one motivated by the same sort of foolish propagandizing that demands every song by a Christian be only about worship or the atonement. The intimate is and ought to remain fair game—it’s really a question of the size of the lens on brings to the story.
But what that question misses is that Wallace does not deliberately avoid the political aspects of the war (Gibson’s Col. Moore, for example, makes it quite clear that the US engagement in Southeast Asia is both ill-advised and badly executed). Rather, in focusing on the “smaller” picture Wallace actually transcends the political—and finds something even bigger than the allegedly “big picture” of justice and aggression and geo-politics and US foreign policy. Indeed, Wallace’s movie is about nothing less than the struggle for the human soul.
“One of the continuing elements of that war is the refusal of people to see beyond their own politics,” argues Wallace. “All of us who went through it have a desire to justify our own action or inaction, (but) I wanted to hold forth a truth that had been buried in the politics.”
For the Duke-educated filmmaker, this is exactly the kind of epic vision—and responsibility—that drives his work. While not formally theological, Wallace’s movies are grounded in profoundly religious themes (he has a degree in religion and took courses at Duke’s School of Divinity). Not only do two of the main characters in “Soldiers” actually pray—haltingly, honestly and full of frailty—just like you and I might, they seem explicitly motivated by their faith as well.
“I can only speak from my own perspective, but I tried to perceive truth beyond my own biases,” the filmmaker told me in thoughtful, measured tones. “The urge to pray—honestly, passionately—whether in private or with his family or with his men, was powerful for Hal Moore, and, I think, true for most soldiers—the North Vietnamese included. All men facing death must spend some time confronting the ultimate spiritual issues.
”I am not trying to promote my own theology, my own dogma. I am trying to speak for the universal spiritual heart in all of us. This doesn't mean that I want to be non-specific or wishy-washy. I want to speak of the deeper truth, not argue superficial elements. I want to speak the Word that is written on the heart. I believe that when we express such a truth, others recognize it—not because we plant the truth there, but because the truth within them responds to truth.”
Wallace is also committed to finding moments of humanity and grace in Hollywood itself—a fact evidenced by his ongoing work with Habitat for Humanity. In December 2000, Wallace spearheaded “Hollywood for Habitat”, a week-long building project in Long Beach, Calif. that saw dozens of high profile movie makers—including Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Bo Derek and others whose names most wouldn’t recognize but whose power in that city is profound—working side-by-side with the working poor. For Wallace, it was less about meeting the needs of the poor as it was about the desperate need of the Hollywood community to find a way to escape the isolated, self-centeredness of their lives.
“The first time I worked on a Habitat project,” says the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, “I was overcome by how much I needed it—how much I needed to serve and to give—and realized that my colleagues needed that as well. One of the difficulties of any kind of success in Hollywood is a certain kind of isolation. When you find anyone else who shares your values, it's wonderful. By creating an opportunity for service like Habitat offers, we not only find a unique gathering place for those of like-minds in our industry—but also create an opportunity to bring colleagues to those values.”
With “Hollywood for Habitat” Wallace became a tireless champion of direct, hands-on service to the poor as a means by which Hollywood might, if not save, at least discover its soul. For the writer/director this meant that “Hollywood for Habitat” would be the least publicized “big event” in Habitat history—he wanted to ensure that the project was about genuine service, not simply a photo op. (This is, of course, admirable, but I can testify directly that it made the Habitat media staff crazy—we whose job it was to let our left hand know what our right hand is doing, and then issue a press release about it.)
“I've resisted too much publicity concerning Hollywood for Habitat for Humanity because I want to experience faith and the purity of giving,” says Wallace. “I believe it's easy to undermine faith and pervert giving when idolatry—of self or of others—comes into play. The best gifts are those made in secret. The irony is that it's difficult to lead by example if you're leading in secret.”
While editing “We Were Soldiers” last fall, Wallace was called to his family home in Virginia to be with his dying father. He was in the air on September 11 when the terrorists struck New York and Washington, and by the time his flight was re-routed, landed, and a rental car was found, Randy’s father had already died. Again, Wallace found the profoundly intimate juxtaposed against the broad strokes of the geo-political.
“The death of my father reminded me not only of the depth of any human loss, but also of the value and power of a positive human life. I feel closer to my father now, more in touch with the force of his life in mine, than I felt before he died; therefore I see his death not as a death at all. As to my work, I'm determined to live and work as he did, loving life, loving others, respecting himself, recognizing God at work in all of it.”