Let there be no doubt that veteran actor Sam Elliott was the perfect choice to portray gruff, no-nonsense Sergeant Major Basil Plumley in the upcoming Vietnam drama We Were Soldiers (opening March 1). Case in point: At the film's Feb. 10 junket, the 57-year-old thesp appeared to still be playing the part!

Asked to weigh in on a number of topics — everything from the impact Sept. 11 has had on military movies to actors goofing off between takes (regarding the latter, big surprise, he's not a fan of it) — Elliott hardly minced words. But the popular TV cowboy (The Shadow Riders, The Yellow Rose) was at his most animated when discussing America's current war on terrorism.

"To be honest, I think we all got real soft," he asserts. "And it's one reason I am as passionate as I am about this war. I think we took all those guys for granted like we've taken a lot of other stuff for granted in this country for a long time... We're so f---ing arrogant, thinking, 'Nah. It's never going to come here.'"

Elliott hopes Soldiers will provide a similar wake-up call about what went down in the early days of the Vietnam War — specifically the grisly Valley of Death battle that found 400 U.S. troopers surrounded by 2000 North Vietnamese soldiers. "This is an opportunity for all of us to reconcile the wrong that was done to these guys," he reasons. "It's also kind of an opportunity for me to reconcile the personal guilt that I have for feeling that I kind of fell short in fulfilling my military obligations by going into the National Guard."

And while some are suggesting that the patriotic spirit sweeping the U.S. has boosted such war-themed projects as Black Hawk Down and HBO's Band of Brothers, Elliott hopes Soldiers — which stars Mel Gibson — doesn't get "buried in the whole big hubbub about what's going on post-Sept. 11. That would be a disservice to the guys who fought in [Vietnam]. There's a whole common denominator about war, but I just truly feel that this is something we need to deal with in this country."