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'We Were Soldiers' Tops Box Office

(LOS ANGELES) - Mel Gibson rallied the movie-going troops for ``We Were Soldiers,'' his Vietnam War saga that debuted as the top weekend film with $20.2 million.

The romantic comedy ``40 Days and 40 Nights,'' starring Josh Hartnett and Shannyn Sossamon, opened in second place with $12.5 million, according to studio estimates Sunday.

Last weekend's No. 1 movie, the vampire tale ``Queen of the Damned,'' suffered the curse of many horror flicks and tumbled to sixth place with $5.8 million. Fright films often debut strongly as hardcore horror fans turn out in big numbers, then plummet the next weekend.

Receipts for ``Queen of the Damned,'' featuring the late pop singer Aaliyah as an ancient vampire, dropped 61 percent from the movie's opening weekend. In contrast, Denzel Washington's ``John Q'' grossed $8.4 million in its third weekend and Kevin Costner's ``Dragonfly'' took in $6.8 million in its second, both down just 33 percent.

``It's not too abnormal to see big dropoffs on a horror movie,'' said Dan Fellman, head of distribution for Warner Bros., which released ``Queen of the Damned.''

``We Were Soldiers'' is the latest in a parade of war movies that went into production well before Sept. 11 but are riding a wave of patriotism since the terrorist attacks. It's a rare Vietnam movie that presents U.S. soldiers in a good light as honorable comrades in arms.

``I think certainly the Sept. 11 incident puts people more in the mood for wanting to cheer for the American soldiers,'' said Wayne Lewellen, head of distribution for Paramount, which released ``We Were Soldiers.''

About 75 percent of the audience for ``We Were Soldiers'' was older than 25. War films usually draw a heavily male audience, but women made up a strong 44 percent share of the crowds.

``I think Mel Gibson may have had something to do with that,'' Lewellen said.

Gibson stars as Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who led about 400 outnumbered American troops in the first major battle against the North Vietnamese in 1965.

Unlike such aging actors as Costner and Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose recent films have posted lackluster returns, ``Mel Gibson is an absolute rock solid star. He just continues to roll along,'' said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks the box office. ``He keeps enthralling audiences with virtually everything he does.''

``40 Days and 40 Nights'' benefited from a market fairly empty on light romances for the date crowd. Hartnett stars as a man tempted by a new woman in his life after he vows to give up sex for Lent.

The audience for ``40 Days and 40 Nights'' was about 60 percent women and was heavy on movie-goers between 17 and 25, said David Kaminow, senior vice president of marketing for Miramax, which released the movie.

``We saw this as a good weekend for romantic comedy,'' Kaminow said. ``We knew the Mel Gibson movie would probably skew a little older and saw an opportunity for the next couple of weekends for a movie that appeals to more of a female audience.''

Overall, the top 12 films grossed $81.2 million, up 8 percent from the same weekend last year.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.

1. ``We Were Soldiers,'' $20.2 million.

2. ``40 Days and 40 Nights,'' $12.5 million.

3. ``John Q,'' $8.4 million.

4. ``Dragonfly,'' $6.8 million.

5. ``Return to Never Land,'' $6.5 million.

6. ``Queen of the Damned,'' $5.8 million.

7. ``Big Fat Liar,'' $4.8 million.

8. ``A Beautiful Mind,'' $4.4 million.

9. ``Crossroads,'' $4 million.

10. ``The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,'' $3.1 million.

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