Directed by John Milius
Written by John Milius and Kevin Reynolds
Starring: Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey, Harry Dean Stanton
Tagline: A Gang of High School Kids become the Last Line of Defense
Trivia: Director John Milius required his cast to go through Eight Weeks of Military Training.
Red Dawn could only exist in 1984. The never ending standoff between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. had reached a critical mass, moving the Doomsday Clock to three before midnight (as of this writing in 2016 we have returned to three minutes before 12). Pop Culture reflected the renewed Cold War tension with a slate of movies imagining the terrifying aftermath of a nuclear war. Scientists spoke of a cataclysmic nuclear winter to follow a full exchange.
John Milus, writer and director of Red Dawn, took a beating from critics who saw the film as a right wing comic book. To a certain extent I agree, but that’s a tad too dismissive.
The late Cold War also launched entire genre of World War III fiction. Arcade games like Missile Command, Defender, and Space Invaders blended Sci-fi with Cold War imagery. The Reagan administration looked to science fiction in the infamous Star Wars program designed to deflect incoming missiles. Scores of military themed novels war gamed all sorts of scenarios.
Red Dawn is a stew of these elements with a heavy dose of revolutionary ideology added in – Americans become the Vietcong. A group of teenagers in Colorado transform into a band of fierce warriors. Milius simply converted Americans into the underdogs.
The film is well shot with strong acting from the entire cast. Filmed on location in Las Vegas, Mew Mexico, the striking cinematography of Ric Waite recalls John Ford, capturing the wide open spaces of the American West.
We get a brief prologue explaining the Soviet Union in alliance with Cuba and its Central American allies have launched an invasion of the mainland United States. In this John Birch scenario, America stands alone against the evil empire. The movie opens in a High School classroom where the teacher is giving a history lecture as Soviet and Cuban paratroopers land outside the school and start shooting everybody. The VHS box contained an image from a deleted scene showing Soviet troops occupying a McDonald’s, I remember finding that especially unsettling as a child. I had to be assured Russians would not be invading Ohio!
The Soviets build concentration camps and begin executing political prisoners. A group of High School kids take to the mountains and wage a guerrilla war against the occupiers. Patrick Swayze’s gives a sincere performance as the de facto leader. Harry Dean Stanton is effective in a scene exhorting the kids to avenge the dead (I think Harry Dean appeared in pretty much every film in 1984).
The teenagers start calling themselves as “the Wolverines” as they wreak havoc on the enemy. They team up with a grizzled Colonel (Powers Booth) who teaches them how to fight. As the film unfolds they become a formidable force.
The patriotic ethos expressed in Red Dawn cannot be denied. National Review ranked it among the most conservative movies ever made. Some have connected the rise of the American militia movements in the 1990s to the film’s popularity, groups that came under the microscope after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings. In 2004, the Special Ops operation that captured Saddam Hussein was code named Red Dawn.
However I would argue that beyond the politics there’s a basic existential idea being expressed in Red Dawn. When is it ethical to engage in violent resistance? In many ways the situation parallels occupied France. The philosopher Jean Paul Sarte wrote of the heroism and beautiful purity of the French Resistance:
[t]he resistance was a true democracy; for the soldier; as for his superior; the same danger, the same loneliness, the same responsibility, the same absolute freedom within the discipline.
The Milius script speaks to Sartre’s idea of a united political community. People of all types fighting and living together for a common cause. There’s no Lord of the Flies type power struggle, instead the kids work together as a harmonious unit. Even gender hierarchies break down: the two girls in the Wolverines (Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey) hold equal status and fight just as fiercely as the guys.
Red Dawn reduces the Cold War to a simple struggle between good and evil. Remember the the last scene in Patton when George C. Scott laments a future where technology and not people will decide fates of nations. The Cold War brought us arms races and missile gaps. Now we have drones and the possibility of robot soldiers. The boilerplate entertainment of Red Dawn dispels the complexities and expresses a classical notion of resistance.