RETRO ACTIVE: Red Dawn (1984)

From GreenCine Daily; crosspost courtesy of The Political Film Blog

by Nick Schager

[This week’s “Retro Active” pick is inspired by the
North Korean-centric remake Red Dawn.]

Of all the places to invade America, Colorado—cutoff from any reasonable air or naval support—would seem a pretty terrible choice. But don’t tell that to Red Dawn, John Milius‘ eminently ridiculous time capsule of Cold War paranoia and teenybopper play-acting, which finds small-town Colorado overrun by Russian and Cuban soldiers. The sight of paratroopers landing outside a high school classroom window is the sole iconic image mustered by Milius’ film, which otherwise details, with dreary and unearned self-seriousness, the efforts of a local group of kids to hide in the mountains, school themselves in the ways of resistance, and then fight back against the invading commie hordes as the Wolverines (a name taken from their high school football team). Thus, the fate of American sovereignty rests in the hands of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey, who along with a few other nondescript twerps co-opt Latin America guerilla tactics in an adventure that—either laughably or insultingly, depending on your vantage point—embraces the role-reversal fantasy of America as the righteously subjugated underdog forced to battle back against tyrannical oppressors.

Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen: two reasons for the Red Army to fall apart. O yea.

Furthering that bizarro-universe situation is the fact that the nominal commander of the communist invaders is a Freddie Mercury-lookalike Cuban named Bella (Ron O’Neal) who repeatedly expresses confusion over how to operate now that he’s not the insurgent, but the aggressor—a notion that reaches its hilarious apex during the film’s climax, when Bella writes home to his wife that he misses her, hates the frigid cold of Colorado’s winter (a sentiment that would no doubt be ridiculed by his Russian comrades!), and is morally lost without a revolutionary cause driving his actions. This upside-down fairy tale would be more tolerable if it were played with at least a bit of self-conscious humor, but no, Red Dawn is all solemn posturing and speechifying, most of it done by a cast of young Hollywood up-and-comers who carry with them not a shred of believable gravity. Milius and co-screenwriter Kevin Reynolds don’t flesh out these kids as three-dimensional characters, but rather as stock types with predefined roles—the brooding leader (Swayze), the loyal brother (Sheen), the tragedy-damaged loose cannon (Howell), the tough chicks (Thompson and Grey) —whose main function is to flip-flop between acting battle-hardened and traumatized.

Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson bravely fighting imaginary Russkies.

Early on, Swayze and Sheen find their father (Harry Dean Stanton) in a reeducation camp, where the elder—before hilariously exhorting them to “Avenge Me!” —tells them that, no matter what happens, they shouldn’t cry. It’s advice that goes unheeded, as there’s endless male weeping in Red Dawn, with everyone bawling after another member of their clan is killed, thereby turning the entire proceedings into some sort of unintentional Big Boys Do Cry comedy. Milius’ story is concerned with the loss of innocence suffered by his protagonists, who are forced to assume adult responsibilities and roles until they can lie down and die near a public park swing set, a symbol of youth finally regained. The problem, however, is that amidst such a ludicrous The Commies Are Coming! scenario, this portrait rings ridiculous, especially given the Breakfast Club-style characterizations on display. Swayze’s tormented alpha-male routine is the silliest of the bunch, all over-the-top agonized screaming, but it’s almost matched by the performance of Powers Boothe as a downed American fighter pilot whose grizzled-vet jadedness merely confirms that both kids and adults alike behave like overwrought G.I. Joe phonies in this Us-vs.-Them universe.

John Milius: A classic display of lifetime rightwing infantile psychosis. Not even sophisticated people are exempt. Reality and truth are there to be disregarded at will. Thinks the remake is a dumb idea, and only on that, we agree. —Eds


When not giving the teenage set a Rambo-style saga to call their own—replete with numerous sequences of the Wolverines attacking Russian soldiers and bases with a skillfulness that’s out-and-out absurd—the film also doubles as a bit of unvarnished right-wing propaganda. In Red Dawn, the 2nd Amendment is what allows the kids to resist occupation—note the “They Can Have My Gun When They Pry It From My Cold, Dead Fingers” bumper sticker—and triumph is ultimately achieved through old-school mountain-man camping and hunting in the glorified natural splendor of Arapaho National Forest. With Jeremiah Johnson as their patron saint, the Wolverines are homegrown militiamen whose survivalist skills prove vital and valiant, even when they go loony like C. Thomas Howell and gun down a friend-turned-traitor—an act that’s justified because the victim in question was a wimpy class president, not a venerated jock like Swayze and Sheen. It’s all so much nonsense, even with the participation of the usually dependable Stanton and Ben Johnson (as a Wolverine benefactor). And it’s undone by not only the unbearable affectation of its cast, but by the fact that, ultimately, a world with these kids as heroes seems less palatable than Russian occupation, which at least involves art houses showing nothing but Sergei Eisenstein‘s great Alexander Nevsky.

Nick Schager writes film critiques for Rotten Tomatoes, Slantmagazine and other venues.

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3 thoughts on “RETRO ACTIVE: Red Dawn (1984)

  1. It sounds like you didn’t particularly care for the 1984 Red Dawn. This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard that it’s very right-wing and jingoistic, but I’ve also heard it’s a cult classic, so I think I’ll check it out anyway. It’s available from DISH Online, which has thousands of movies that will stream to my computer, so I’ll be able to watch it whenever it’s convenient for me. That will be helpful since I work odd hours at DISH and have a hard time catching whole movies on TV. Hopefully I enjoy it more than you did.

    1. Dear Candy: I think you miss the point about this critique. We are not primarily interested in critiquing movies from the point of view of whether they are a load of fun or not, but from the standpoint of whether they carry submerged messages and values which are poisonous to our society and the world. A movie with a lot of lies and bang-bang and explosions, that cynically adulterates history, for example, like many action films, can be a lot of fun to some but what they sell the audience is a fantasy that leads many young men to think it’s fun and correct to go around kicking and punching and shooting because it’s fun and sexy. Or that violence is sexy and all human problems should be resolved that way—with little consequence for the perpetrator.

      What people see on the screen influences the way they see reality. RED DAWN is a stupid RIGHTWING FANTASY. It came out at a time when the world was constantly on the brink of a possibly even a nuclear war. To inject more ignorant hatred for “the other” at the time was irresponsible at best, like throwing fuel on the fire, and besides, the whole premise of the movie is absurd, actually idiotic. The US had at the time and has had all the time throughout the 20th century to this day ABSOLUTE overwhelming superiority in weapons and defenses over any possible opponent or combination thereof. Our military has more machines and expensive toys than ALL other armies and navies and air forces of the world put together even a commercial carrier like Fed Ex has more cargo planes than the French Air Force), and we are also practically an island with two weak nations on either side, a huge, heavily armed population of more than 300 million, and huge oceans forbidding any sort of land invasion.

      Any military strategist can tell you that the very notion of someone thinking of invading America is an insane joke. The ONLY force hat “could try” to invade America and hold it hostage is the US armed forces…and even then I don’t think it would work. That was not the case with France, for example, or Russia, which were repeatedly invaded, by land, by Germany, as you know, something impossible in the case of the US.

      So remember fun in movies is one thing and their social message another. The former may be OK but the second can be poisonous in underhanded ways, foment wars and divisions in the human family—the way big lies always operate—and therefore it is on that basis that such productions have to be judged.

      —The Editors

      1. I did manage to watch Red Dawn last weekend, and I can definitely see how it could be interpreted like that. However, the lack of realistic basis for the film (it is absurd that the Soviets could have invaded the U.S. in that way) didn’t particularly bother me, and I don’t think the movie made violence look sexy. But the movie is very xenophobic, and played on the public’s fear during the Cold War. I can understand why you feel that the movie doesn’t portray a positive social message, and isn’t a useful contribution to society.

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