Red Dawn (1984)



John Milius

Patrick Swayze (Jed), Charlie Sheen (Matt), C. Thomas Howell (Robert), Lea Thompson (Erica), Jennifer Grey (Toni), Darren Dalton (Daryl), Brad Savage (Danny), Doug Toby (Aardvark), Powers Booth (Andy Tanner), Ben Johnson (Mr. Mason), Harry Dean Stanton (Mr. Eckert), Ron O’Neal (Colonel Ernesto Bella), Lane Smith (Mayor Bates), William Smith (Strelnikov)

World War III

“-Soviet Union suffers worst wheat harvest in 55 years. -Labor and food riots in Poland. Soviet troops invade. -Cuba and Nicaragua reach troop strength goals of 500,000. El Salvador and Honduras fall. -Greens party gains control of West German parliament. Demands withdrawal of nuclear weapons from European soil. -Mexico plunged into revolution. -NATO dissolves. United States stands alone.” – Opening cards.

While doomsday movies all reflect on some sort of inborn fears we as a people have they generally tend to be more fantastical. Oh sure, it’s possible that we’re going to invent a machine that wants nothing but to end our existence, create a virus which will wipe us out, or find some dragons buried in a subway station but it’s not likely. Still, there are some doomsday stories that many think are only fictional in that they haven’t happened yet. Left Behind is considered to be a prophetic movie by a subset of right-wing Christians. Today though, we’re going a bit more of a secular route with a movie beloved by a different flavor of fear-mongering nutcases.

If you’re aware of Red Dawn, it’s likely as a sort of vague notion of a right-wing wankfest about Russia invading America and the God-fearing gun-bearing citizens rising up to take it back. It’s important to note that when a movie is polarizing and popular it often attains its own sort of legend where it gains its own reputation that’s often far afield of what the movie represents or presents to its audience. Red Dawn is not one such movie, it’s absolutely what you think it is.

In the opening text cards we’re told that Russia and Cuba team up and steamroll most of the other countries, dissolving NATO and leaving the good old U-S-of-A to stand alone at the dawn of World War III. Later in the movie we will find out that the country fell due to Cuban spies sneaking in as Mexican immigrants and undermining the structure of our government. Russia attacks our nuclear launch sites first and then airlifts thousands of troops and weaponry onto U.S. soil. The movie takes place in a small Colorado town that is of strategic importance for some reason, and concerns the rag-tag group of high school kids who dare to stand up the Red Menace and say something schmaltzy and patriotic while holding an AK-47.

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As the paratroopers drop from the sky, Matt’s (A fresh-faced Charlie Sheen, high on life and nothing more) history teacher gives a thematically appropriate lecture on how the Mongols hunted by surrounding their prey and closing in. The teacher reacts to the hundreds of armed Russian dropping from the sky as though there’s a weird-looking dog wandering around out there, and calmly strides outside to see if the foreign invaders need assistance. One of the soldiers fires a burst from his machine gun at about 5 yards away and nearly three seconds later the actor’s single squib explodes on his chest and he falls down.

Matt’s brother Jed (Patrick Swayze) swings by in his pick-up truck and grabs a handful of boys that are trying to escape. They stop at a gas station outside of town and load up on dry goods, camping supplies, and weaponry. They move up into the mountains where they try and wait out this whole communist invasion thing. Meanwhile, a Cuban revolutionary who leads the charge (Ron O’Neal) begins weeding out potential threats by sending troops to the local sporting goods stores to find out who all owns guns. Are you happy Liberals? Our borders were unsecure and your rigid gun-control laws let our enemies know which of us are threats, is there a way to blame gay marriage? Somebody get on that!

At one point we zoom out from a bumper sticker reading, “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead fingers” as we pan to a dead man’s hand, holding a gun. A Russian soldier stoops down and pulls the gun from the corpses’ hand, another scene depicts a group of dissenters bursting into a bar of America the Beautiful as they face a firing squad.  Red Dawn is that sort of movie.

Things go pretty well for Jed and crew up in the mountains as they have homoerotic arguments and drink deer blood, they even get sent back up with a couple of age-appropriate girls (Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey) when they go down to town to find out if everything’s okay.  But a group of dumbass Russians show up in the national park they’re hiding in and the boys are forced to kill them.  Now they become a revolutionary militia, going by the name of their high-school football mascot “The Wolverines.”

They revolutionize shit for a while, mostly just annoying the Russians/Cubans and Powers Boothe even shows up as a downed jet pilot to help elevate the material for a while, but then we’re back to watching these kids ineffectively blow up small portions of the enemy’s forces until they’re inevitably caught and forced to make a last stand.  We then get a voice-over from one of the not-dead Wolverines who tells about how the war ended and they were all honored as heroes for bravely standing against the enemy in time of war.

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One thing I will say in Red Dawn’s favor is that it’s really fun, and it’s shot and blocked well, but everything else is just so bad.  The dialogue for one is just atrocious; shortly after the girls join the group and spoil the sexual tension between C. Thomas Howell and Charlie Sheen, Sheen tells Lea Thompson’s character to make herself useful and do the dishes.  Thompson flips out and says she’ll kill him and he gives a shrug that has become all too familiar for Charlie Sheen and asks what her problem is, Jennifer Grey leans into the shot and says “You said the wrong thing!”  Even if the actors saying these words didn’t sound stilted and amateurish (which is fair as this was the first movie for a lot of them) it would still be a completely pointless and poorly written exchange.

Even Patrick Swayze can’t seem to manage to act half of the time, and he had done things before this movie.  Speaking of Swayze, Jed is pretty far afield of the sort of character we generally associate the man with.  A Patrick Swayzee character is usually tough, but in touch with his feminine side and peaceful to the point of pacifism until forced to fight.  Jed is a draped-in-the-flag swinging dick with a chip on his shoulder and a hero complex, he is toxic masculinity personified, he’s basically a late-80s Stallone character.

The other characters can be best described as “Guy who is there”, “Guy who is also there who is the mayor’s son”, “Girl from Dirty Dancing“, “Girl from Howard the Duck“, “Charlie Sheen”, “Guy who is Hispanic”, and Robert.  Robert (C. Thomas Howell) is the most fleshed out character in the movie and the most compelling, since he’s the guy who basically finds out that war is super rad and he enjoys bathing in the blood of his enemies.  He’s the guy who generally does the “Wolverines!” war cry and stands up to a helicopter sporting four miniguns with nothing more than teenage angst and an AK-47.

The rest of the cast is populated with character actors who showed up to pick up their check that day.  Lane Smith does his thing as the town’s sleazy mayor, Harry Dean Stanon sleepwalks his way through a role as Jed and Matt’s stern father, Ron O’Neal gives a fairly complex performance as a former Cuban revolutionary who’s now fighting on the side of the evil empire in this war, and Powers Boothe is a god-damned professional in a movie that is well beneath his talents.  Boothe really does make the movie better every moment he’s onscreen, but his role is brief and he’s out after only a handful of scenes.

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The score regularly swells with heroic bombast as the scenes onscreen depict horrific acts of murder perpetrated by or on teenagers.  Yet the movie rarely acknowledges this horror and any attempts to get philosophical come across like Anakin Skywalker’s takedown of sand.  The movie plays all its bullshit straight as though these kids who are fighting a losing battle for no real gain are war heroes and it shrivels my vas deferens to think that somebody meant this to be serious.

John Milius himself admits that Red Dawn is as much about wish fulfillment as jingoism.  There is a romantic notion in being a member of a guerrilla resistance standing up for your values while a large and powerful enemy attempts to subjugate you.  But there’s just a lot of parts that are eye-rollingly impossible to ignore.  Red Dawn is a big budget after-school-special, it’s Reefer Madness for the Red Scare crowd.  This has caused Red Dawn to become the Citizen Kane of right-wing nutjobs everywhere and there are many who see it as an inevitability of this country’s fate.

But like Reefer Madness, there is a certain charm in taking this movie at face value.  Red Dawn is stupid fun to watch and the groan-worthiness makes it an ideal movie for drinking games and just general mockery.  The fact that it’s well-made helps boost the entertainment factor a lot in spite of the propaganda aspects.  It’s worth watching in the way that Beowulf is worth watching once in a while: as a reminder that earnestness and incompetence go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Red Dawn is available from Amazon on DVD, Blu-Ray, and through Instant.

“You got hemo blood on me… It is on!”