Red Dawn

Red Dawn

This seems... unlikely but oh so important

dir: John Milius


What a strange film. It looks like a weird, right wing treatise on the dangers of ignoring the threat of Communism prior to the actual fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union, but even accepting that, its kitsch value is through the roof.

Avowed right wing paragon John Milius, who wrote the script on such legendary endeavours as Conan the Barbarian and Apocalypse Now, decided that only he could do his paranoid “epic” justice by directing it himself.

And he’s probably right. Anyone else would have been uncomfortable with making a film with such terrible acting performances from the main characters. But, I guess, thinking as a screenwriter, all Milius wanted was for them to say the precious words that he’d written.

Let’s not overstate this or glide over it: much of the acting by the main players is comically bad. Uproariously bad. Showgirls bad. But, for reasons I can only put down to the seriousness of the subject matter and a nostalgic glow courtesy of the early 80s, it doesn’t sink the film. Far from it.

Red Dawn is the distillation of the worst case scenario right-wing gun strokers imagined possible in the 80s: Middle America invaded by the Soviets and the combined armies of Cuban – Central American tinpot communist dictatorships. But where do they invade? Is it New York, Washington, California, Kalamazoo? Somewhere that would make sense strategically, tactically or sentimentally?

No, it’s Calumet, Colorado. And what aids the nasty invaders in their efforts to subjugate the rugged individualists of these prairie-like locales? The lists required by law for gunshop owners to maintain when gun sales occur. Not only that, but the Guatemalan co-leader of the occupying force, Colonel Bella (the legendary Superfly himself, Ron O’ Neal) refers specifically to the actual form itself when instructing a Russian underling to go collect it and start rounding up troublesome, gun-owning rubes.

Cut to the scene where a bumper sticker informs us that, as far as the owner of the pick-up truck is concerned, you’ll be prying the gun from his cold, dead hand in order to take it away from him. The camera keeps panning downward, and we see the owner’s cold dead hand, and his gun being pried from it by some Cossack scumbag.

Now that is funny. Is it satirical, is it taking the piss or is it doing the NRA’s job for it, considering what a noble and august organisation it is? I’m not sure, but I still like the gag. In the remake of this film, they could actually now use Charlton Heston’s cold dead hand for the scene, as long as they keep him on ice, I guess.

But Charlton, most likely, is gone, gone like the leaves of summer, like spring blossoms, like the world’s innocence, gone like the childhoods of our main characters. Faced with the reality of an invasion, Jed (Patrick Swayze) and his brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) must put away childish things and become men. Not just men, but mountain men. Hunting and fishing and not bathing in order to survive.

When they sneak back into town to see what’s going on, after hiding out for a month or so with a few other guys, they see the changes the invaders have wrought. The local theatre plays the classic Eisenstein film
Alexander Nevsky
, the population seems way down and many of the more troublesome Americans have been locked up in a re-education camp, where the PA constantly blares the failings of capitalism in general and Americanism specifically.

The brothers see their dad behind the concentration camp wire, bloodied but unbowed. Harry Dean Stanton, who I suspect never looked anything less than shabby, seventy years old and alcoholic, plays the cameo role of their dad with a mad glint in his eye. The dialogue he delivers is terrible, but is capped off with one of the most unintentionally and unexpected hilarious moments in cinema that I’ve ever scene.

I was watching the film late at night, with my partner and my baby asleep in adjacent rooms. No alcohol in the blood, no drugs in the system. Not overly happy about anything, nor sad. Just calm and curious, as I watched this strange film.

And then, as the crying brothers walk away from the fence, after being told to leave and never come back by their father, he bellows out to them:

Uncontrollable, unwanted, unpredicted laughter burst forth involuntarily from my throat and woke the whole house up.

After getting everyone back to sleep, reassuring the neighbours and the police that everything was okay, I continued watching this strange, strange flick.

The brothers and their fellow Wolverines (named after not only the ornery critter itself but moreso the name of their school’s football team) conduct a guerrilla campaign against the invading force. And a very successful campaign it is too. They are joined by two more teenagers, two girls, one of whom it is clearly implied, has been raped by the invaders (it doesn’t matter which is which, but the two girls are Lea
Thompson and Jennifer Grey). They are just as bloodthirsty and committed to being a thorn in the side of the Soviet-Cuban juggernaut as the boys are, and their gender even helps them carry out acts of terrorism the boys wouldn’t be able to put forward.

Yes, terrorism. Call it an insurgency, a rebellion, an uprising, but that’s what these kids are, and they’re very good at it. So good, in fact, that whilst they don’t have the Russians/Hispanics on the run, they do piss them off to an appreciable degree.

A downed American pilot (not John McCain), played with brio by Powers Booth, a legendary over-actor if there ever was one, joins their ranks and gives them some perspective on the war and what’s going on in these divided United States. The kids have been cut off (as have we, as an audience) from what has occurred (and even how it occurred, more importantly).

Free America, in the unoccupied areas, lives on, but is hard hit, having fought to a standstill with their enemy. The Russians used nuclear weapons tactically but need the American wheatfields due to the failure of their own crops and widespread famine in the Motherland. Thus the urge to conquer instead of annihilate.

These scenes, around a fire, give the story much needed context. Much needed, because up to this point this ragtag bunch of rebels fighting against the combined might of the Soviet / Latin American war machine seems somewhat far-fetched. Scratch that, downright unbelievable.

But what is believable is that the Soviets know this situation cannot continue, because the Wolverines are giving the people of Colorado hope: hope that they can, with their resistance, eventually cast off the yoke of their oppressors. And the Soviets clearly understand that the one thing obedient oppressed masses cannot have is hope of liberation.

Just to jump back a bit, the moment where the kids in the mountains change from just wanting to survive, to a full on insurgency, is wisely done. Three soldiers, oblivious to the danger, drive up into the mountains in a jeep for a bit of scenery and fresh air. At a memorial to a battle between native Americans and Manifest Destiny, which the natives presumably lost, the soldiers have their English-speaking member translate the plaque on the memorial.

Instead of accurately translating the words, the hapless soldier of course has to transform them into imperialist-capitalist-running dog Soviet-speak, which is quite funny compared to what is actually written. Of course it’s all for naught as they become the first notches on the Wolverine’s gun belts.

For what is alleged to be a right wing screed, the Soviets and their Latin counterparts are not demonised. Sure, they set up death camps and slaughter citizens as reprisals for the Wolverine’s actions, but their actions are shown more as standard Communist operating procedure. They’re not depicted, as an example, as the kind of murderous, malevolent savages that Stallone went for in that recent infamous Rambo flick set in Burma / Myanmar. They’re just soldiers, ordered to do a job.

Long story short: Soviets not as bad as Burmese. They’re shown continually as hitting on anything female, but honestly, compared to the actual atrocities the Soviets were responsible for in the last century, after World War II and especially in places like Afghanistan, they’re pussycats until the end.

Which probably explains why the Wolverines succeed for as long as they do. Their inexplicable success doesn’t change the fact there is a certain futility to their cause. A bunch of kids, no matter how resourceful and effective, can’t beat an entire army. The seasons change, their fortunes change, but there is an inevitability to their fates.

For an action flick, it is filled with too much of an autumnal, elegiac feel, and the early scenes calculated to get audiences to punch the air and chant USA!USA! give way to a feeling that all our heroes’ actions (as opposed to the example they embody) are futile.

And they are, lest the film become more of a fantasy that just a layered what-if. As a layered what-if, honestly, I believe the film still has merit after all these years. The perversity of seeing Americans in such a position, as the rebels fighting a losing cause for their homeland, is really quite affecting. Any remake, like the threatened remake due in 2010, will likely miss the point by conjecturing some insane scenario where the ragtag bunch of hot teen rebels looking like they just stepped out of a clothing commercial will triumph over an army of hundreds of thousands using little more than their charming smiles, their hacking skills and an eyeliner case.

Colonel Bella gets the point, when he shows mercy towards the end of the film, yearning to be home with his loved ones. He knows, having been on the side of the partisan, that you cannot completely subjugate a people as long as they are still willing to die rather than submit, unless of course you can kill all of them. And that any such victory is Pyrrhic by its very nature, devoid of value, spoils or long term significance.

For such a so-called propaganda flick, it makes these points pretty smoothly.

Of course it’s horribly dated, and the acting is all over the place, and almost none of the main characters (except maybe C. Thomas Howell) look anything less than silly most of the time. But somehow, for me, and this is not a flick I am at all nostalgic about, that’s not enough to sink what is still an impressively put together war film. There’s enough detail, and enough balance to the story (and the avoidance of an easy ending) for me to not write it off completely

7 alternate histories within which I bet I’m still working a menial 9 to 5 job out of 10