FOOTAGE FETISHES: RED DAWN

“All that hate’ll burn you up.”

Jingoistic. Reactionary. Propaganda. And those are the *good* reviews.

“Red Dawn,” John Milius’ 1984 tale of Commies in Colorado, inspires some of the most virulent debate I’ve ever seen about a movie (among those who bothered to watch it, at least), with opinions staying primarily at opposite ends of the critical spectrum. The film’s detractors like to point to Milius’ love of guns and his membership on the board of executives for the National Rifle Association. Those factors, combined with “Red Dawn’s” numerous ungainly cautionary scenes about threats to our gun-totin’ freedoms, would seem to indicate that those who purport to like it must be some particularly vile breed of militaristic fascist. Doubtless critics in this camp believe fans of “Red Dawn” are the kind of people who enjoy speeding through school zones as they pitch their empty beer cans into the back of their pickups.

The film’s supporters, on the other hand, assert that the film represented a realistic scenario. They would have you believe that the teenaged freedom fighters portrayed therein (given an Eagle Scout manual and ready access to firearms) could easily have mounted a successful insurgent campaign. And anyway, they’d add, maybe all those pansy liberals should think about what would happen to their precious Grateful Dead bootlegs if legitimate gun owners weren’t around to protect them.

People sure get worked up about some funny shit. “Red Dawn” may not represent the pinnacle (or the nadir, depending on who you ask) of American cinema in the 80s, but taken on its own merits and refracted through the prism of the Cold War, it isn’t that bad.

“Wolverines!”

“Red Dawn” deserves to go down in infamy for no other reason than its reuniting of the “Grandview, U.S.A” team of Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell. Swayze plays Jed Eckert (quarterback of the Calvert, Colorado high school football team) while Howell plays Robert, a high school student eventually pushed to the brink of psychosis by continued guerilla warfare. They make up the core of a group of students – whose ranks include future TV stalwarts Lea Thompson (Erica), Jennifer Grey (Toni), and Charlie Sheen (Jed’s brother Matt) – who run to the hills in the wake of a joint Soviet-Cuban invasion of their hometown. The circumstances leading to this watershed event in world history are laughably far-fetched but, given the era in which the movie was released, can be forgiven for now.

Eventually tiring of hiding in the mountains while their fellow townspeople are brutally executed, Jed and company form a group of resistance fighters who attack enemy installations, disrupt supply lines, and generally prove to be a pain in the collective ass of the invaders. Adopting the name of their high school mascot (the Wolverines, coincidentally (?) one of Stalin’s favorite animals), they wreak havoc upon the opposing forces and gallantly spray paint their “handle” at each successful mission site until the Soviets decide to take them out once and for all.

Aside from the cast of youthful partisans, “Red Dawn” boasts several actors who should have known better (Ben Johnson, Powers Boothe), and some who probably didn’t (William Smith, Harry Dean Stanton). Their presence adds a bit of needed gravitas to the proceedings, but not so much that one forgets the high fantasy they’re witnessing.

“We start bombing in five minutes.”

Opening in that most Orwellian of years, “Red Dawn” caused quite a bit of consternation among movie critics. Not content to merely go after the time-honored target of onscreen violence (it was the first film given a PG-13 rating), they also immediately derided it for its right-wing bent and its ham-handed warnings about gun registration and reliance upon foreign allies. To be fair, Milius himself has never denied any of this, even going so far as to state that the movie isn’t a warning about the Soviets per se, but rather the government of the United States.

Milius is one of the rare conservative figures in Hollywood, albeit a lesser-known one amidst the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Charlton Heston. Unlike some of his right-wing brethren, Milius is widely accused of using his movies as a pulpit for his political beliefs (like this is unprecedented in the annals of modern cinema…I guess some critics have never watched any Oliver Stone or Michael Moore films). Besides, so what if he does? Allow the poor “Zen fascist” (as he describes himself) to futilely attempt to convince us that a couple teenagers could wipe out an entire Soviet military installation.

Is “Red Dawn” ridiculous? Watching it in context of the past few years’ events certainly makes it look like a fairy tale: Cuban soldiers parachuting into America’s heartland? Soviets occupying key sectors of the United States? Lea Thompson surviving in the Rockies with perpetually fabulous hair? Preposterous.

Yet, one has to remember when “Red Dawn” was released. I don’t know about the rest of you, but at the time I was scared pantsless by the possibility of a war with the Soviet Union, and rhetoric on both sides of the Cold War during the early 1980s didn’t exactly fill us with hope for a shiny, happy future. Add government backed propaganda about the Communists massing in Central America and it wasn’t too hard for youngsters like me to go to bed with images of MiG Foxbats dancing in their heads, strafing hapless sugar plums. Was an invasion like the one that “Red Dawn” portrays actually plausible then? Of course not, but the Soviets were still at war in Afghanistan, and Milius didn’t have to be Orson Welles to realize he could get a hell of a reaction by setting an allegory to the Afghani conflict in America’s heartland.

Post-Vietnam, you didn’t get a whole lot of gung-ho pro-military films in America. War movies trended along the lines of “The Deer Hunter” and Apocalypse Now (which Milius also wrote). Leaving “Rambo” aside for the moment (yes, please), “Red Dawn” offered Americans one of their first chances to believe that winning a military conflict again was possible. This was before Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris single-handedly destroyed the Viet Cong and saved the Western hemisphere (in “Invasion, U.S.A”), respectively, and well before the United States military bulldozed through Iraq (in Gulf Wars: Episode One).

And what budding survivalist didn’t get a vicarious thrill watching Robert go toe-to-toe with a Hind gunship (with predictable results)?

Milius didn’t let any opportunity to rile up the Second Amendment crowd go to waste either; showing the Soviets gathering up copies of the infamous “4473” gun registration form and pointedly depicting an enemy soldier taking a gun from a corpse in full view of his “cold, dead hands” bumper sticker – masterful subtlety all around. However, those who attack these aspects of the film are ignoring that which is truly absurd: putting Ron “Superfly” O’Neal in the movie as the leader of the Cuban forces. O’Neal’s performance as Colonel Bella isn’t necessarily bad. In truth, his role as a soldier, who is weary of war and, after fighting previously as a partisan, believes he may be on the wrong side, is one of the film’s few genuinely nuanced characters.

But come on. He’s Superfly.

Get the rest of the story in part two of FOOTAGE FETISHES: RED DAWN>>>




Posted on January 16, 2003 in Features by
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