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Monday, May 27, 2013

Red Dawn (1984)

Story by Kevin Reynolds
Screenplay by John Milius and Kevin Reynolds

Directed by John Milius

Patrick Swayze:  Jed Eckert
Charlie Sheen:  Matt Eckert
C. Thomas Howell:  Robert Morris
Lea Thompson:  Erica Mason
Jennifer Grey:  Toni Mason

Featuring a wonderful assortment of character actors, including Powers Boothe, Ben Johnson, Ron O'Neal, Lane Smith, William Smith, Harry Dean Stanton, and the always welcome Vladek Sheybal as General Bratchenko

There's a quote from PZ Myers that I've been thinking of while watching political discussion lately, and it's "The reason you're being ridiculed is that your ideas are ridiculous". Let that be the epigram at the start of this review, for one of the eightiesest movies ever made.

The first act of this flick is actually the best depiction of John Birch-style paranoia that I've ever seen in any medium. Literally four and a half minutes into the film, Soviet and Cuban paratroopers are landing on the football field at a high school in Colorado; at the five and a half minute mark one student and one very puzzled history teacher are dead and the rest of the students are fleeing for their lives. The few with cars are separated into two groups:  the wimps with sedans who get captured by soliders immediately and the REAL MAN Jed Eckert, with a pickup (Patrick Swayze at his Swayziest), who flees successfully because he's the protagonist. A few random students are fast and lucky enough to hop in the truck bed as he flees, and one quick stop at a gas station / general store gives the group food, guns, ammo and sleeping bags as they to bug out to the forest and plan not to return to Calumet, Colorado until the war is over. Being red-blooded Americans, they bring lots of Coca-Cola with them (Pepsi is apparently for Communists; RC is for impoverished Communists).

One pants-shitting terrifying truck ride to the woods later (among other things, they almost get shot by a tank), the group of frightened, armed high school students is alone in the forest and immediately bicker about whether or not they're going to give up and go back to town or stay away and follow Jed's authority unquestioningly. One student point out--reasonably enough, I might add--that being a high school football quarterback doesn't mean a hell of a lot during the Soviet/Cuban/Nicaraguan land invasion of America. But what the hell, he's an all-American jock and obviously he knows what he's doing. And somewhere in this mess, back in town, we actually see someone's gun pried from their cold dead hand (under a bumper sticker with that very same NRA slogan, because John Milius apparently doesn't have a subtle bone in his entire body. Not even the three tiny ones in his inner ears).

The students learn to hunt safely from the Eckert brothers (apparently shooting twice from the same position means hostile forces can find you easily), and while nobody would mistake their existence for one of comfort and ease, they're at least safe from whatever is happening in town. Which they don't actually know anything about, because they don't have a radio.

An argument or two later (the amount of time that has passed is unclear but the season hasn't changed yet), the students sneak back into town to try and buy supplies and get news--the news, incidentally, is almost all terrible. Russians have invaded America, and the drive-in is now showing Soviet propaganda films! Secret police are monitoring political conversations! It also turns out that while they were ignorant of World War 3 going on a huge part of the political situation changed (including the establishment of areas on the map where you can write "Free America" and other parts that are behind enemy lines).

A stop off at the Mason farm gives them a little more food and ammo, a radio for listening to Free America broadcasts, some horses, and Mr. Mason's granddaughters, who escaped occupied territory and are assumed to be safer with heavily-armed, grieving and furious high school students than they would in town. People who enjoy playing the game where you pretend every role played by a given actor is secretly the same person will delight in trying to figure out a timeline where Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze's roles in Dirty Dancing line up at all with their characters' ages in this. No alternate universes allowed!

Another time-skip goes by, I guess, and we get a little Odious Commiedy Relief from three guys who are supposed to be on patrol and wind up taking the military-occupation equivalent of a few vacation snaps while they're checking out some forest paths. And, credit where it's due, the sudden reverse shot that shows the fugitive high school students is handled very effectively, instantly establishing a sense of menace as well as the position of both groups. The Reds spot the students by accident and a stumbling, panicked flight and firefight ensues--and points for Milius making sure that nobody's a dead calm warrior at this point. The soldiers are barely less panicked than the Americans, and by the end of the scene the students have more-or-less accidentally turned into guerilla fighters against the occupation. They might have been able to go back and surrender before, if they wanted to, but killing three Soviet troops certainly means there's a package-rate death warrant being typed up on the Cyrillic equivalent of an IBM Selectric about ten minutes after the bodies are discovered. Fans of irony in general will enjoy the way that the horribly injured Russian soldier who makes it back to the jeep resembles James O'Keefe, the paid liar who claimed to go to ACORN offices dressed as a pimp and who was well-paid to destroy its reputation and then the organizatio itself. At least when he's got the hat on. When it's off, there is not as much of a resemblance.

And now back to town, where an occupying colonel played by Superfly threatens the mayor, asking how much of a threat his Eagle Scout son is, and if he's not the threat, then who exactly should they be looking for...? And then we jump to the guerillas, heavily disguised, as they spy on the funeral for the dead Reds. There's a 21 gun salute fired for the dead, and then the massacre of a dozen and and half or so civilians who go down like champs, singing the national anthem before they're machine-gunned to death. (For what it's worth, if I'm ever going to be shot down as an example by an invading army I'm gonna sing "Authority Song" by John Mellencamp until the bullets hit me. Unless I decide that "Too Drunk To Fuck" would be a better swan song.)

Of course, this is the turning point where the fugitive kids realize they've got nothing to lose any more, so they up their game and become a ludicrously effective partisan raiding force. From here on out the movie's pretty much a series of setpieces where the guerillas--calling themselves the Wolverines after their high school mascot--learn to pick off the Soviets a few at a time and escape capture and execution (for the most part). And, of course, they're totally a symbol of American independence and superiority opposed to the end to the evil Soviet invaders and stuff.

The invaders bring in more people (including a specialist or two); the soldiers are kept close to the fortified areas but it's not enough. To drive the point home, a Russian general and a Cuban colonel talk about how tough it is to keep order in town (and the Cuban mentions that he's only trained for insurgency, not counter-insurgency, which is a rare moment in the film that makes sense). Then a Wolverine bomb goes off in the Soviet-American Friendship Center, about 10 or 20 yards from where the officers were talking about how to deal with the partisans.

That's really about it for the rest of the movie--the Wolverines wreck some stuff; there are reprisals; time passes; the Wolverines lose a person or two but keep fighting. Lather, rinse, repeat--though watching the movie now makes me wonder who was planning the Iraq war on our side. They have to have been aware of the movie, but somehow didn't realize that the foreign-language-babbling infidels that would inspire retaliation with their every action would be the American invaders. Maybe they figured that if none of the Iraqis saw the movie they wouldn't try to fight our soldiers. It makes as much sense as any other part of the "and then a miracle happens" planning in the run up to taking Baghdad.

The interminable series of combat scenes gets broken up with a quick "there is a traitor among us" sequence, where one of the Wolverines had to swallow a tracking device when he was in town; I'm not sure how long it stayed in his digestive tract or how long he'd been in the field when the group got found, but the sicko in me likes to think the rest of the group had to politely ignore the fact that he'd been digging through his own latrines for weeks, washing something off and eating it again. Anyway, the traitor gets executed by his own side, along with a leftover Russian trooper.

Really, that's it. Combat scene after combat scene interspersed with "of course we're right to do this" until the Wolverines are ground down person by person, and then the there's a token and out of nowhere declaration from Jed that killing all them Russkies made him tired and used him up so he has to make a suicidal charge as a distraction so the other Wolverines can run away to safety. After Jed and Matt die in each others' arms, we get a voice-over saying America won the war eventually and everything is fine now.

And thank goodness; I hated this movie more and more as it ground on. I loathed every jingoistic, perverse, hate-filled minute. It's a grotesque pile of death worship masquerading as heroism and it was designed to play to the most spiteful, paranoid, homicidal people in America. I'm sure it's not an accident that we got a remake of it during the Obama administration, when right-wing John Birch lunatics had taken over political discourse and "news" broadcasts--the only surprise is that the teabaggers didn't make the remake the biggest hit of last year when it came out. And there's still a ton of political noise about the country being invaded by the treacherous Satanazi liberal president from Kenya; radio talkers, TV pundits, internet screamers and former governors claiming that every single thing that happens is the worst thing that has ever happened (and will destroy American freedom forever if it isn't stamped out). People building their own doom bunkers get their own TV shows where they can explain their plans to kill their neighbors in a crisis and save all the food and water for themselves.

If your power fantasy is shooting invaders and traitorous Americans during World War 3, I don't want to know you. If you think this is a thing that could have happened and still might (swapping out the invaders for someone other than the Soviets now that there aren't any Soviets), you're a moron. And the film itself would have to get smarter to be merely idiotic. I thought looking at this one again would be a lark, but its nasty-minded brand of pop nihilism leaves a viciously bitter taste in my mouth. If you have the choice to see this movie, don't take it.


  1. I'm thinking I'd try a few choruses of War's "Why Can't We Be Friends" until the bullet with my name on it found me.

  2. I thought this was a bit of sad irony, the mission to capture Saddam Hussein was called Operation Red Dawn:

  3. That makes my "I'm sure someone involved in the Iraq war knew about this movie and learned nothing from it" comment sad and true. Thanks for the bringdown!

  4. Headless Unicorn GuyMay 22, 2016 at 10:45 PM

    The first time I saw Red Dawn, I watched it for the hardware. The Russian uniforms, smallarms, and most of the vehicles were highly-accurate for Russian Army of the early 1980s. Including the KVKV camos which had been issued only the year before and the models of AK were appropriate issue for the troops -- older AK47s for the regular garrisons and Latin American sepoys, AKMs for the Desant paratroops, and AK74s for the Spetznaz commandoes/counter-guerilla specialists.

    When I watched it for the second time, I realized what it was: RED DAWN IS A RUSSIAN WW2 MOVIE, "HEROIC PARTISANS" SUB-TYPE. It follows the plot and shticks and tropes of a Russian "Heroic Partisans" WW2 movie, just with roles reversed and reset into a near-future US. Inhuman invaders attack Mother Russia and occupy large sections of the Rodina. Russian people spontaneously organize into Partisan bands and start a guerilla war against the Invader. Almost all of them die by the end, but their sacrifice for the Rodina makes it possible for Russia to eventually throw out the Invader and win the war.

    Somebody really needs to do a YouTube mashup of visuals from Red Dawn with Mike and the Mechanics' "Silent Running"; the song's subject matter meshes exactly with the movie scenes.

    And there was an anecdote that while Red Dawn was being denounced in this country for Fascist Imperialist Redneck Warmongering, it caused a major panic party in GRU (Russian Military Intelligence). Apparently the war scenario in Red Dawn was very similar to an actual Russian contingency plan for war with America, and the Russians got paranoid that their was some sort of leak.

    Finally, the attempt to remake it in the early 21st should never have been done. There was no way to do it and have it work. Red Dawn was an artifact of the late Cold War, and after the Second Russian Revolution block-obsoleted a lot of future histories, the circumstances and background milieu no longer existed. Doing Red Dawn in the post-Cold War world would be like setting Atlas Shrugged "twenty minutes into the future" instead of a period piece.

  5. The only thing stupider than remaking RED DAWN would be clumsily editing out all the references to the Chinese army attacking and turning it into North Korea with CGI once it became apparent that China wouldn't allow them to release the film there if they were the bad guys.

    They filmed the remake sorta-kinda near Casa Telstar and I started a new job three weeks before the casting call for extras. I wound up not being able to try out because nobody wants to ask for a week or two off for sitting in the background of scenes where the important people were talking.