Red Dawn (1984)

It's 11:59 on Radio Free America; this is Uncle Sam with music and the truth until dawn. Right now I've got a few words for some of our brothers and sisters in the occupied zone. The chair is against the wall. The chair is against the wall. John has a long mustache. John has a long mustache. It's twelve o'clock, America, another day closer to victory. And for all of you out there on or behind the line, this is your song.

The Reagan years were a glorious time for filmmakers. It was at the height of the Cold War between us and the Soviet Union, some of the most popular shows on television like Dallas and Dynasty and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous were focused on the goings-on of wealthy, upper-class capitalists, and also the Vietnam War was still pretty fresh on everyone's minds. So the movies of the time often had Russian and Latin American socialists as the bad guys and pitted them against Chuck Norris, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rocky Balboa in a never-ending war on the communist menace and the left-wing, freedom-hating principles it stood for, all in the name of truth, justice and the American way--though probably mostly the American way.

It's a frame of mind that still exists more than two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed--throughout the 1990s we had Middle Eastern terrorists as villains, China is now an economic threat to the U.S. if Fox News is to be believed, and North Korea's obsessive self-militarization has earned them the honor of being the new invading country in the upcoming remake of the 1984 John Milius film Red Dawn (even though with their small GDP and increasing social and economic problems, they can't even AFFORD to invade anybody).

The original Red Dawn was not the first movie to depict the Cold War boiling over--movies such as Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe have given similar visions of a US/USSR-induced global disaster, MST3K fans may remember such films as Rocket Attack USA and Invasion USA (no relation to the 1985 Chuck Norris film) and let's not forget every Missouri fan's favorite TV movie The Day After. But darn it if these little what-if movies didn't know how to scare the pants off of people. You might have seen a picture associated with this film with Russian soldiers and a tank standing in front of a McDonalds? This was six years before they finally opened one in Moscow, which is now the largest Mickey D's in the world. That's how scary it was.

It was also very historically important for other reasons--it was the first movie to be released with the MPAA's new PG-13 rating, it was the Guinness World Record holder for most violence depicted in a movie probably until Rambo III came out in 1990, and it has become so well-known that the U.S. Army named the 2003 operation to find and capture Saddam Hussein after it.

Eventually the commie invaders will be so fat and lazy we'll have no trouble driving them out!

The movie begins with some quick back story--Russian wheat crops fail, riots in Poland and subsequent Soviet invasion, unilateral European nuclear disarmament, Cuba and Nicaragua invade the rest of Latin America, communist revolution in Mexico, and NATO eventually crumbles.

The movie continues with one of its most memorable scenes--a high school history class in a fictional town of Calumet in the Colorado Rockies is interrupted by the arrival of Russian paratroopers who immediately gun down the teacher and then start shooting up the whole school. Soon the entire town is under red revolt, and during the chaos several teenagers load up a truck with food and supplies and escape into the woods. These teenagers include the high school quarterback Jed Eckert (played by Patrick Swayze in his second appearance on this blog) and his brother Matt (Charlie Sheen in his movie debut), as well as their friends Robert, Danny, Daryl and Aardvark. (Also there are two sisters, Erica (Lea Thompson) and Toni (Swayze's future Dirty Dancing co-star Jennifer Grey), but they don't join up until later)
      After the boys spend several weeks hiding in the woods, their food supplies are running low, so they decide to return to Calumet. The town by this point has become a communist stronghold under martial law and many of its citizens have been captured for possession of firearms. Robert's father is learned to have been killed because of the missing guns they took as they were escaping the initial invasion, and Jed and Matt visit their father (Harry Dean Stanton) in their newly-established reeducation camp, where we get a tearful reunion as well as the film's iconic "AVENGE ME! AVENGE ME!" scene.

      Sadly, no one would avenge the deer.

      Then one day while hiding themselves from soldiers visiting Arapaho National Battlefield Forest, they are accidentally discovered and are forced to gun them down to avoid being caught. The last one momentarily forgets that he subscribes to a political doctrine that designates religion as the "opiate of the masses" and shouts "God help me! God help me!" before Jed shoots him point blank from the front seat of his Jeep. This event inspires the kids to start a resistance movement, and naming themselves for their high school mascot, the "Wolverines" wage guerilla warfare against the occupation forces. We even get one of those 1980s movie montages. You know, the kind that can easily be set to any type of music. I think the theme song to The A-Team would fit this one quite well.

      After the montage, Powers Boothe joins them as Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner, a downed F-15 pilot from the Air Force, and he kindly fills us in on the war so far. Apparently it started with nuclear attacks against several American cities, followed by Cuban infiltrators sneaking across the border and neutralizing Strategic Air Command bases in Texas and the Midwest, which allowed Latin American armies to walk across the Mexican border, while at the same time Russian armies came through the Bering Strait to Alaska and Canada to reinforce them. As of now, the battle lines have pretty much stabilized, and neither side is willing to use nukes on American soil.

      How the most technologically advanced army in the world missed a whole bunch of Cuban and Nicaraguan soldiers marching up through the Mexican border AND Russian armies simultaneously raining down through Canada by the truckload is neither explained nor elaborated upon. (You'd think a communist revolution south of the border would have sounded a few alarm bells.) Neither is why Europe, consisting mostly of countries with whom we are allies, isn't helping us fight the Second American Revolution, or at least sending in humanitarian aid.

      Man, the judges on Soviet Idol are HARSH.

      Much of the second half of the film is a war of attrition between the occupiers and the Wolverines, during which the psychological effects of battle take its toll on our pack of heroes. Jed and his gang have been talked about on the home front all the way to California, and the Free American military have even talked about backing them up with real Green Berets...in the spring. (Why not send them now? I'm sure your ragtag guerrilla force of HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS fighting the HEAVILY-ARMED RUSSO-LATIN AMERICAN ARMY could REALLY use the backup.)

      And his leadership skills are put to the test when the occupation forces stop using reprisal tactics of wantonly killing civilians and start getting smart. An enemy soldier finds out where they are and because of this, they are forced to execute Daryl--turns out his father, the mayor of Calumet, was busy sucking up to the invaders to the point where he sold out his own son and they caught him and made him swallow a tracking device so he could lead them straight to the Wolverines in a part of the movie we never see. Morale continues to weaken when the Soviets stage a fake supply drop that lures them out into the open for an ambush.

      Eventually the Wolverines' numbers have thinned down to just Erica, Danny and the two brothers. Jed and Matt plan a final assault on the communist stronghold in Calumet and tell Erica and Danny to escape to liberated territory, because someone's gotta live to tell their story. In a very poignant moment during this siege, the invading general in charge is about to shoot a fatally wounded Jed, who is carrying a fatally wounded Matt in his arms, but instead lowers his weapon and lets them pass with a "vaya con Dios" in a sign of amnesty or mutual respect or even both if you prefer.

      Eventually, according to a monologue by Erica in the movie's final shot, WWIII comes to an end, save for some diagnosed cases of PTSD. The rock on which the Wolverines etched the names of their dead is now a monument--Partisan Rock--which Erica still visits to this day...and nobody else. I don't think they've even paved a parking lot next to it. There's a flag and a plaque and that's it. The survivors probably didn't even get any medals or anything.

      Ever since the commies took over, the annual St. Patrick's Day parade hasn't been as fun.

      Red Dawn is a film derived from the fantasies and imagination of an American adolescent growing up in the heyday of Reagan-era politics. The thought of war breaking out between America and the Soviets was a terrifying thought back then, what with mutually assured destruction from their nuclear arsenals, and I would imagine that any kid raised in this era who watched the news every night and listened to war stories of a relative who fought in 'Nam spent his time imagining himself in the heat of battle against armies from communist countries, and this movie does seem like the perfect outlet for its young adult audience.

      However, I do appreciate the sense of realism it adds to this fantasy, as the horrors and the dehumanization take their toll on the Wolverines, who, let's not forget, were originally a group of scared, emotionally imbalanced teenagers. Also, consider the climax with Jed carrying his wounded brother in his arms, facing down a Cuban general with a rifle pointed at them. That is perhaps the most powerful moment in the whole film. It makes the theme a little more complex than the whole jingoistic flag-waving "better dead than red" mentality would allow.

      Calling Red Dawn a piece of paranoid anti-Soviet propaganda doesn't really do it justice. It's a little more than that. It is by no means a perfect film, what with its plot holes and occasional cheesy acting, but in a cultural sense it's earned its place.

      But don't worry, I don't think China wants to invade us anytime soon. Not while we're still trading with them.

      Tourists are communists with cameras. Communists are tourists with guns.

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