“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”. These title cards set up the premise of this highly entertaining and well liked war film from the Summer of 1984. Only it is a war film like no other. It imagines an invasion of the U.S. by Soviet forces and tries to create a scenario where conventional war practices would continue. Because of it’s open embrace of a militaristic attitude toward the eastern block, “Red Dawn” is often seen by critics as jingoistic and paranoid. Those of us who lived through the period can remember the frequent skirmishes between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. in proxy conflicts in Southeast Asia, Central America and Africa. Those memories make the premise a little more believable at the time.
Co-written and directed by outsized personality John Milius, “Red Dawn” is an adolescent’s fantasy about standing up and fighting for your country in desperate times. Small town high school students take to the hills after an invasion of their Rocky Mountain town by Russian and Cuban paratroopers. These shock troops engage in wanton murder of civilians and destruction of local businesses and the kids read the signals and go straight into survivalist mode.
Patrick Szayze, C. Thomas Howell, and William Smith reunite for this film after having been in “The Outsiders” together the year before. Emilio Estevez doesn’t make it to the front but he does send his brother Charlie Sheen for his motion picture debut. You may have heard about the “Brat Pack”, stars from “The Breakfast Club” and “St. Elmo’s Fire” who became celebrities working together. Another group of young actors were also breaking into the business much more quietly at the time and this film has a lot of them in the cast. Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey and Charlie Sheen would star in future John Hughes projects. Grey and Swayze would make dancing history together three years later in “Dirty Dancing”. There are also a number of older actors who contribute to this film who would make their marks over the next few years. The movie is a seedling of 80s film talent just waiting to be watered by the right amount of rain, and “Red Dawn” provides the start of that downpour. The film finished it’s boxoffice run with over $38 million, coming in at number twenty for the year, one spot behind the dreadful “Bachelor Party” and one ahead of “The Terminator”. It is one of the first films to turn an August opening into a success. September is usually seen as the dumping ground for Summer movies that the studios had no faith in, August was not far behind in that evaluation. This is another one of those important contributions that come from the year 1984.
Story-wise, the film is simple. A gang of kids struggles to survive in the wild while they begin a guerrilla counter attack to the invading forces. Sequentially we witness them beginning as insurgents by accident. They are nearly caught by tourist minded Russian soldiers and have to kill them to escape. After that, the combat becomes more deliberate with traps, I.E.D.s and excursions into the occupied town they used to call home. I remember seeing the clip of Jennifer Grey’s Toni, running from the Russian tank crew and the others popping out of their spiderholes with machine guns blazing to take out the pursuers. On the Cinema Preview Channel that came with my cable subscription that year, the trailer for “Red Dawn” never played, but that clip was on a dozen times a day.
So if the story is not extraordinary, why would so many kids of the 80s love this movie and why would MGM think of remaking it almost thirty years later? As I already said, it is a fantasy for survivalists and those paranoid of the Red Menace. The opening features paratroopers floating out of the sky, and a curious history teacher walking out the door of his classroom to investigate. The image of the red marker smoke and then the armed paratroopers landing on the campus is fascinating. The year before, in the TV movie “The Day After” there is a haunting image of the missile trails over Kansas when the nukes get launched. The opening of “Red Dawn” has a similar haunting nature to it, the sky appears peaceful, the images are lovely against the background, but the future is horrific. When the invading troops turn their weapons on the teacher and the school, panic breaks out and there is an undisciplined retreat by the youngsters. The paranoia factor is also ratcheted up for the survivalist types when a bumper sticker carrying the famous line “They’ll get my gun when they pry it from my cold dead hand” suddenly becomes real in just the way NRA members might fear it. The Cuban Colonel played by “Superfly” actor Ron O’Neal orders his men to check the sporting goods stores for a particular document that lists the local purchasers of firearms and ammunition. You know that will light a fire under those gun rights advocates. They see their nightmares coming true, so in a sense it becomes something of a political film.
Considering the times, it is not a surprise that the movie was a modest hit. In Nicaragua and El Salvador, revolutionary groups were fighting with Soviet assistance and the U.S. backed counter revolutionaries with C.I.A. funding and direct military support. The U.S. had rejected calls for a Nuclear Freeze, which at the time might have put us at a strategic disadvantage. Peace protesters in Europe would be marching against the U.S. deploying tactical nuclear weapons in their countries. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and the U.S. response was to boycott the Olympics. Ronald Reagan won the presidency in large part on the seeming weakness of Jimmy Carter to respond to overseas crisis. The administration launched a rebuilding of military force and a more vigorous opposition to Communist expansion. The sentiments of the country were clearly with the President in this election year where he carried 49 out of 50 states. That forceful military posture was simply being echoed in the hypothetical story being told here. Milius is a very conservative political thinker and his views come out in many parts of the script.
Harry Dean Stanton, who earlier in the year costarred with Charlie Sheen’s brother in “Repo Man” has only one speaking scene in this film. He plays the tough father of Swayze and Sheen’s brothers. As an interned man at a re-education camp at the local drive in. He is one of the trouble makers that the gun registration forms have betrayed, and he is not happy about it. When his sons show up outside the fence to talk with him, he gives them one last lesson in toughness and then defiantly shouts at them as they are heading back to the woods, “Avenge Me!”. Later he is in a dialogue free shot as he and a couple dozen local citizens are executed as punishment for the actions of the teen band now labeled The Wolverines. The ditch behind the soon to be executed men is far too familiar from World War Two films and from YouTube clips of ISIS in Iraq. Even though this film is a war games fantasy, the elements of actual war strategies do get discussed. The invading Russians and Cubans argue the merits of trying to win the Hearts and Minds of the Americans. O’Neal finds his character in the reverse position strategically from the insurgencies he has been a part of. William Smith, an actor who has been a reliable heavy since the early 70s, comes in as a Russian expert on fighting guerrillas, and he delivers in Russian, an metaphor filled lecture that basically involves not cutting your nose of to spite your face.
The kids are assisted for a period of time by a downed U.S. fighter pilot played by Powers Boothe. Like Academy Award winning actor Ben Johnson, earlier in the movie, Boothe’s character is there to provide exposition and a little human drama. Some of the politics are suggested again in his explanation of what is happening in the war. The kids are largely in the dark about the bigger scope of things and the pilot shares some of the answers. Europe sits this war out, which fits the view that they are unreliable allies. The one exception being the obvious one, Britain. Infiltrators came across the Mexican border as illegals and created havoc, which of course plays to the border issue for security hawks. He also suggests that it was inevitable because the two toughest kids on the block are sooner or later going to face off.
Life in the town is shown to be unpleasant with collaborators trying to make things safe for themselves. The group finally breaks down when one of the team is caught while visiting his home and his own father turns him in. He is then used as a tracking device to bring the Wolverines to heel. This betrayal leads to a moral choice that is resolved by the madness of war rather than the ideals of the group. Times get more bleak as supplies dwindle and the groups numbers are slowly chipped away. Acts of rage begin to replace the strategies used by the clever kids as they fought their patriots war. They have not given up their attitudes but they have given up any sense that they will all get out of it alive. There are a few more action sequences and one opportunity to show that not all of the enemy are dishonorable and then the movie ends. There is an uplifting coda, that apparently was demanded by the studio and frankly is needed to make this film work. One of the characters narrates a final scene showing a plaque at Partisan Rock with a dedication to the heroes of the winning side. Without this, we would not know if the kids actions mattered or the outcome of the war. For this to work emotionally after all the baiting that has gone on, we need that info.
This was the first film to be released with the new PG-13 rating. Other films had received the rating earlier but had not yet been released. The Guinness Book of Records listed this film at the time as having the highest number of violent acts in a film. My guess is that this was a short lived record because “Rambo II” would come out the next year and it had to be more violent. There may also have been some language issues although I can’t recall frequent uses of the F-word. There is a line where Charlie Sheen’s character asks one of the girls what’s up her ass? The response suggests that the girl was anally raped before she joined the group and that might also be a reason for the new rating to be invoked.