John Milius’ Red Dawn is now older than most of its leads were when they filmed it. Charlie Sheen was 18. Lea Thompson was 22. Jennifer Grey was 23. C. Thomas Howell was 17. Patrick Swayze, at 32, was the elder statesman of the group. And today, Red Dawn is 25.
I was 14 when it came out. That made me old enough to see it, since it was the first film to be released with the new PG-13 rating. (It was, however, the second movie actually to get the rating; The Flamingo Kid got it first, but was released later.) It came complete with hype irresistible to a 14-year-old boy: it was violent. Indeed, for years it was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most violent movie ever made, with 2.23 acts of violence every minute. Awesome! Ultra-violence, dude! Wolvereeeeenes!!!
Conan the Barbarian aside, Red Dawn is very likely the most famous movie John Milius has made or ever will make. (Does he even still make movies? His last credit as director was the TV movie Rough Riders, from 12 years ago. He’s been busy in recent years writing and producing HBO’s Rome series.) It came at the perfect time, when Reagan’s America was terrified of the Russian shadow. And it was the perfect movie for Milius’ bearish right-wing sensibility: Russians, Nicaraguans and Cubans take over America, and a few strong, dedicated American kids whup their asses. The idea wasn’t originally Milius’s (Kevin Reynolds, later the director of Waterworld, came up with the basic story and co-wrote the script), but he sure signed, sealed and delivered it.
USA! USA! Even before Rambo: First Blood Part II hit theaters the following year, America was in the throes of rabid jingoism. Just to set the scene: Two days after Red Dawn premiered, the 1984 Summer Olympics came to an end, and that was one hell of a red-white-and-blue summer. The Soviets chose to sit it out, along with fifteen other countries. This enabled gymnast Mary Lou Retton, America’s sweetheart that summer, to triumph in the face of almost no serious competition in events usually dominated by Eastern Europeans. We ended up winning 174 medals, 83 of them gold. This pissed off McDonald’s, which ran a promotion in which you scratched off a ticket and could win food if the U.S. won the event you scratched off. McDonald’s ended up giving away a lot of Big Macs.
This was the atmosphere in which Red Dawn introduced itself. It made $38 million against a $4 million budget, opening at #1 and smacking down Ghostbusters, which had stayed almost consistently at #1 for nine weeks. (Purple Rain — on the heels of ceaseless MTV saturation — had unseated Ghostbusters a couple of weekends before, but only by $300,000.) The only new competition Red Dawn had was Cloak and Dagger, which never had a chance.
At 14, I was no more immune to the red-blooded thrills of Red Dawn — or to the America-mania of the preceding Olympics — than any other little idiot that age. I enjoyed the hell out of it, only to be mortally embarrassed by it in later years when cable made it inescapable. Revisiting it now as a cynical lefty 39-year-old, though, I have to give the devil his due: Red Dawn works. If I can watch Triumph of the Will and acknowledge that it’s loathsome propaganda stunningly realized, I can give similar props to the kindergarten-crude but extraordinarily effective methods of Red Dawn.
Triumph of the Will has a cool, ahead-of-its-time aesthetic splendor that you can appreciate if you can manage to tune out the actual content, which is why I sorta kinda, to a certain extent, buy Leni Riefenstahl’s line that she wasn’t paying much attention to the politics of the thing. (Ever wonder what kind of great filmmaker Riefenstahl might’ve become if she’d been born anywhere else?) John Milius isn’t a tenth the artist that Riefenstahl was — his forte was bear-fisted slobby manipulation, appeals to emotion rather than to the artistic pleasure center. Primal is the word I’m looking for: Pauline Kael, while panning the redneck revengesploitation flick Walking Tall (not the Rock version), had to admit that the childish, basic tools it used — tools that had been around since silent films — packed an undeniable primal wallop. So, too, with Red Dawn.
Before the movie is anything else, it’s an attempt to show Americans what it might actually feel like to live in an occupied country. There’s a sad, noble nostalgia for the American way of life that’s been snuffed out; a group of citizens awaiting execution start singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” more to comfort themselves, we think, than out of defiance. “Things are different now,” mumbles a laconic Lea Thompson. Yet, like Rambo and other putatively right-wing fantasias of the ’80s, Red Dawn has free-floating, opportunistic politics that one can’t quite pin down. As David Denby pointed out in his review, the images of the young American guerrillas owe more to Communist iconography than to the expected John Wayne posturing. Milius sets up his elaborate “what if?” playpen, wherein Americans can perfectly justifiably blow away non-Americans, and then seems to lose the stomach for it. War, it turns out, isn’t much of a party. Most of the kids eventually get killed, and there’s much anguish over whether they’re doing the right thing, especially when one of their own number is singled out for execution.
If the movie has a hero, it’s Powers Boothe as a shot-down Air Force pilot who takes one look at some of the more gung-ho boys and knows they still see war as a game. Boothe knows what war is; these kids don’t, yet. And the leader of the Cuban forces (Ron O’Neal) gets more and more sick of the conflict. Those who haven’t seen Red Dawn in a while, or at all, may be surprised at the lengths Milius goes to humanize the enemy and to show the weak and sometimes inhuman side of the American warriors. If I were feeling generous, I’d even say Milius made the film to counteract some of the ignorant rhetoric on his own side of the political aisle. “You want World War III?” he might have been saying. “Okay, here’s what World War III might look like. Do you have the balls to fight it?”
Red Dawn gets awfully repetitive in its second half, and the shootouts and ambushes lose their triumphant ingenuity. America eventually repels the invaders, though offscreen (Milius must have run out of money). But the power — and occasional genuine wit (the local movie house showing Alexander Nevsky is a nice touch) — of the first half sets it apart from the usual jingoistic junk we saw in the ’80s, often from Cannon Films. When paratroopers start landing outside the school, it’s an undeniably spooky moment. I don’t always know what Red Dawn is saying, and I doubt Milius knew either, but for a while it’s a hell of a boy’s-book war thriller. It gets around liberal defenses and stages a guerrilla attack on the lizard brain.