The Magazine

Morning in America

Rewatching the movie Red Dawn, twenty years later.

Aug 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 46 • By MATTHEW REES and ROBERT SCHLESINGER
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THIS WEEK marks the twentieth anniversary of the first movie released with what was, at the time, the new rating of "PG-13." Called Red Dawn, it was a near-future tale of teenage guerrillas defending their hometown after the Soviets had invaded.

While the film was widely (though not universally) panned, it remains more than the answer to a good trivia question about movie ratings. It has endured the passing of the Cold War to occupy a niche of its own in American culture. Something of a cult classic in right-wing circles, the film has been accorded the ultimate compliment by the denizens of mainstream subversive comedy: It has been spoofed in an episode of South Park.

The film also endures in the military: When American troops were planning the mission that would ultimately lead them to Saddam Hussein, they called it "Operation Red Dawn"--and the two locations targeted in the raid were named "Wolverine One" and "Wolverine Two," in honor of the movie's band of teens-turned-freedom-fighters. The Army captain who came up with the label, Geoffrey McMurray, said afterward, "It was a patriotic, pro-American movie. . . . I think all of us in the military have seen Red Dawn." (On a less uplifting note, Timothy McVeigh was also said to have been an avid fan of the film.)

So, why does Red Dawn endure? Some of the appeal is the cast, which was largely unknown at the time but went on to achieve varying degrees of stardom: If you grew up in the 1980s, there's something weirdly entertaining about watching the Brat Pack mujahedeen of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson, and C. Thomas Howell wielding RPGs and heavy machine guns as they set out to kill the Commies for their mommies. "You're momma'd be real proud," a downed Air Force pilot (Powers Boothe) tells Wolverine leader Swayze.

For that matter, there is undeniable appeal about a film layered with a rock-ribbed ideology that sends it happily careening between patriotism and pure camp. Opening shortly before the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, where Ronald Reagan would declare that it was "morning in America," Red Dawn painted a picture of a dark, stormy midnight in the nation. If Reagan was the smiling, optimistic face of the GOP, Red Dawn presented the party's apocalyptic, fear-mongering side, with grim glee and all the subtlety of an Al Sharpton speech. This was, after all, before the heady days of Gorbachev, glasnost, and perestroika--and the formula worked. Red Dawn was number one at the box office its opening weekend, displacing a somewhat less ideological film, Ghostbusters.

Before the opening credits roll for Red Dawn, the film uses stark yellow lettering against the backdrop of an all-black screen and ominous music to set up its world thrown into turmoil, a scenario straight out of an early 1980s conservative nightmare: The Soviets are set on edge by poor crop harvests; the Cuban and Nicaraguan armies sweep through Central America in a Latin domino effect that finally engulfs Mexico; Western Europe (what we now call Old Europe) goes Green and nonnuclear, and NATO dissolves. The United States, we are told, "stands alone."

In the film's opening scene, a high-school teacher lecturing on military strategy (that of Genghis Khan, no less) is interrupted when he sees dozens of parachutists landing just outside the classroom. "I would say they are way off course," he understates. (Ironically, during filming, extras in full costume actually were blown off course, and at least one had to convince unwitting locals that he wasn't a Russian invader and thus shouldn't be shot.) When the teacher goes outside to investigate, a paratrooper berates him in Russian and then mows him down. The rest of the invaders start firing on the classroom, which is still full of students. Those who aren't hit--one is left with his body hanging out the schoolroom window--try to flee as they are sprayed with gunfire.

IN SHORT ORDER, the invaders occupy the fictional Calumet, Colorado (Red Dawn was actually filmed in Las Vegas, New Mexico), and the rest of the movie is the story of how eight teenagers eke out an existence in the nearby mountain range and wage an implausible (though seemingly successful) five-month guerrilla war against the occupying forces. They adopt as their name the mascot of their high school: Wolverines.

The movie's explanation of how the Communists penetrated America's defenses could have been scripted by Pat Buchanan, though it is told by Powers Boothe, the Air Force lieutenant colonel who has been shot down and brings news from FA--"Free America."