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."

"First wave of the attack came in disguise as commercial charter flights, same way they did in Afghanistan in '80, only they were crack airborne outfits," he tells the Wolverines, who are sitting around a campfire in the snow-covered mountains. "Infiltrators came up illegal from Mexico, Cubans mostly. They managed to infiltrate SAC bases in the Midwest, several down in Texas--it wreaked a helluva lot of havoc, I'm here to tell ya. They opened up the door down here, and the whole Cuban and Nicaraguan armies come walking right through, roll right up here through the Great Plains."

In short, America was undone by a combination of free-traders and illegal immigrants. What about Europe? asks one of the Wolverines. "I guess they figured twice in one century was enough. [Pause for a slug of whiskey.] They're sitting this one out. All except England, and they won't last very long." The scene's highlight comes when Boothe explains who is on our side: "600 million screamin' Chinamen." When a Wolverine objects that the last he heard there were a billion screamin' Chinamen, Boothe throws his whisky onto the fire, igniting it, before observing, "There were."

Distrust of foreigners is just one ingredient in the film's apocalyptic stew. Guns are another. The review in Guns & Ammo described it as "one of the most potent pro-gun movies ever made." Indeed, guns (and a healthy dose of gumption) enable the Wolverines' heroic resistance, and the movie doesn't shy from going overboard to make the point: Shortly after the Commies have stormed Calumet, the camera spies a pickup truck bearing a bumper sticker with the NRA's unofficial slogan: "They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold dead fingers." The camera immediately pans down to a Calumet citizen's corpse clutching a handgun before a Commie boot steps on it and the invader pries the gun away. Later, a leader of the occupying forces orders a minion to go to the local sporting-goods store and retrieve "form 4473," which, he explains, has "descriptions of weapons and lists of private owners." The NRA couldn't have asked for a better piece of agitprop.

The film also targets politicians as sniveling bootlickers. Calumet's mayor (played by Lane Smith, who would later in the same year play nearly the same character in the short-lived television series V) does a first-rate impression of a quisling, collaborating with the invading forces, and standing idly by while about two dozen Americans--whom he presumably fingered as the troublemakers' families--are lined up and executed, as the Soviet national anthem plays in the background. ("This community is indeed fortunate to have a shepherd like him," the leader of the occupying forces chuckles to his assistant.) Predictably, the mayor's son--who is student body president at Calumet High--is the Wolverines' early voice favoring surrender and later turns traitor. "He's a leader, but not in a violent, physical way," the mayor explains. "He's more of a politician, like his father."

Precisely why director John Milius (who has also worked on Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry, and Conan the Barbarian), chose to include two teenage girls in the band of brothers who make up the Wolverines remains a mystery. But they're not weak sisters. Indeed, Jennifer Grey's character plants a bomb that detonates in the Soviet American Friendship Center that's been established in Calumet, and she's the first Wolverine to kill one of the occupiers. Later, when she's shot and can't keep pace with her fellow Wolverines in the heat of battle, she asks Swayze to kill her so she won't be caught and tortured for information.

Instead, they give her a grenade, which explodes when an occupying soldier finds her body and tries to move it. (Grey and Swayze apparently clashed during the making of Red Dawn, but that didn't prevent them from teaming up a few years later for the box office smash Dirty Dancing.) When Charlie Sheen tells Lea Thompson to "make yourself useful" by washing dishes, she angrily knocks them away and barks back, "Me and her are as good as any of you!" It's grrrrrrrrrrrrl power, Rambo-style.

Indeed, while the film spilled enough blood to be tagged by the National Coalition on Television Violence as the most violent ever made (134 acts of violence per hour), the machismo is offset by tears of fear. The number of scenes where various characters declare that no one should ever cry again is matched by the number of scenes where they blubber about lost family and friends. "If you didn't love anybody you'd never even be here," one Wolverine comforts Thompson after the death of a comrade. Hearts bleed figuratively as well as literally in Red Dawn.

A member of the Dutch resistance during World War II boasted on NPR that the film skillfully captured the spirit of an insurgent movement. But the movie's rhetoric is often overwrought: "All that hate's going to burn you up, kid," Powers Boothe tells C. Thomas Howell as the teen carves another notch in the stock of his AK-47. "It keeps me warm," snarls Howell in response. And much of the acting has the grace of Keanu Reeves at his most wooden. Shortly after a few of the Wolverines have fled Calumet and taken refuge in the nearby mountain range, they kill a buck for food, and then make Howell drink a cup of its blood. Once you drink the blood, they tell him, "there's gonna be something different about you." Indeed, Howell ends up the most radicalized of the group, and dies in a blaze of gunfire while defiantly screaming at his enemies, "WOLVERINES!"

Twenty years after the release of Red Dawn, the film takes on a slightly different hue: America's defenses have been brutally penetrated. And after watching the Wolverines boast of their ignorance of the Geneva Conventions as they prepare to execute an enemy prisoner, one can only wonder if perhaps a few of the soldiers serving in Abu Ghraib might have learned the wrong lesson from late-night viewings of the film.

BUT IN THE END, the story of Red Dawn is a story of the quest for freedom over totalitarian aggression--schlocky, but still powerful. And in the telling of this story, what emerges is history's most fiercely anti-Communist movie (an admittedly small category). There was clearly something to like about a movie that Pravda panned at the time as "a monstrous anti-Soviet concoction" that "poisons the audience's minds with the drug of anti-Communism." And there would, of course, have been only one appropriate response to such Kremlin-inspired belligerence: "Wolverines of the world, UNITE!"

Matthew Rees is a former staff writer at The Weekly Standard. Robert Schlesinger is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.