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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"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.