Movies often become dated, that’s just a fact. This is especially true when movie intertwine themselves with a current political climate or world situation and try to project a possible future. At times, even though they are dated, they are still quite relevant as human beings seem to have difficulty learning from our past mistakes. However, I don’t recall ever seeing a movie that in trying to create flag-waving patriotism almost twenty-five years ago manages to make me decidedly uncomfortable in this day and age. That is, until I watched the film Red Dawn for the first time in a number of years.
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John Milius was a writer and director on many well-known films in the 1970’s. From those films and his friendships with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, I wouldn’t have pegged him as someone who would also be on the Board of Directors of the NRA. However, that does explain a lot of what happens in Red Dawn, which he both wrote and directed. I don’t know that he would see the same things I do in this film after 25 years, and if he does, I doubt he would admit to it.
In 1984, the Cold War was in full swing. At times it seemed like the Communists were at our borders and were everywhere. Just a year before, the shooting down of Korean Airlines plane by the Soviets seemed to have us paused for what everyone feared was the inevitable fate of the planet anyway.
In Red Dawn, a group of students is in high school in the town of Calumet, Colorado (an ironic name for the town, since a “calumet” is a Native-American peace pipe) when their teacher notices something strange happening outside. Para-troopers are landing in the football field. At first, they believe they are just seeing Army exercises that are way off course. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that this is not our Army, but a force of invaders. The clue is when they gun down the teacher and begin shooting up the school.
A group of boys escape when the one of the boy's brother races into the school parking lot in his pick-up, they pile in, then tear off before they are shot. As they drive through town they encounter more invaders. They make their way to a service station owned by the father of one of the boys, who equips them with all sorts of equipment for survival in the mountains, including weapons, then sends them off to hide.
It's only after all of this happens that we really begin to learn anything about the characters who are central to this film. Jed (portrayed by Patrick Swayse) was a high school football hero who eventually becomes the leader or parental figure. Matt (portrayed by Charlie Sheen) is his younger brother. Robert (portrayed by C. Thomas Howell) is the son of the service station owner who supplied them.
Darryl (portrayed by Darren Dalton) is the son of the mayor (portrayed by Lane Smith) and one of the weaker ones of the group, something important to remember for later in the film.
For some of the boys, their first thought is to surrender. Okay, like this makes sense. Whoever that was back in town, they just killed students at your school who weren't threatening them in any way and you got out of town with guns blazing at you and you think they will let you surrender and go on about your life? The story would end right there, so it’s no surprise that Jed talks them out of it.
Meanwhile, in town, we see that the invaders are Central American Communists aided by the Soviets and led by Colonel Bella (portrayed by Ron O'Neal). He saw much combat mainly as a resistance fighter in his native country.
After a few weeks of hiding in the mountains, the boys get antsy and decide to go back to town. They manage to walk right in without anyone catching them and learn they are wanted by the KGB. Jed and Matt's father is in a prison camp with some of the other adults in town. Before going back into hiding, they stop at another familiar home. They learn more there. They are now 40 miles behind enemy lines. There is a battle going on. Robert's father was killed for giving them the guns. The neighbor asks them to take his two grand-daughters, Toni and Erica (portrayed by Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson) with them to the mountains after the girls were abused by soldiers who quartered themselves at the home.
After the kids kill three soldiers who accidentally wander too close to where they are hiding out, they begin to feel empowered and strike back, acting as rebels. Even as the occupiers retaliate by killing more and more of the innocent townsfolk, they continue to make small strikes against the occupiers and in general disrupt the smoothness of the occupation. They tag their victories with the word Wolverines, an homage to their high school mascot.
Eventually, they are aided in their efforts by an Air Force Colonel, Tanner (portrayed by Powers Booth) who bails out of his aircraft before it crashed. Their actions get them noticed by American forces fighting the invaders on the front, and there are rumors of help being sent their way in the spring, if they can hold out that long.
I can remember liking this film so much when I was younger, and now it seems to make me uncomfortable,. For one thing, it’s pure propaganda at a time when drumming up support against THE COMMUNISTS was paramount. Creating a fear of THE COMMUNISTS invading us aided the fight against THE COMMUNISTS in the South American nations of Nicaragua and El Salvador. How ironic is it that 25 years later we have practically mortgaged this country to THE COMMUNISTS with Communist China owning nearly 20% of our national debt?
The movie fails in many ways all these years later simply because it is more interested in the propaganda than making sense. Even for our heinous foes THE COMMUNISTS, it's hard to believe they would land in a town and immediately begin shooting up a school. But Red Dawn was the perfect propaganda film for aiding various oppressive dictatorships in South America. It preyed on our fears of the Communists as the WORST THING EVER to prop up these dictatorships. Of course, that would eventually come around on us as fighting THE COMMUNISTS at all costs meant ignoring some of the rather bad characteristics of those we considered "allies", such as those we helped repel the Soviets in Afghanistan who would later go on to declare their own jihad against us.
Knowing Milius’ association with the NRA, it's no wonder that Red Dawn also at times takes jabs at laws regulating guns and gun control in this country as Colonel Bella almost immediately tells his men to obtain the forms from the sporting goods store that will tell them who has weapons in the town. Like no one in town would ever ride outside of town to buy a gun. But why let logic get in the way of a good story? Or a moment where you can give people a moment where they can say there should be no gun control since we would need the weapons against those damn Commie invaders?
As I watched this with all of the events of the past few years in the back of my mind. I was stuck by one thing in particular. Watching how the kids act seeing their country occupied, it reminded me more of those we would label "terrorists" for wanting us out of their country when we are the invaders. We might not have killed innocent townspeople in other countries, but how many did we "detain for questioning" indefinitely, not knowing whether they were truly guilty of anything? Even Colonel Bella remarks that he doesn't like being on the other side of the aisle this time and labels the group of rebels "insurgents".
My how things have changed in 25 years.
However, political discomfort and propaganda aside, there is some terrific talent here. Patrick Swayze is excellent as Jed and really manages to keep him from being a one-dimensional character. Normally that would have happened quite easy in a film such as this. He would team up with Jennifer Grey a few years later in Dirty Dancing, so seeing their interaction here really builds on the chemistry that they had in that film. Charlie Sheen is great here, so much so that I didn’t realize who I was watching until I saw the ending credits roll, and then I had to go back and watch it again to appreciate his performance. He doesn’t have a lot to do, but it’s a good role for him. The cast has a good deal of energy when together, and they don’t tend to cross the line to the point that I felt the film existed just for a group of young people to have a good time together.
What also saves Red Dawn from being a hideous film is the story itself. Once you put the propaganda aside, it’s not half bad with the kids managing to achieve something that many people would have dismissed the young of the day for. Back then. It showed that we could do something and have an impact at a time when it felt like everyone else was saying something different about our generation.
Unless you actually lived through this time, I don’t think Red Dawn will do anything except inspire peals of laughter. There are some good moments, but it’s a film that has lost it’s meaning in our current world. If anything, it turns the tables on us as a country and our actions around the world as of late. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the intent, so it doesn’t have the necessary bite that a film that intended to do that would have. It’s a film I would recommend for those who remember that time period and use it to see how far we’ve truly come. All others could skip it and not be missing anything.
© 2008 Patti Aliventi
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