Looking back at Red Dawn

"Wolverines!" Ryan takes a look back at director John Milius' Cold War action epic, Red Dawn...

John Milius’ films have long been about rugged men surviving against the odds, usually with a gun in their hands, and full of fabulous, terse dialogue. Remember Quint’s monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in Jaws? That was his, in part. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” from Apocalypse Now? Milius wrote that line in an early draft. “Do I feel lucky” from Dirty Harry? Milius’ uncredited words.

Milius followed up his directorial debut Conan The Barbarian with Red Dawn, probably the jewel in his career so far; it’s full of fabulously ripe dialogue, hundreds of guns and many more deaths. It’s simultaneously very funny and extraordinary bleak.

In an alternate version of the 1980s, a politically isolated United States stands alone against communism. Along with its allies in Cuba and Nicaragua, Russia stages a full-scale invasion, capturing North America before its military can react.

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The occupation is seen through the eyes of a group of Colorado teenagers, among them Jed (Patrick Swayze), his younger brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) and friends Robert (C Thomas Howell), Danny (Brad Savage) and Aardvark (Doug Toby).

Red Dawn’s opening sequence is extremely effective; as a history teacher attends to his class, soldiers parachute silently from the sky like autumn leaves. It’s a moment of visual poetry that abruptly ends when the teacher rather foolishly rushes outside to remonstrate with the invaders, and is promptly killed on the spot.

From this point on, the action seldom lets up. The communists open fire on the school (though why isn’t clear), and our young heroes make their escape in Jed’s pick-up truck. As the commies take over the town, crushing any attempt at a rebellion and rounding up its trouble-making men folk, Jed and his friends make camp in the hills.

A natural leader and survivalist, Jed inspires his comrades to wage a guerrilla war against the occupying forces, and teaches them to hunt and live off the land. A quick visit to the house of a friendly local, Jack Mason (Ben Johnson) adds two more to their number: Jack’s granddaughters, Toni (Jennifer Grey) and Erica (Lea Thompson), who are hidden in his basement (“They’ve been down there for two days,” Mason says. “Sons of bitches tried having their way with ‘em”).

Within months, this group of nervous young kids has transformed into a group of battle-hardened freedom fighters. Using purloined weapons and improvised bombs, the Wolverines, as they dub themselves, blow up strategic communist positions, destroy tanks, bust out a group of prisoners from a detention camp, and generally cause lots of mayhem for bad guys General Bratchenko (Vladek Sheybal), Colonel Stelknikov (William Smith) and the slightly less bad Colonel Bella (Ron O’Neal).

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All of this might sound, perhaps, like The Goonies with firearms – which Red Dawn sort of is, expect with a much bleaker tone and harder edge than you might expect. First, Red Dawn is extraordinarily violent – its body count is actually higher than the R-rated Rambo: First Blood Part II, released a year later, and was once hailed as the most violent movie ever by the Guinness Book of Records. What’s most surprising is that the MPAA gave Red Dawn a PG-13 rating, which is quite lenient considering just how many people are shot and blown up, and how gory the gunshot wounds sometimes are.

Red Dawn isn’t a cosy film, either, with the triumphant tone of the Wolverines’ early victories soon replaced by a gloomier mood as the group’s number gradually dwindles. The movie concludes with a patriotic air (something added at the studio’s insistence), but the events that lead to it are far more downbeat than Basil Poledouris’ jubilant score might imply.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of humour – some of it unintentional – to be gleaned from Red Dawn’s script. Harry Dean Stanton’s shriek of “Avenge me, boys! Avenge me!” is an absolute corker, as are the secret messages mumbled by a resistance fighter on a radio: “The chair is against the wall. John has a long moustache.”

As far as the story goes, it’s let down somewhat by its anonymous array of young heroes. Sheen and Swayze are suitably heroic, but the rest of the Wolverines are given little to say or do. Powers Boothe appears for a while as a wounded colonel, but I get the impression that writers John Milius and Kevin Reynolds didn’t really know what to do with him – a few scenes after his introduction, the colonel’s shot by a commie tank commander.

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If you really wanted to be picky, you could fuss over Red Dawn’s frequent absence of logic. It seems odd that, having been rescued from the detention camp by the Wolverines, none of the prisoners of war remained to fight alongside them – instead, they’re never seen again, having been sent off to unoccupied territory, presumably.

None of this is to say, however, that Red Dawn isn’t an enjoyable film. Some viewers might pick fault with its unsubtle politics, depiction of Soviet and Latin American forces as faceless murderers, or chortle at its range of 80s fashions and haircuts, but these merely add to the film’s curious appeal. Red Dawn is capable of extreme goofiness, but then throws in an isolated moment of surprising power – the scene where Jed coldly shoots a traitorous member of his team is one example.

Red Dawn is but one of many 80s relics to be dusted off for a 21st century remake, and John Milius hasn’t been subtle about what he thinks of it all. “I think it’s a stupid thing to do. The movie is not very old,” told the LA Times after reading the remake’s script. “It was terrible. There was a strange feeling to the whole thing. They were fans of the movie, so they put in stuff they thought was neat. It’s all about neat action scenes and has nothing to do with story.”

Shelved for more than two years due to the cash flow problems at MGM, a reported $1 million has been spent on digitally changing the nationality of the remake’s invaders from Chinese to North Korean – in an era where overseas box-office takings are more important than every, Hollywood, it seems, has to be a little bit more careful about the selection of its big-screen enemies.

Whether the new Red Dawn is good, bad or indifferent, it’s hard to believe that it’ll have quite the cultural impact that Milius’ film did. Lampooned in Family Guy and South Park, freely referenced in equally jingoistic videogames such as Modern Warfare 2 and Homefront (which Milius himself wrote), and clearly inspiring to the US military – the mission to capture Saddam Hussein was called Operation Red Dawn – the movie’s lingered in the memory long after the Cold War era has drawn to a close.

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