Director – John Milius, Screenplay – John Milius & Kevin Reynolds, Story – Kevin Reynolds, Producers – Barry Beckerman & Buzz Feitshans, Photography – Ric Waite, Music – Basil Pouledoris, Production Design – Jackson De Govia. Production Company – MGM/UA.
Patrick Swayze (Jed Eckert), C. Thomas Howell (Robert Eckert), Lea Thompson (Erica), Powers Boothe (Andy Tanner), Ron O’Neal (Colonel Bella), Jennifer Grey (Toni), Ben Johnson (Mason), Vladek Sheybal (Bratchenko), Harry Dean Stanton (Mr Eckert), Charlie Sheen (Matt)
The routine of a small Colorado town is brutally interrupted as Russian soldiers parachute in and then open fire without warning. Teenager Jed Eckert leads a group of his school friends as they grab food and supplies and take refuge in the mountains. Forced to kill a sortie from the Soviet occupation troops, they take Russian weaponry and camouflage gear and mount a guerrilla campaign to strike back.
This silly piece of hot-blooded gung ho All-Americanism is one of the most unintentionally ludicrous pieces of Reds Under the Bed flagwaving since the heyday of the 1950s and the likes of Red Planet Mars (1952), Invasion USA (1952) and Rocket Attack USA (1958). The progenitor of Red Dawn might well have been Arch Oboler’s Strange Holiday (1945), which has a very similar premise in which Claude Rains returns from a holiday to find that a Nazi fifth column has overtaken the USA – the one thing that this adds to the equation is having the characters start an insurgency against the invaders.
Red Dawn was made by director John Milius, best known for films such as Dillinger (1973), The Wind and the Lion (1975), Big Wednesday (1978), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Farewell to the King (1989) and Flight of the Intruder (1991). Milius also works as a screenwriter and has authored the likes of the Dirty Harry film Magnum Force (1973), Apocalypse Now (1979) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). John Milius is clearly a director who loves guns, war movies and has an admiration for male characters that are tougher than nails and exude a larger-than-life macho charisma. A common theme in all of John Milius’s films is he-man rituals and characters undergoing rites of passage – his characters are frequently thrown into unfamiliar environments and forced to toughen up to survive. Milius grew up in Missouri and is, one suspects, someone who in reality considers a hunting cap and camouflage jacket to be dress attire and the right to bear arms one of the God-given birthrights of American citizenship.
Red Dawn is also co-written by Kevin Reynolds, who would later go onto become a director with such over-inflated, one-dimensional bombast as Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves (1991), Rapa Nui (1994) and Waterworld (1995) and would later return to the theme of freedom fighters vs Communists in The Beast of War (1988) set during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
There seems nothing funnier a few years on than yesterday’s conservatism. Red Dawn taps into the alarmist fears of the rural survivalists in the 1980s who were building home fallout shelters and stockpiling weapons and canned food in fear of an imminent nuclear war and the presumption that society would erupt into all-out anarchy. It, of course, never did. Indeed, the survivalism fantasy was predicated more upon distrust and misanthropy of the survivalists than any likelihood of anarchy and lawlessness erupting.
Red Dawn provides an amusing x-ray of the underlying anxieties of the Reagan administration. There is the preposterous anxiety that American military weakness is an open invitation to Communism – here the Strategic Defense Initiative has been eliminated by liberal cutbacks and NATO has abandoned the US. Moreover, symptomatic of the Reagan administration’s direct support of various repressive South American regimes in light of such fears, the Communist invasion of the US is aided by Cubans, Nicaraguans and illegal immigrants within the US.
Moreover, Red Dawn has an ardently pro-NRA message. In one scene, the Russians are able to round up all the gun-owning citizens of the town and place them in a concentration camp by going to the gun store and looking up who is registered to own a weapon – the natural implication being that gun registration and associated bureaucracy presents a dangerous impairment to freedom. Such ardent righter-than-right-wing alarmism is fascinating today – what is even more amazing is how worked up and irate people get about this film. A casual glance through the Internet Movie Database’s User Comments section for Red Dawn reveals an astounding number of people who love the fantasy the film buys into, some who even call it one of the best films of the 1980s. Even more so, there is an alarming number of Americans who believe that such an improbable scenario was in danger of happening in reality and celebrate the spirit of partisan freedom fighting as being the same spirit that made American “the country it is today”.
Frequently, Red Dawn collapses into ludicrousness. There are some very silly scenes with animal blood drinking rites, having to urinate in radiators and of Harry Dean Stanton screaming “Avenge me, boys.” Not to mention the rather ridiculous images of a group of teens in military camouflage gear wielding anti-tank missiles. John Milius is interested in the toughening-up of the group and his presentation of the image of a familiar everyday world turned upside into one of unsentimental survival is at least well conveyed. However, Milius never displays much interest in developing the characters of the group of teens – rather for him, characterisation is about making frequent statements about the need to toughen up and not be sentimental. Indeed, Milius does not even seem that interested in building the action suspensefully – all the film seems to consist of is a series of piecemeal attack scenes that fail to mount to any big show capper.
The cast does offer the possibility of seeing several stars before they became big names, including Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey a few years before their hit Dirty Dancing (1987), as well as a pre-Back to the Future (1985) Lea Thompson and a young Charlie Sheen.
Bizarrely enough, the film was remade as Red Dawn (2012). With the Soviet Union no longer in existence, this was recast with the Chinese but after outcry from the Chinese this was recast with North Koreans. Tomorrow When the War Began (2010) was an Australian variation on the idea.