Red Dawn (1984)

Directed by John Milius

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Man this was a strange watch.  Red Dawn feels like the type of movie that would be easy to loathe upon its release, but with time and nostalgia it now has a different appeal, bringing to the screen many old, famous faces from the 80s (among them Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson, Powers Boothe and even some of the heavier hitters like Harry Dean Stanton).

It’s a silly movie right off the bat, and I think the nostalgia factor plus the inherent absurdity of this imagining of World War III gives the audience room to laugh at what they see onscreen.  As a serious depiction of the speculated extension of an existing conflict, however, Red Dawn is as distressing as what Paul Verhoeven tried to warn us about with Stormship Troopers.  Both of these movies harken back to World War II imagery and a great deal of propaganda.  The only difference is that Verhoeven’s movie was satire, and the folks behind Red Dawn seem quite serious.

Life is quiet in a small midwestern town until paratroopers arrive in broad daylight and begin shooting up the local high school.  Further waves of these troops land and isolate the town but not before a small group of kids (basically The Outsiders) gather supplies and hide up in the mountains.  From there they will learn to be self-sufficient guerrilla warfare soldiers and fight back against their Soviet/Cuban oppressors.

These enemy soldiers have quickly occupied this small American town, and from there this conflict plays out like many similar (though real world) conflicts from World War II.  The Patrick Swayze-led group of rebel soldiers all wear their Teen Wolf letterman jackets and covertly lead violent revolts attacks against the occupying forces like in Battle of Algiers.

The action is at times effective, and it’s played with a dead seriousness, but the basic premise (conveyed mostly through quick onscreen text) is just so ridiculous that it’s hard to take this seriously.  In fact, the more deadly and stark this story gets the more it just seems offensive.  The movie borrows from lasting images of World War II, whether they’re the concentration camps, mass graves, occupied towns attempting to operate as if all is normal or just the general warfare.  The movie as a whole is just World War II-appropriation with young A-list (or soon to be A-list) stars.

From what I’ve read, this was meant to be more of a Lord of the Flies type of story.  The young kids run off into the mountains and must learn to survive on their own, at least before considering intervening back in town.  In this version they struggle as much with themselves, learning to cooperate and build a workable hierarchy, as they do with the obvious antagonists.  In Red Dawn there is little such nuance.  Early on two of the characters feud about what to do next, but by the end of the scene they have made their peace.

This group, soon to be known as the “Wolverines” after their high school mascot, demonstrate a chilling efficiency when it comes to small scale warfare.  In one scene we watch a boy shoot his first deer, and then before you know it they are marksmen, whether with an assault rifle or a grenade launcher.

It’s hard to keep track of just how they operate, but the details of their endeavors don’t much matter.  Early in the story they waltz right into the occupied town and then waltz right back out, seemingly without any armed guards watching them.  Later, after a couple leaps forward in time we see that they have an impressive stash of guns and ammo.  The rag tag group of kids, in the blink of an eye, turn into little Rambo’s.

The movie ends how you expect it will.  There is a lot of violence, a good deal of onscreen crying, and things blow up.

Red Dawn does that annoying thing that some movies try to do in which they take the All American heroes and make them the underdogs.  It’s strange and feels a bit like propaganda, to see the people who look like ‘us’ (at least in the white, heteronormative sense) face overt villains who look different than us.  It’s hard for a movie like this to not feel racist and shallow.

That being said, this is an 80s movie, which I think comes first when describing this movie to a friend.  It’s silly and jingoistic, but there’s something amusing about watching the leads from Dirty Dancing fire grenades into giant tanks, and maybe it’s worth it just for that image.

Up Next: Time After Time (1979), The Other Side of the Wind (2018), The Chase (1966)

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