“I don’t know. Two toughest kids on the block I guess. Sooner or later they’re going to fight.”
Anyone who grew up during the 1980’s would say that some of the best action films were made and release during this decade. I won’t disagree with them and probably would agree to a certain point. This was the decade when action films evolved from the realism of the 70’s to the excess and ultra-violence of the 80’s. This was the decade which ushered in such action heroes as Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis. It was also the decade which released one of the most violent films ever released by a major motion picture studio. It’s a film that has been remembered through the prism of nostalgia. I speak of the 1984 war film by John Milius simply titled Red Dawn.
John Milius is one of those filmmakers who never conformed to the stereotype of liberal Hollywood. He was an unabashed Republican (though he considers himself more of a Zen anarchist) in a liberal studio system who happened to have written some of the most revered films of the 1970’s (Jeremiah Johnson, Apocalypse Now, Dirty Harry). He came up with a follow-up to his hugely successful Conan the Barbarian in the form of a war film set in current times (mid-80’s) America that he called Red Dawn. It was a story which takes an alternate history of the Cold War where Soviet forces and it’s allies launch a successful preemptive invasion of the United States. Before people think that this was the idea born of a conservative, warmongering mind it’s been documented that Milius’ inspiration for this film was a real Pentagon hypothetical exercise of what would happen if the Soviet Union conducted a conventional invasion of the United States and how the government and it’s population would react and resist such an occupying force. The story would finally get it’s final treatment with major input from screenwrtier Kevin Reynolds’ own story which added a certain Lord of the Flies vibe to the group of teenagers who form the bulk of the film’s cast.
The film actually starts off with an impressive sequence of your typical Midwestern high school day with students seated in their classrooms. One moment this Rockwellian image gets a surprise from soldiers parachuting in the field outside the school. Thus we have the beginning of the Soviet invasion with one of the teachers being gunned down for trying to peacefully interact with the airborne troopers. The rest of the film is about a group of highschoolers led by senior Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) and his younger brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) as they flee with a handful of their classmates the massacre at their school and soon their whole town as well.
Red Dawn uses the first half of the film to show the confusion and chaos created by the sudden appearance of foreign soldiers on America soil attacking civilians and, soon enough, whatever American military response that manages to react in the area. We’re put in the shoes of Jed and his band of teenagers as they try to survive the roving bands of Soviet and Cuban soldiers patrolling the plains and countryside surrounding their hometown of Calumet, Colorado. We see American civilians packed into re-education camps and rumors of KGB secret police making certain troublemakers disappear and worst. It’s the America Cold War nightmare scenario where the Soviet Evil Empire has taken a foothold on US soil and the government and military nowhere in sight to help it’s population.
The second half of the film solves this scenario by arming the teenagers led by Jed into a sort of teen guerrila force using their school’s mascot as their rallying cry. It’s the shouts of “Wolverines!” which has become part of American pop-culture as we get to see these teenagers conduct hit-and-run strikes on enemy patrols and forward bases while at the same time arming those they free from camps. It’s during this part of the film where the violence gets ramped up to an almost ridiculous level. It’s no wonder that for almost two decades this film would be considered by Guinness World Records as the most violent film ever put on the big-screen. Milius and his filmmaking crew do not skimp on the use of blood squibs as Jed and his ragtag band of teen fighters gun down Soviets, Nicaraguans and Cuban soldiers by the score every minute during a long montage in the middle of the film.
Red Dawn in terms of storytelling is actually quite good in the grand scheme of the narrative being told, but even through the prism of nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses the characters in the film get the short-end of the stick. With the exception of Swayze’s eldest teen Jed as leader of the Wolverines the rest of the band’s teenage characters look like your typical casting call stereotypes who fill in the required roles in any ensemble cast. There’s Darren Dalton as the high school class president jealous of the group’s leader Jed, but unable to act on it. We have C. Thomas Howell as Robert the mousy one when the film begins who becomes a hardened and cold-hearted killer as the film goes on. Everyone fits in neatly to their assigned role and noen of the young actors (at the time) bring much to their characters.
This film continues to be remembered fondly by it’s fans both new and old because of the “what-if” scenario being played out on the screen. I would say that if there ever was a pure American film I would think Red Dawn manages to fit the bill. It’s a film which highlights the so-called individualism and can-do attitude Americans see for themselves. How it’s up to each individual to fight to protect their loved ones and for what is theirs. Some have called this film as a conservative’s wet-dream, but I rather think it’s a film that should appeal more to Libertarians as it focuses on individual liberties and self-preservation when the government and military tasked to protect them have failed.
John Milius has always been a maverick in Hollywood and his unpopular political beliefs have kept him from doing more work in the film industry, but one cannot deny the fact that he made one of the most iconic films of the 1980’s. Whether one agreed with the film’s politics and thought it to be a good film or not was irrelevent. Red Dawn has become part of American pop-culture and will continue to be a major example of the excess of 80’s action filmmaking for good or ill. Plus, even the most liberal people I know find the basic story of fighting to protect the nation from invaders something that feeds their innermost fantasy of playing the good guys fighting the good fight. Red Dawn is a great example of the underdog film that just happens to have teenagers kicking Soviet military ass.