Film Review: Red Dawn (1984)



Hardcore cinephiles know that many films don’t age well. But even they could be somewhat surprised with the level of cruelty history has shown to Red Dawn, 1984 war action epic directed by John Millius, film based on a premise that made it the source of ridicule only few years after the premiere.

The war depicted in the film actually never happened, but it was looking increasingly likely during the time of production, when the relations between United States and Soviet Union were at their nadir. The plot was set few years in the future, with things not going well for Free World – Greens victory in West Germany led to collapse of NATO, Communists have taken over more countries of Central America and Mexico was hit by massive left-wing insurgency. All that seems to be of a little concern to the protagonists, high students in small town of Calumet, Colorado. One day, while they are attending class, they see large numbers of paratroopers descending into town before they begin to shoot anyone on the street. Jed Eckert (played by Patrick Swayze), young man who previously drove his brother Matt (played by Charlie Sheen) to school, picks him and couple more survivors and, after getting bows, arrows, hunting rifles, ammo and other supplies, they all head to the mountains where they are supposed to hide before the whole things blows over. After some time they return to town only to find it firmly under the control of invading Soviet army and their Cuban allies, with many of the townsfolk that have survived the initial assault being brought to “re-education” camps, including Eckert’s father Tom (played by Harry Dean Stanton). At first concerned only with survival, they are forced to use weapons against Soviet soldiers and their action gradually transform into improvised guerilla campaign. They receive training and leadership after finding Lt. Col. Andrew “Andy” Tanner (played by Powers Boothe), downed USAF pilot, who also informs them about general war situation. Small band, which took the name “Wolverines”, proves to be an effective guerilla force that makes life miserable for occupying force whose brutal acts of reprisals against innocent civilians only help the resistance grow.

Premiere of Red Dawn coincided with 1984 Olympics, second in the row to be affected by Cold War-induced boycott, and only few months before Ronald Reagan being re-elected as US President in a landslide with country apparently adopting his hardline stance towards Evil Empire. As such, film with its patriotic, jingoistic and anti-Communist message corresponded well with the audience and was quite successful at the box-office, and today is fondly remembered by those on the right side of American politics. Critics (most of them being traditionally left of centre) were, however, less than thrilled and many saw it as not only as a cheap piece of right-wing propaganda, but also as dangerous contribution as already too bellicose atmosphere that could one day result in actual Third World War, much destructive and more apocalyptic than depicted in this film. Some critics were laughing at the idea of Soviets being able to successfully conduct logistically difficult and risky invasion of US mainland only to be hampered by small band of poorly armed and trained teenagers, apparently able to do to invaders what US Army, US Navy and US Air Force failed to do. Those complaints became even more convincing few years later, when Soviet Empire self-imploded in most humiliating way, showing that the great villain of the Cold War was paper tiger unable to maintain its own survival and even less able to invade its main adversary half a world away.

Film was often accused of being “right-wing fantasy” with many references to the director John Milius, known as one of the rare right-wingers in Hollywood. Milius as co-writer indeed transformed the original script by Kevin Reynolds, written as serious anti-war drama, into conventional action film celebrating rugged individualism, manly action and gun rights. Milius is, however, an excellent director and this shows in the film which features a lot of superb film making skills. Invasion was portrayed in realistic way, with great effort being invested into having occupying force using real or realistic replicas of East Bloc weapons, vehicles and equipment, at those times not so available to aspiring film makers from the wrong side of Iron Curtain. Red Dawn has also put cinematographer Ric Waite to good use, which resulted in many scenes that portray wild beauty of Rocky Mountains. Basil Poledouris also provided musical score which was adequate, although not as memorable as his work on Conan the Barbarian. Film also featured many well-executed action scenes. The cast, made of young actors of which many would become great stars later in the decade, was also very good. While some of them might have been cast because of attractive looks, they showed great acting ability and realistically portrayed young people who, after being exposed to unimaginable horrors of war or being faced with difficult moral choices, become hardened. Patrick Swayze is especially effective as the group leader, while the best performance belongs to Lea Thompson who, as one of two girls in the group, looks surprisingly unglamorous for future Hollywood star. Powers Boothe is also good in the role of somewhat jaded military professional who becomes group’s mentor; the film could have used his talents even better if he had been portrayed as anti-war person (as in the original script) or explored romantic subplot with Thompson’s character. Boothe, whose character successfully fights against the Soviets, would only few years later star as heroic Soviet general Vasily Chuikov in Stalingrad, the last WW2 epic to be produced in Soviet Union.

While some of the criticisms directed towards Red Dawn is valid, reducing it to a “silly fantasy” isn’t quite fair. After some thought and especially after not regarding Millius’ politics, this film doesn’t look that unintelligent. Millius was, according to apocryphal sources, partially inspired by the exploits of Yugoslav Partisans in Second World War and many of the critics in former Yugoslavia recognised Red Dawn as Partisan film, subgenre specific for that country. In those films most of the protagonists were, just like in this film, youths or teenagers and this detail corresponds to historic record. Millius was also inspired by experiences of various guerilla movements in history including some, like Vietcong, that were actually left-wing and fought against Americans during Cold War. This interesting inversion of stereotypes was even explicitly mentioned in the film through the words of Cuban Colonel Ernesto Bella, character brilliantly played by Ron O’Neal, who used to be left-wing guerilla fighter during his early days and, as part of occupying force, seems to understand his opponents. The script, unlike many Hollywood productions in the latter parts of Cold War and later periods, discards cheap propaganda stereotypes of Soviets as laughably incompetent adversaries; this is best seen in character of Spetsnaz commander Colonel Strelnikov (played by William Smith, one of rare Hollywood actors who could speak Russian fluently), who appears relatively late in the film but, just like French paratroop commander Colonel Mathieu in The Battle of Algiers, proves to be much more capable and efficient when dealing with insurgency. Yet, despite all those details that point to more thoughtfulness in the script, Red Dawn is likely to be remembered as silly film, although not that silly as the people who produced 2012 remake with North Koreans as villains instead of Soviets. History wasn’t kind to the film, but it was much kinder to the humanity, which remained spared from Third World War. At least for now.

RATING: 7/10 (++)

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