Few Hollywood movies caused as much furor in the early 1980’s as Red Dawn. Its “Communist invasion” premise seemed to pander to Reagan-era Cold War politics. Others were bothered by its pro-gun culture/N.R.A. elements and even more were queasy about its violence (it was the first movie to receive a PG-13 rating from the MPAA). Today, it is mainly regarded as a quaint period piece by fans and detractors alike… and that’s a shame, because Red Dawn is both better-made and more interesting than it gets credit for being.
The film throws the audience into the action with an opening scene that depicts paratroopers assaulting a small-town high school with machine guns and rocket launchers. Matt (Charlie Sheen) and Robert (C. Thomas Howell) escape the melee with the help of Jed (Patrick Swayze), Matt’s older brother, and retreat to the woods with a few other teens. They soon discover their little hamlet has been invaded by a Russian-led coalition devoted to destroying the U.S. from the inside. Their parents are imprisoned or kill and the Army hedges on coming to the rescue. It’s up to them to fight back.
Jed takes the reins of the group and they form their own attack unit, dubbing themselves ‘the Wolverines’ after their high school’s football team and launching guerrilla attacks. Unfortunately, their successes come with costs, both tangible and psychological. Meanwhile, three different faces of the invading force attempt to come to terms with the guerrillas: Bratchenko (Vladek Sheybal) attempts to stop them with conventional methods, Strelnikov (William Smith) plots to strike back at them on their own level and Bella (Ron O’Neal) finds himself sympathizing with his young prey as he struggles with the mission’s morality.
Anyone who rejects Red Dawn for being farfetched shouldn’t spend too much time patting themselves on the back – given the premise, it has no choice but to be far-fetched. Instead of fighting the concept’s surreal nature, Milius plays into it by couching his narrative in a strange, out-of-time version of America in which no rock music is heard and teens don’t fret over sex or social standing. More importantly, he and co-writer Kevin Reynolds pump up the story’s coming-of-age angle to mythic proportions, giving the film an odd fable-like/allegorical feel – as if the viewer were witnessing a campfire tale brought to life.
Looking at the film as a mythic coming-of-age story also brings its supposed right-wing, jingoist slant into question. In fairness to its critics, Red Dawn does use the Cold War fears of the time with blunt-force effectiveness. That said, it seems Milius did so to capture the era’s sociopolitical zeitgeist and thus make his story immediately accessible to a 1984-era American audience. Take away the Russian invasion window-dressing and what remains is a story of individuals launching a guerrilla-war rebellion against an oppressive invading regime… not exactly what you could call rah-rah American nationalism (the more tin-eared might even call it terrorism).
Red Dawn also lacks the reverence for institutions that one would expect from ’80s right-wing propaganda. For example, it is very distrustful of government: the town’s mayor (a subtly humorous Lane Smith) quickly sells his townspeople out to retain power and comfort and the most political of the invasion leaders, Bratchenko, is depicted as a useless stuffed-shirt whose nationalist ego usually gets his own men killed. As for the teen heroes, they approach their mission from a moral stance instead of a political one: they’re more concerned with the right-vs.-wrong nature of protecting their home instead of striking a blow against Communism. It’s also interesting to note that the subplots dealing with the invading force are heavily critical of militarist thinking, an aim achieved through the character of Bella.
If anything, Red Dawn is libertarian in nature – it champions the individual and the idea of relying on yourself instead of relying on an easily-corrupted or misled collective. Milius serves this message well by utilizing teenage heroes to drive it home: bringing these ideas to life via a coming-of-age story lends it an unexpected poignance. The film is also uniquely pro-feminist in its depiction of two female fighters, effectively portrayed by Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey, who fight alongside their male counterparts as no-excuses equals.
One last note on political content: it is very much true that this film caters to the NRA mindset (tellingly, it shows the invaders using gun-registration forms to round up all the town’s gun owners). Not much to be said there other than Milius loves his guns. That said, the film wouldn’t be nearly as exciting if the kids had to fend off the invaders with booby traps.
If the viewer can get past issues of politics, Red Dawn happens to be an exciting and fairly complex adventure movie. Milius brings clockwork precision to his well-choreographed action sequences (the opening invasion sequence remains a white-knuckler no matter how many times one sees it). His efforts are aided by stylish photography from Ric Waite, who effectively exploits the wide vistas of the film’s mountainous setting and gives the film a rich, colorful look of apple-pie Americana that makes an effective, ironic backdrop for the story’s mayhem. Equally worthy of note is the stirring musical score by Basil Poledouris, an effective blend of sweeping, old-fashioned orchestrations and pulsating synths a la Jerry Goldsmith.
More importantly, the film boasts a well-selected ensemble cast. This is very important because Milius paints his story on an epic canvas, allowing it to take place over several months as we see the changes the guerrilla warfare wreaks upon the participants on both sides. Patrick Swayze brings an intense sense of commitment to his role as the heroes’ brave but troubled leader, allowing the audience to feel the weight on his shoulders at each step as he protect his followers against ever-growing danger. Equally effective is C. Thomas Howell, who makes a subtle transformation from naïve kid to cold-blooded killer during the film, and also Lea Thompson, who brings a genuine sense of heartache and lost innocence to her role as a female member of the group who can be as childlike as she is tough.
Milius supports his young actors with an impressive array of older character actors. Powers Boothe has become a well-deserved fan favorite as a world-weary soldier who aids the teen guerrillas – the scenes where he observes and comments on the lost innocence of his teammates are among the most quietly powerful moments in the film. Harry Dean Stanton also has a memorable one-scene role as the imprisoned father of Jed and Matt. On the enemy side, William Smith shines in a scene where he lectures Russian soldiers on the nature of their enemy, giving it a fervor one might expect from Milius himself.
However, the true heart of Red Dawn may very well be the performance of Ron O’Neal. The former star of Superfly makes the most of his scenes as Bella, bringing the character’s internal battle between duty and decency to life in a quiet yet emotionally effective manner. His best moment arrives near the end, when he writes a letter to his wife laying out his feelings about the situation he is in. It could have been mawkish in the wrong hands, but the combination of his understated narration of the letter and some subtly deployed facial expressions and gestures communicates a lifetime of regrets in a few short moments.
In summation, it is safe to say that if a viewer is not willing to “sign on for the ride” with Red Dawn then its appeal will be lost on him or her. The film might be as subtle as a flying mallet – but it’s also smarter and much more complex than its detractors would be willing to admit.
And if the prospective viewer is in the market for machismo cinema – well, it doesn’t get more macho than a John Milius movie.