Notes on “Red Dawn”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

RedDawnWOLVERINES

  • Though ostensibly a combat film, “Red Dawn,” it seems to me, is built on a foundation of tropes related to ’50s sci-fi and exploitation. In some ways it’s as much a tribute to small-town monster movies as Joe Dante’s “Gremlins,” released the same year — though “Red Dawn” is much less cheeky, more solemn, and more self-important. I doubt this is the result of a conscious decision on the part of director John Milius and co-writer Kevin Reynolds. Rather, it’s the result of their riffing on the same conservative-reactionary values that made many of those mid-century pictures so memorable. Like the townspeople in the 1953 “The War of the Worlds,” the inhabitants of the town in “Red Dawn” are forced to fight off an external threat — and this makes them more unified, more American. People have been seeing reactions to Communism in those old sci-fi movies nearly since the day they came out. Milius and Reynolds make that reaction explicit.
  • The movie might play best as a metaphor for the encroachment of Cultural Marxism. Milius and Reynolds stack the screenplay with appreciations of things that are calculated to drive the Left nuts: flyover country, football, hunting, gun ownership, patriarchy, retaliation, moonshine. The movie is a call to arms aimed at those who still hold these things in reverence. Milius is encouraging them to tell the establishment — the tastemakers — to fuck off. I suspect the extreme reactions to the movie derive more from this aspect of its point of view than from its supposed bellicosity. Similar elements turn up in Milius’ 1975 “The Wind and the Lion,” in which kidnapped American children are shown — approvingly — learning to fight using weapons borrowed from their Berber captors.
  • In Milius’ mind, Europe is already too rotten to fight back. When one of his kids asks a commando why European countries aren’t coming to America’s aid, he says, “They figured twice in one century was enough. They’re sittin’ this one out.”
  • “Red Dawn” is also a pretty overt appreciation of guerrilla insurgencies, particularly those involved in the contemporaneous Afghan-Soviet conflict. The most interesting character in the film is a former Cuban freedom fighter turned Soviet tool who begins to rethink his position upon observing the ferocity of the American fighters. (He sees himself in them.) The movie is most definitely not the jingoistic, let’s-nuke-the-Soviets exercise it’s often made out to be. In fact, Milius seems uninterested in nukes, which play no part in “Red Dawn,” and he’s clearly skeptical of imperialist displays of power. Rather, he’s interested in the pugnacious individual, the brave man of character who stands against the world. “Red Dawn” goes out of its way to make America seem little, weak, defenseless, in part because Milius sees America as culturally, if not militarily, weakened, but also because he needs that underdog, mano-a-mano element to work himself into the warrior mindset.
  • There’s a healthy dose of James Fenimore Cooper in the movie’s portrayal of survivalism as an essential coming-of-age rite. How often do you see that in popular culture these days? There’s the recent “After Earth.” Do the “Hunger Games” movies qualify?
  • The look of the film is flat, gray, uninspired. So is its general tone. Milius and cinematographer Ric Waite may have intended all that bland straightforwardness to serve as a counterpoint to the looniness of the concept, but I think a movie like this needs to seethe — to get under your skin — to be effective, and that just isn’t the case. “Red Dawn” is a disappointingly clinical and on-the-surface affair.
  • A few memorable moments and images: 1) The inspired opening, in which scores of paratroopers in gray-white camo suddenly appear in the sky outside a classroom window and then descend, alien-like, into the middle of the playground. 2) The kid with the rifle in his hand standing like an Indian brave on a rock and yelling the name of the high school mascot — “wolverines!” 3) The band of children ambushing the reds by popping out of the ground like trapdoor spiders. Probably, these are the bits that everyone who’s seen the movie remembers most clearly.
  • When the kids visit Ben Johnson — it’s Ben Johnson playing Ben Johnson — there’s an amusing moment when he opens his root cellar to reveal very nubile incarnations of Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson. He then gives them to the boys. No greater gift was ever bestowed upon a group of healthy young men. But rather than allow the bit to blossom into something funny or sexy, Milius just lets it hang there. And the expected sexual tension between the girls and the guys — the ratio is around 2:8 — never develops. To the extent Milius is interested in the females, it’s in showing their capacity to act like boys. Sex never really enters into it.
  • Come to think of it: Has Milius ever been interested in sex? I guess “Conan” has some Frazetta-derived oomph to it. But one of the disappointing things about “The Wind and the Lion” is its refusal to build on the attraction between Sean Connery’s ornery pirate and Candace Bergen’s uptight patrician mom. Their relationship never gets off the page. Possibly, Milius is so in love with masculinity and bravado that he has difficulty thinking himself into a female perspective.
  • Given Milius’ involvement, it’s odd that there are almost no compelling characters in “Red Dawn.” The kids are barely differentiated, and most of the adults are too schematized to be interesting.
  • It doesn’t help that Milius fails to get vivid performances out of the teens. You can understand why the director shows them crying — he wants to chart a progression from softness to manly stoicism — but it’s probably a mistake to ask Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell to weep on camera. It’s probably a mistake to ask them to do much of anything.
  • There’s a very clever ideological juxtaposition when the commie invaders encounter a historical sign that recounts, semi-triumphantly, the defeat of Indians by white settlers. When a Russkie translates the sign for his comrades, he changes the emphasis so that it’s the victimized Indians, not the whites, who are the heroes. His subtitled speech runs below the sign’s text; we see both versions simultaneously. It’s a moment worthy of Chris Marker.
  • When these kids are out in the woods, the guys talking about guns and ammo and hunting, the girls wearing berets and coolly shouldering rocket launchers, they almost suggest Bizarro World versions of the young leftists in “La Chinoise.” I wish Milius had gone further with that. It’s amusing.
  • At two hours, “Red Dawn” is longer than its exploitation premise warrants. Milius is an amusing and often provocative character, but he sometimes takes himself too seriously.

Related

  • The recent documentary on Milius, called simply “Milius,” is worth checking out. It’s your standard filmmaking-in-the-’70s myth engine, but that’s okay as far as I’m concerned. It’s currently available to stream via Netflix. I was sad to hear that Milius, who must be one of the great talkers in Hollywood history, has lost the ability to speak due to a stroke. Here’s hoping he recovers soon.
  • PR on the recent remake of “Straw Dogs,” which, bizarrely, especially given its source material, plays a bit like the anti-“Red Dawn.”

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Movies, Politics and Economics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Notes on “Red Dawn”

  1. Ace says:

    My favorite part of the movie is seeing Lea Thompson manhandling a .50 caliber MG and mowing down Russkies effortlessly. Realism.

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  2. agnostic says:

    This was a huge let-down for me too. Didn’t catch it back in the day, but it shows up on a lot of those definite ’80s movies lists, so why not? My thoughts:

    http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2011/04/red-dawn.html

    Sounds too harsh re-reading it, but I wouldn’t change the points.

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  3. Tex says:

    Red Dawn was a great concept and dismal execution. The best part is certainly the opening. The paratroopers landing at the school was certainly memorable. Pity the characters are annoying wankers.

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  4. Tex says:

    “It’s your standard filmmaking-in-the-’70s myth engine” – also known as Peter Travers Syndrome

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  5. Sax von Stroheim says:

    I pretty much love this movie. The flatness of the execution has always worked for me, and I think any other approach would allow it to be laughed off as camp or at least have-your-cake-and-eat-it-irony (like, say, 300).

    I would agree, in general, about Milius’ lack of interest in sex. Though Milius is a disciple of John Ford, there’s nothing in his movies like that moment in The Searchers when War Bond accidentally intrudes on John Wayne saying goodbye to Dorothy Jordan, where we get a sense of an entire unspoken romantic/sexual history swelling up beneath the surface of the movie. Having said that, I think that Big Wednesday is one of the very few movies of “post-Classical” Hollywood to get long term adult relationships right (or at least get them right from the guy’s point of view). That is, I’d say that post-Classical Hollywood does an okay job with love affairs, lust, amour fou, down-and-dirty sexual attraction, and adolescent/young adult crushes/passions/etc., but generally does a shit job when it comes to dealing with why people stay together. (Another movie that does well by this: The Best of Times).

    Also, along the lines of what you were saying about the movies politics, I think it’s one of the movie’s best jokes that Ron O’Neal’s Cuban officer is given a speech that’s almost a direct lift from the lectures that the anti-guerrlia French paratrooper gives in The Battle of Algiers.

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  6. Toddy Cat says:

    I haven’t seen this movie since it came out in the 1980’s. I loved it, not because it was such a great film, but because it was designed by Milius to elicit squeals of hatred from the Left, which it did. As a movie, it was only so-so, but I loved it because it pissed all the right people off. I doubt if I’d want to see it again, though – America is different now, and so is Russia. If the Wolverines saw Putin’s paratroopers landing outside today, they would probably welcome them as liberators from PC tyranny.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      It’s a well-aimed provocation, no doubt about that. I loved it as a kid. The idea of kids fighting off bad guys with guns and ammo. Hell yeah!

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      • >>The idea of kids fighting off bad guys with guns and ammo. Hell yeah!

        I remember watching this years ago one summer while visiting some cousins in Texas. I think one of them had it on VHS. All of us — boys and girls — loved the kids with guns v. bad guys thing. I must’ve been 12 years old or so, haven’t seen the movie since.

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  7. “The movie is most definitely not the jingoistic, let’s-nuke-the-Soviets exercise it’s often made out to be.” This was lost on me as young leftist when I first saw it (of course I hated it, and lampooned it for my friends). But seeing it a few years ago the Cuban officer immediately struck me as the most sympathetic character in the whole movie.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Yeah, I think you’re right. One way to see the movie is as a celebration of guerrilla underdogs. And Milius takes care to make it clear that he’s sympathetic to even lefty guerrilla underdogs. Funny that that would upset so many people.

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      • Toddy Cat says:

        Funny that a lot of the same people who screeched themselves purple over “Red Dawn” back in the ’80’s now hate Russia a lot more than we old Cold Warriors ever did. Guess they can’t forgive the Russians for giving up on Communism. And Pat Buchanan is now criticized for being pro-Russian. It’s a funny old world, my lads and lassies…

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    • Kevin O'Keeffe says:

      There’s one scene where the Cuban officer muses to himself that he has “become a policeman.” When I see that, I’m reminded of old PBS footage of American veterans of Vietnam, talking about how they came to realize the people perceived them as Redcoats.

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      • Toddy Cat says:

        Yes, one of the clever things Milius did in “Red Dawn” was to put many of the fashionable opinions about Vietnam current at the time into the mouth of the Cuban officer – that’s one of the reasons he was such a sympathetic character. I’m told that some Cubans did actually express sentiments like this when they were fighting anti-Communist insurgents in places like Angola and Nicaragua, but I can’t vouch for that…

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  8. Callowman says:

    Smart set of observations. For my part, I just watched Big Wednesday this evening. Its wiki entry lists it as a “coming of age” movie, but it’s really more of a western, one of those “closing of the American West” movies like The Searchers, but this time with a different West – sixties California as the new old frontier. I wish the sorry pale shadow of Netflix we have in this country were streaming the Milius doc. I can’t seem to find any way of viewing it for the moment, legal or otherwise.

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  9. Montino says:

    I liked “The wind and the lion”; it had tons of wonderful lines. “It is not easy to be Sultan!” is one of many. Ya hadda be there. Context is everything.

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