Film * John Milius * World War III! * 1984
I’m still trying to parse just exactly what I watched. There’s a semblance of a story here, just like there are a group of people who occasionally say things to each other, but I’m not entirely sure there’s a narrative to speak of. At least not one that makes much sense. And you know, sometimes I’m totally okay with that. Red Dawn is a movie about shooting every last Commie bastard in the world, and since this is its prime objective, the film just starts. It doesn’t waste time with backstory; there is a short series of title cards which propose an alternate history in which America is without allies. When those obnoxious words are off the screen, we are shown a few brief images of a small, bucolic American town. It’s slightly run down, but in an endearing, American kind of way. Then some football boys show up, and we are made to understand that all is well and all is right here in the heartland. It’s time for school, and while there is the expected amount of teenage tomfoolery, the history teacher is engaged with his material and his students seem interested in learning. It’s Morning in America, and everything is perfect.
Then some dudes start falling from the sky, yelling in distinctly non-American languages and wearing some awesome camo pajamas. Our history teacher stridently marches outside to confront these malcontents, who are interrupting learning, by god, and is promptly shot. Then the idyllic, small-town, Americana falls immediately into chaos. Automatic gunfire, explosions, cars running into things, people screaming. Nobody knows what the heck is going on. It could be worse, though, because Patrick Swayze is here with his totally boss pickup truck (tractor tires, KC lights, everything but the CB), and he manages to gather a few boys and makes a daring getaway to a local sporting goods store. All of this takes about five minutes of film time.
It’s right around when the Swayze Express is flying headlong down the road towards the mountains only to run afoul of some Soviet tanks that I pulled back from this frantic experience and went: “waaaait a minute.” Of all the apocalyptic scenarios to be born from American-Soviet tensions in the 1980s, this is by far the most unlikely. So, the Soviets and the Cubans (ha ha) decide that the best way to invade the United States is to drop troops into Bumblefart, Colorado to take over a high school? How did they get tanks there so quickly without anyone noticing? Eventually there is some explanation given, but it’s super poorly thought out and equally nonsensical. I guess they nuked Washington DC and Kansas City and then were like, nah, it’s fine now, we’ll go conventional. Then sent their invasion force through Alaska and Canada – without anyone noticing I guess – into Montana or North Dakota or something to occupy the Midwest. So that’s why there are Cubans and Soviets with machine guns and tanks and attack helicopters in the middle of the country. Maybe don’t think about it.
To be fair, Red Dawn does everything in its power to distract you. The film is essentially one, extended gunfight. Seriously, the film does not even bother with a training montage (which I’m still disappointed about). Suddenly these high school wieners are guerilla fighting badasses, murking fools and stealing RPGs and lighting up armored columns and whatnot. Charlie Sheen is here, and eventually Lea Thompson and Ferris Bueller’s sister show up to add a little gender diversity and it’s all very eighties. There is shooting, and shooting, and more shooting, all of which adds up to one of the loudest movies I think I’ve ever seen. Eventually there is a conclusion of sorts. Wolverines!
Red Dawn is a distilled shot of pure 1980s jingoism. As such, it’s kind of beautiful in its simplicity. I suppose this is the kind of easily identified enemy that some Americans are seemingly nostalgic for these days. Communism, as an opposing ideology to American Freedom™, was just so easy to hate. They were powerful enough to be scary, and utterly foreign, so we didn’t have to worry about humanizing them. You could point to a giant portion of the globe and think, ‘those are the bad guys.’ There was none of this amorphous war against terrorism shit. What does that even mean? Where on the map can an American point to and say ‘everyone here is my enemy?’ There simply isn’t, although that doesn’t stop people from trying. Which, obviously, brings us to the 2016 presidential campaign. There is a large segment of the population who desires a return to this time of a ‘simple’ enemy. They don’t have the time or patience to try and figure out which Muslims are the bad ones. Along comes Trump to knock aside all nuance and uncertainty. All of them are bad. These parts of the globe are bad. Why? Don’t worry about it, just be secure in the knowledge that they are bad, and America is good.
Of course, nothing about the Cold War was simple. The Soviet Union was a mess, but it was a powerful mess, and the United States was of course complicit in its ascendance. After all, we needed them to win World War II. By the 1980s, the geopolitical situation was far more unstable globally than it is now (although you wouldn’t know it by looking at the news). Yet because the Communists were such an easy target, the United States was more united politically than it had been since the forties. This gave license to political leaders and shadowy government agencies to get away with some seriously shady shit in the name of fighting the Communist threat. And we felt great about it! It felt good in a way that it hasn’t, and likely never will, again. Despite Trump’s attempts to Make America Simple Again, the country will continue to grow away from this Cold War era world view.
Back to the movie. Red Dawn is here to reinforce your fears about the Soviet menace. But mostly, Red Dawn is here to shoot the shit out of them. In addition to continuing this narrative of the easily identified enemy, the film wants you to have some catharsis. When it comes right down to it, Americans have never really been tested. Our worst war was against ourselves, and since then we’ve just lent our industry and our soldiers to wars in other countries. I will clarify here, because I obviously don’t want to trivialize the sacrifices made in the World Wars and conflicts since then (even if later-day warfare has been largely elective and questionable). What I mean is that American civilians have not been tested. Hostile foreign troops have not set foot on our soil since 1812. When it comes right down to it, we don’t know how our populace would act in the face of an adversity on the scale of The Blitz.
Red Dawn would like you to know that you, as an American (preferably white, preferably rural), would acquit yourself just fine when the Commies invade. You would rally around your local high school football team, steal some AK-47s to augment your own, probably quite large, gun collection, and rally to overthrow the Communist threat to our way of life. You would be awesome. I will also point out to its credit that Red Dawn takes a progressive stance on woman’s rights. Which is to say there is a moment when one of the dudes gives some dishes to Lea Thompson and says “here, make yourself useful why don’tcha.” To which she fiercely throws them back in his face and says “wash ‘em yourself! Me and her are just as good as any of you!” This moment is never undermined, and they are in fact as good as their word because boy do they shoot a lot of Russians after that. So that’s cool. Every American is welcome here, as long as they hate Commies. Really, that’s all Red Dawn needs you to know.