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Red Dawn

Red Dawn

1984, Dir. John Milius

Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey

Originally written by Marlowe for the Bad Movie Message Board roundtable, "The Reagan Years." Check out his own fine website, The Duck Speaks! I command it!

I guess I got lucky on this one.

Thereís this scene in the opening five minutes of Red Dawn, and itís the one that everyone whoís seen the film always remembers; for good reason. We open on the inside of a high school classroom, where a black history is discussing war tactics. The camera starts showing him from the front, the studentís perspective, but then the teacherís face changes, and we go behind him. At first, you donít see anything wrong, but then you look out the windows of the classroom, and you discover that there are men parachuting into the school football field. Itís done with an amazing amount of restraint, in that the slowly falling soldiers are not immediately obvious; your eye just gets drawn to them as first one, then a couple, then seemingly hundreds of green figures float into view.

Itís an amazingly strong beginning, and for the next twenty minutes or so, the momentum is maintained expertly. We watch the high school teacher go out to investigate, and be summarily shot and killed. The school is then bombarded by machine gun fire, and the students scatter. A small group, led by Jed (Patrick Swayze!) and his brother, Matt (Charlie Sheen!), make it out of the school, and drive to the local gas station, where the owner sets them up with rifles, food, and sleeping bags. They manage to escape into the mountains, and set up a small camp in the woods, where Jed, being the oldest and clearly designated Alpha Male, takes control.

They spend a few weeks waiting, but finally canít take it any longer, and a small contingent sneaks into town. Home has become a military outpost for the Russian / Cuban military force, and has become a police state, with guards on every corner, and all possible ďdissidentsĒ shipped off to brainwashing camps. Thatís where Jed and Matt find their father (Henry Dean Stanton!), with whom they have one final tearful conversation through a chainlink fence. He orders to the boys away, along with a lot of nonsense about how they ďshould understand nowĒ why he ďwas so hard on you kids growing up". They leave him eventually, but before they go back to their hideout, they visit a local farm. They receive more information here, which can be essentially pared down to: World War 3 has begun, and everybody in town is on the wrong side of the line. The elderly couple give the boys some horses, and two silent women (Lea Thompson! and Jennifer Grey!), to take back into the mountains.

So, hereís the set-up: the Russians (and Cubans, but they donít pack quite the emotional wallop as the Russkies) have invaded, and their first act was to destroy small-town America. Our heroes arenít content with staying put and trying to survive the oncoming winter; instead, they become a guerilla force, attacking enemy convoys and camps and in general trying to screw things up for the bad guys.

Up until this point, the movie has been a strong depiction of a national nightmare; as the tag line reads, ďIn our time, no foreign army has ever occupied American soil. Until now". Itís brutal, fast, and entirely effective. But once the teens start taking on the enemy army on their own, something happens. The tone turns from fairly solid realism into the fantasy of survivalists everywhere. Itís starts playing like a fundraiser at an NRA convention. The sort of thing that gives Ted Nugent wet dreams.

In short, we have Red Dawn: The Movie That Launched a Thousand Militias.

The idea that a band of ten (at the most- sometimes itís hard to tell) teenagers, not one of which has had any military training that we are aware of, could somehow manage to present a major and recurring threat to a military power large enough to take over a small town is simply too much to be believed. Maybe John Milius (director and screenwriter of Conan the Barbarian fame) understood this, because he makes no attempt at explaining it. One minute, the kids are arguing over whether to stay or go, the next theyíre blowing up trucks with bazookas. Yup, you read that right: bazookas. Because aside from being somehow natively skilled at armed combat, they also manage to steal enough weapons to equip a group of twice their size. And there is never a sign of unfamiliarity with any of the many weapons used; Iím not an expert, but Iím thinking that an Uzi handles at least a little different than a hunting rifle.

So, clearly, weíre working in the World of Imagination. More specifically, the imagination of young pre-adolescents who like playing with guns and think girls are icky. There are, as I have mentioned, women in the this film. There is no hint of romantic entanglement, however, and while I suppose I should be grateful for that, I canít help but find that it (again) strains credibility. Teenage boys around attractive young women, and nobody even flirts. Sure.

How does it work as a fantasy? Eh. The action scenes tend to blur after awhile, and the end comes as a bit of a relief. Thereís no driving force to the action, no sense of danger; characters from the cast die, but since weíre never given much on them, why should we care? By the end, almost everyone is dead. We are told in a voice over by one of the survivors that ďThe war ended, as wars always do". And we are shown a monument to the guerilla children, who ďdied so that others could live". Or something like that.

And yet- and yet- there is some amazingly strong stuff here. I canít just dismiss it as a blah action pic that managed to capitalize on Cold War fears. Milius makes an attempt to inject some ambiguity into the films overwhelmingly jingoistic and pro-weapon feel. One of my favorite scenes happens about three-quarters of the way through; the group captures a Russian soldier alive, and through him, they discover that one of their own is a traitor. The two are take out into a field to be executed, but Jed hesitates before shooting, and the tension is so thick you canít help but be drawn in. It works, I think, because the situation itself is so palpably real, for the first time in a good hour: for the first time, someone expresses regret about killing.

Itís a powerful moment, and there are others like it, though none so nearly as effective. One that Iím still not sure about is the gradual transformation of one of the kids- I think itís Robert (C. Thomas Howell- no exclamation point necessary)- from a relative innocent into a ruthless killing machine. We see him one bring down a deer with Jed and Matt, and when the three boys are huddled over the body, Jed tells Robert that he has to drink the blood of the deer because itís his first kill. What got to me is that I couldnít tell what the filmmaker was going for; were we supposed to be disgusted at this fast decent into savagery by supposedly civilized youth? Or was it a rallying cry addressed to the hunter in all of us? I tend to lean to the first one, but Iím also an upper-middle class white guy who recently graduated from a liberal university, with no interest in hunting and a strong aversion to guns. So who knows.

To me, this is a movie with a brilliant premise that got lost along the way; not an unusual category by all means, but still a frustrating one. Itís worth a watch, if you havenít seen it already, and if you have, Iím interested as to how you felt about it.

Some fun facts:
- This was the first film to earn the PG-13 rating. - When released, it was listed in the Guinness Book of World records as having more violent acts than any other movie up to that time. By today's standards, the violence isn't that shocking, and Iím fairly certain that another film holds that title by now. I donít have a copy of the book on me, but I will check tomorrow, and edit this review accordingly.

UPDATE: Apparently, my library doesn't have the most recent edition of Guiness. We only go up to 1987, and according that edition, Red Dawn still holds the most violent movie title. Interestingly, somebody worked out that there are 2.23 acts of violence in the movie per minute. Weird, huh?

- The review comment at IMDB says that he thought the movie was very realistic in its depiction of guerilla warfare. I guess I donít know everything after allÖ - Powers Boothe plays The Colonel, the only adult military personnel to appear in the film who isnít the enemy. I guess thatís not so much of a fun fact; I just felt bad for leaving him out of the review.