Director: John Milius
You can't spoil this film, it tells you what's about to happen in letters a mile high, so no more warnings.
Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C Thomas Howell, Ron O’Neal, Harry Dean Stanton, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Powers Booth.
An unspecified time in the future, America's relations with The Soviet Union have broken down. Europe (in the form of Germany) have opted out, declaring themselves in favour of peace and disarmament, appeasing the Iron Curtain. Nicaragua, Cuba and Mexico have united with The Soviet Union to invade the US from the South. In an unspecified small town in the rural heartlands a High School football team, The Wolverines, end up behind enemy lines. Paratroopers have taken their school, and using their American pluck the Wolverines escape to the hills. As Autumn turns to Winter they organise, and with the blood of Patriots running through their veins they become Partisans, arming themselves to overthrow the Communists. Enduring the heartbreaks of youth and war they harden into a fighting collective, forcing the Reds to think again. With the progress of war there are inevitable casualties, and while our heroes battle on inflicting defeat after defeat upon the Socialists, they are eventually subject to attrition until finally there is no-one left. The Wolverines were martyred but the war, the war was won...
This was one of the earliest Brat Pack movies, and most of the leads went onto greater things, with Swayze (Ghost), Sheen (Hot Shots), Thompson (Back to The Future) and Grey (Dirty Dancing). Milius was still gold-dust at this point, after an Oscar nomination for joint Scriptwriter for Apocalypse Now, and was building himself a reputation as the most macho filmmaker in Hollywood (a tough job in days when giants like John McTiernan walked the Earth). This film was a rare fusion of the action movie and the teen flick, which were developing into twin engines of pure Hollywood pulp (The Breakfast Club and Beverly Hills Cop were approaching fast), and with the added edge of Red Menace this movie was a guaranteed success. Hollywood had been stoking the fires of Red Menace with FireFox and would peak in the later eighties with Red Heat, Rambo : First blood part 2 and Rambo III. The levels of violence involved were unprecedented; there had been more gore and more personal violence before, but this film is an almost continuous stream of casualties, and the bodycount would be difficult to calculate. This resulted in the creation of the PG-13 rating with which this was awarded.
Taken as a film on its own merits, this movie is worthless. It has almost no cinematic value, barring some beautiful but generic shots of rural America in winter. The acting is stodgy and the characterization and action pacing are third rate. To liberals aware at the time, as Reagan was setting sail from USS Honduras toppling regimes from Grenada to Nicaragua, I know that films such as this represent an itch they can’t help but scratch. To a younger generation (I was 11 years old when The Wall fell) this film and the culture that spawned it has rapidly edged into the world of the bizarre, a testament to Reagan Era Paranoia. This film is a five hundred metre granite monolith, buried in the dirt of Kansas, with the words “You’ll never take me alive Commie, you’ll pry this gun from my cold dead hands” dynamited into it in letters the wind will never wax. If Rush Limbaugh is beginning to convince you about the Liberal Media Elite, watch Red Dawn and remember the Eighties.
It begins with an exposition scene that is brutally simple and minimalist. It’s a list of a paranoid American’s most rabid nightmares and in 6 frames of white on black Franklin Gothic font the audience is told that the world has descended into Communism, that those fickle Europeans have wimped out again, that “America stands alone”.
Shot: We see a full classroom of students listening as an aging African-American patriarch lectures a bored class on Mongolian war tactics. Shot: a POV image from the teacher as he stares out of the window, black parachutes are descending from the sky, gently like the autumn fall, and settling on the football field. Shot: We see the teacher walking towards the blinded window to investigate. Shot, Shot, Shot: The teacher lies dead in a pool of blood, bullets are flying everywhere, children are fleeing the school. Shot: The Reds are firing a rocket down a corridor into the school; our noble heroes are making a break for their vehicle.
And from there it only gets sillier. Some high points in sillyness are, in no particular order:
The Cuban colonel, attempting to round up the most dangerous threats to the new regime, orders a junior to go look for a registration form and round up all those listed as gun owners. Lesson: Gun control will only help the Commies!
Harry Dean Stanton, Swayzes father, is trapped in a re-education camp, being forced to watch Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky on a desolate and fire littered landscape yells to his sons “Avenge me, Avenge me, Avenge me”.
Patrick Swayze’s character, with that wisp of hair we swooned over in Dirty Dancing hanging over his eye, discovers that a fellow Wolverine (possibly his brother) has betrayed them to the Reds and makes a show of executing him (and a captured Russian) but fails, overcome by emotion. A junior follows through and they leave their bloody corpses in the snow.
There are some further notes of interest in this film. There is absolutely no eroticism, homo or otherwise, which in a film about male bonding and youth is unusual. None of our heroes take their shirt off and oil up to kill the Ruskies, ala Rambo. None of the female leads bond with the males and there is not even any typical teen flick titillation. This is highly unexpected in a film this macho and leaves me with suggestions about the director/producers libido. The landscape is wonderful, the snow drenched winter feel is a clear statement: when the Reds come, all will be as Russia! And the setting has been wonderfully developed to be your classic American wood cut town, but splattered in Lenin posters red paint and Socialist Realism imagery.
If they had put more work into this film it could have been a terrific statement, an American Triumph of the Will
, but more time is given to the resistance in the woods than the domination of the town and the brutality of oppression. You get the impression that he wanted to see Russian stormtroopers, he wanted to shoot Russian stormtroopers and he wanted to blow up that line of tanks he’d seen in Red Square
, but he didn’t want to discuss them. Milius wanted to concentrate on hunting scenes, and camp fires, and the nobility of the American frontier. This film is the embodiment of America’s fears in the 80’s but it speaks of hope through small town values and living the American Myth.
To an adult of the 21st century there are so many features of this film that are unbelievable it is difficult to comprehend. Was there a day when it was acceptable to categorise the people of an entire continent as evil killers in a mainstream Hollywood film? In the days when The West was patently outpacing the Soviet economy why did America feel it necessary to dream up the worst of all possible worlds?
And in the context of the world’s modern political upheavals: If America stopped wasting its energies on threats that are the worst they can imagine, would they be any better at dealing with the threats that are there? This film is a type example of The paranoid style in American Politics and we should take note of the sickness this indicates ran through Reaganite politics in the Eighties, when The President could claim to Congress that Grenada was a clear and present danger to the United States of America.
Watch Red Dawn, and remember the bizarre days of Duck and Cover, the Domino Theory, MAD and fear of the KGB.
Tkeiser, one of E2's many resident RD nuts has offered several qualifications to this writeup: the fictional town was called Calumet, Colorado (although from what I remember the real town was called Las Vegas, New Mexico). Also, although Alexander Nevsky was being shown at the movie theatre, the movie at the internment camp drive-in, I believe, was only Anti-American propaganda.
A tendency has developed for people to yell "WOLVERINES!!!!" in the catbox.. I am not sure if this occured before I arrived and rambled continuously about this film... but I hope this node offers explanation for those confused by such episodes
In the course of Operation Enduring Freedom an American platoon has named themselves The Wolverines. Photographs of them on patrol, boys posing with guns, can be seen at http://pao.hood.army.mil/1cd_1-21fa/pages/B%20UPDATES.htm. The occupiers imagining themselves to be the occupied has a certain irony, and is a worrying sign of how this propoganda movie has imprinted upon the American consciousness.