A Revisit: Red Dawn (1984)

Full Disclosure: Operating outside of my usual format…I’ve seen Red Dawn many times over the years, so this is not a kneejerkreaction in my usual sense. That being said, my initial reaction, going WAY back through the mists of time, still sticks with me, and compels me to scribble some scribbles about this unique product of 1980’s right-wing Cold War paranoia and seemingly near-rabid American patriotism. Also, to a degree, I’ve already kinda sorta reviewed it, when I went to town on the absolutely bullshit 2012 remake in a review a few years ago (which you can check out herehttps://thekneejerkreaction.com/2013/04/08/red-dawn-2012/), but I felt the need to dedicate some words to the original on it’s own, based on how it strangely resonates with me, and how my opinion has (or hasn’t) morphed over the years.

Side-Note: Ideologically speaking, I definitely consider myself a progressive…a liberal…a lefty, if you will. Also…I’m Canadian. Which, at a shallow glance, would seem to be completely at odds with the perceived intent and presentation of the original, VERY American Red Dawn, however…

I love this movie! It’s a ballsy film that’s surprisingly well put-together, riding on some very mature themes and ideas that I don’t feel it gets anywhere near enough credit for. If you open your eyes just a little wider when viewing Red Dawn, it’s plain to see that it’s NOT just trying to whip up an extreme take-the-fight-to-them-Commies fervor. Quite the opposite, in my humble opinion. This is a film about consequences, both on a global scale and for the individual, born out of a time-period in history when the future looked legitimately uncertain, and when large-scale conflict with the Soviets and their allies seemed to loom at every turn (Canada was caught right in the middle of all that ruckus and I do remember the Russkies Are Bad mentality as a kid). I love how clearly this flick taps into that raw paranoia of the time.

I’m a child of the 1980’s and was about 8 or 9 years old when I happened to stumble upon this controversial flick on VHS, in the basement rec room of an elementary school buddy’s house. My parents had a strict policy regarding the amount of TV my sister and I were allowed to watch, and maintained that we would not be babysat for hours on end by the Idiot Box, as so many of my fellow kids were, as they liked to point out. So, being an overly imaginative child who was always looking for nerdy content to jam into my wee lil brain, I circumvented this problem by having a good crew of little trouble-maker friends. Friends who’s parents didn’t care what craziness we dug up in their collections of video tapes, when I got to escape our hobby farm for the freedom of their comfy suburban domiciles. In among heavily-rotated titles like Krull (1982), Conan The Barbarian (1982), and Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock (1983), was this interesting little gem. As a geeky little moron, I was a big fan of action movies, loaded to the tits with swearing, boobies, guns, and explosions, so when this title got thrown on one afternoon, I was over-the-moon, in the emptiest way possible, about the rampant carnage that played out, without having the sophistication to see the heavy themes and the impressive attention to detail happening throughout the narrative. However, in among all the should’ve-definitely-been-rated-R violence and excitement, there was SOMETHING unsettling happening just below the surface. I remember feeling slightly sickened, for lack of a better term, when I first made it through the 1 hour, 54 minute run-time, though not comprehending why. I suspect it was because Red Dawn makes death look awful and heart-breaking, unlike other action movies at the time, where comical numbers of faceless goons are gunned down en mass, just spinning, falling and flying majestically through the air, and it’s cause for excitement and joy. Death, as portrayed in Red Dawn, is unpleasant to watch, and thereby accomplishes its mission. Violent death SHOULD be unsettling and in this movie…several of the deaths are geniunely unsettling…so good job, Milius and Co.!

Even though many people easily slap Red Dawn next to amusingly jingoistic American 80’s action flicks like Missing in Action (1984), Invasion USA (1985), Rambo: First Blood Part 2’(1985) and Commando (1985), where blood-and-fiery justice is laid down by ultra-masculine red-blooded Americans like Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, manly men who took the fight to the transparently evil pinko Commie bastards that were threatening Life, Liberty and blah blah blah. The point is, contrary to what people THINK they remember about Red Dawn, it is most definitely an anti-war film, that just happened to be co-written and directed by a notorious, self-admittedly hawkish Conservative named John Milius (Conan The Barbarian). As unrealistic as the overall scenario is (it’s not a far stretch to classify this one as Science Fiction), it’s treated onscreen with a certain edge, a certain grounding in reality, in many respects, that still retains the power to shock and unsettle, even all these years later. It was this edge that got under my skin back when I was a snot-nosed kid who didn’t know any better, and it has stuck with me ever since. 

Which brings me to now

I finally took the plunge and scored an agreeably cheap Blu ray copy of Red Dawn a few days ago, and the other night, showed it to my Better Half. It was her first time seeing it, and my first time seeing it in High Def. She was subtly curious about the early acting work of now-established players like the late, great Patrick Swayze (Point Break), Charlie Sheen (Platoon), C. Thomas Howell (The Hitcher), Lea Thompson (Back to the Future) and Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing), while I wanted to see what little details the Blu ray format would reveal after ALL these years. When the credits finally rolled, I was again struck by the decidedly anti-war sentiment that rolled between-the-lines, hidden beneath the undeniable veneer of Rah Rah America. I was also impressed (for the umpteenth time) by the attention to detail that’s injected into every scene, especially since the semi-decent transfer to HD helped reveal little tidbits in the cinematography and production design that had never caught my eye before.

For those who don’t know, Red Dawn (originally named Ten Soldiers) opens in the fictional town of Calumet, Colorado, on a typical fall day in the American Mid-West, in the near-future as seen by 1984. After a refreshingly spare series of title cards catches us up on the sinister global goings-on’s that have left the US isolated on the world stage, we see a group of high school students in class, listening to a thematically convenient lesson about the cost of war, as relating to the battle campaigns of Genghis Khan. This lesson concludes when mysterious paratroopers begin landing on the sports field outside. In short order, the well-meaning history teacher is gunned down and all hell breaks loose, with students and faculty members being killed or captured by the Spanish and Russian-speaking troops. In the chaos, brothers Jed and Matt Eckert’ (Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen), manage to escape, along with a few other classmates, and they flee to the nearby mountains. After surviving in the wilderness for a spell, two traumatized sisters, Toni and Erica Mason’ (Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson), join the crew as they wait out WW3 in the hills. This is until a chance encounter with a group of Soviet soldiers brings them to the attention of the local military garrison, and the lethal cat-n-mouse game begins, with the Wolverines, as they name themselves, taking the fight to the invaders after several parents are publicly executed in reprisal for the kids increasingly sophisticated and lethal guerrilla attacks. Along the way, the group must navigate traps, attacks, traitors and the addition of a stoic F-15 Eagle pilot who’s shot down in their area, along with the inevitable toll in lives their campaign brings about, for them and the enemy.

In trying to work out how to crack into my varied thoughts about this flick, one aspect I keep coming back to is the tone. Red Dawn is a bleak, cynical movie intent on keeping the viewer on edge, right from the start and baring almost no levity at all. Milius has a larger-than-life style that’s suited to adult-themed fare and I really like how he applied that feeling to a story about kids losing their innocence on the field of battle. A good example of this is the first scene depicting the surprise arrival of the sinister invaders, which plays out like a disaster film, with a near-horror movie vibe underscoring it. No punches are pulled. This approach is clearly conveyed in the sequence immediately following the bloody death of the history teacher, when a Russian paratrooper sprays the school windows with AK-47 fire, causing the students to scatter and run, only that one kid doesn’t, left draped and bloody out the broken window. Again, no punches pulled. It’s this early image that says ‘this is not going to be consequence-free fun-n-games’, and that things are only getting to get worse…which they most certainly do. That always stuck with me and I applaud Milius and Co. for having the metal to show a shocking and uncomfortable scene such as this (and others), to let the audience know right off that NO ONE is safe. War is hell and the innocent are the first to suffer. This tone is kept consistent and relentlessly shoves home the idea that in war, truly, nobody wins. Even those that do survive are left with mental /emotional / spiritual scars, as is hinted in Lea Thompson’s poignant final narration. C. Thomas Howell’s character Robert is a perfect example, as we see his character mutate from a scared, uncertain dork to a cold-blooded killing machine who, by the time we reach his epic stand-off with a Russian attack helicopter, has enthusiastically butchered scores of enemy soldiers, using the hate within to ‘keep him warm’, as he says. Again, it’s the caustic loss of innocence in these kids, who are forced into a fight for survival and revenge, that propels the narrative on a dark, cynical tone; a tone that serves Red Dawn perfectly.

Another aspect I think is overlooked are the Main Villains. Out of the enemy officers, we focus on two, the leader of the Cuban garrison tasked with securing Calumet, Bella (Ron O’Neal), and the ruthless and calculating Russian officer Strelnikov (William Smith) who is brought in to take the insurgents down. These are not your typical ‘bad guys’, and both men are given character traits that make them a bit more ’rounded’ and interesting, such as Bella’s grudging admiration for the ‘Wolverines’, as he was a partisan once and understands the need for patriots to fight for their country, by whatever means necessary. Anyone paying attention to his dialogue, especially the scene where he writes a letter to his wife back in Cuba, can see that the character is NOT ok with what the Russian and Cuban forces are doing and can’t bring himself to condemn the insurgency, while adopting the viewpoint shared by American Vietnam veterans who just wanted to survive their tours and get home alive, politics be damned. Strelnikov, on the other hand, is portrayed as a professional and efficient soldier who has a job to do, not based on rabid hatred but on duty to his country and his orders. He applies intelligent thinking to his task and becomes a formidable adversary for the Wolverines, with his machinations leading to the violent deaths of some of the kids. Bottom line is, neither man is portrayed as blood-thirsty for the sake of being blood-thirsty, at a time when American action films loved to give nothing more than the xenophobic cardboard cut-out approach to foreign antagonists who were only there as meaty targets, targets that just needed a good killin in the name of Old Glory!

There are many topics that I could easily hone in on but for me, Red Dawn is filled with individual scenes that stand out in people’s minds, all these years after it was first released. Here’s a quick run-down on the ones that pop up into my coconut:

The Title Cards – I love how Red Dawn opens. After the classic MGM logo, we get an eerie high keening sound, that always puts me slightly off-balance when I hear it, similar in feel to the opening of the original 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That shit gives me the shivers! We’re then treated to a series of right-to-the-point bulletins stating various plausible-sounding incidents on the world stage that have now left the United States alone and isolated. We then fade in on Basil Poledouris’ rousing, flag-waving score as we assume the point of view of…something (Soviet military aircraft?)…flying through the clouds toward…somewhere (the quiet prairie town of Calumet, CO?).

The Invasion – The opening invasion sequence is masterfully crafted, from the oh-so-subtle background sounds of passing jets during the passive classroom scene to the kids’ desperate escape across the plains as an American Army Huey lights up a Soviet road-block that opened fire on them. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a horror movie quality to how the events play out, starting with one of the first casualties being a teenager, who we are shown with life-less eyes rolled back and a bullet in his forehead. It’s undeniably brutal, but shows us what the stakes are going to be, immediately. In Real Life, conflict doesn’t give a shit about how young its victims are and in a scenario like this, people of all ages WOULD be dying along the way. Having said that, after the opening blood-shed, I appreciated that it showed the Russians and Cubans as NOT being kill-crazy monsters who were just there to gun down the entire population of Calumet. They were intent on rounding up prisoners and securing their objective, not simply murdering everyone. There was a believable amount of confusion as the invaders had to quickly adapt to the porous situation to try and contain it, as some elements caught them off-guard. In my opinion, a brilliantly executed sequence.

The Accidental Ambush – This one always sticks out in my mind, going back to how shocking I found it as a kid. The set up is this: after a month or so of hiding in the mountains, the kids are accidentally discovered by a trio of touring Russian soldiers and a frantic fight-to-the-death ensues. Through pure desperation, they get the upper hand, brutally killing all three enemy troops. The violence is quick and messy, there’s a palpable sense of panic, and there are consequences. I appreciated the sequence showing each of the kids grimly looking on with haunted ‘1000 yard stare’ expressions* as they hear Jed execute the last Soviet soldier.

*this is another aspect I feel people overlook about Red Dawn. It’s a violent-as-hell movie, (there’s no denying this), with the notable distinction of once being known as The Most Violent Movie EVER (something like 150 onscreen deaths), but even though the kids morph into a formidable band of lethal guerrillas, we still see the pain their decisions and actions cause, even as they take down the enemy. Characters are often shown to be internally wrestling with the demons brought on by the fight. Impressively, this also extends to the enemy, as we see anguish and questioning in their ranks as well. A mature detail.

The Air Field Attack – After the F-15 pilot ‘Andy’ (Powers Boothe) joins the Wolverines, he coordinates an attack on a Cuban / Russian airbase, housing YAK fighter / bombers. The Wolverines smash through and lay waste to the area, liberating POWs and taking down enemy soldiers and aircraft. Fan of explosions that I am, I love the final climax where we see a pair of YAK’s violently and spectacularly explode, destroying part of the base as the Wolverines race away, ending the scene.

Crossing the Line – With Andy’s help, the Wolverines maneuver to the line of attrition, which is in a state of constant battle, as Soviet and American tanks clash across a wide valley floor, while jets tear past overhead, at times raining wide curtains of napalm across the hills. Andy is intent on crossing this formidable No Mans Land to rejoin the fight on the Free America side of the line and offers to take the Wolverines with him, so they can quit fighting. Before Swayze can answer, the shit hits the fan. These sequences look great, with the blasts of fire clashing with the cold white of the snow and the long-shots of fighter/ bombers carrying out their attacks giving it a documentary feel, much like the footage of the Soviets fighting the mujahideen in Afghanistan that was emerging at the time. As the Wolverines prepare to move, a pair of Soviet tanks roll up, forcing them to hide and improvise. A tank duel with an American Abrams across the valley breaks out, threatening everyone. Andy takes the lead, charging the Soviet tank and attacking it with grenades and his .45. One of the kids, Aardvark (Doug Toby) leaps up to cover him, but is quickly and gorily cut down by the other tank’s machine-gunner. As everyone is distracted by the disturbing image of the 15 year old’s limp and blood-smeared body tumbling into the snow, a grenade is thrown from inside the tank, mortally wounding Andy. Knowing he’s done for, he pops red smoke, marking the tank for the Abrams and forcing the Wolverines to flee back into Occupied Territory to lick their wounds before the area is bombed out of existence. This sequence starts off awe-inspiring in the wide-angle shots of the snow and scrub brush-blanketed valley, as tanks roll among cannon fire and jet fighters roar past overhead. As it plays out, the focus tightens down to a sense of tense claustrophobia as the two tanks pin our main characters down. I also appreciated how Aardvark, who’d been a completely reliable and ruthless fighter up to this point (he’s the one who triumphantly hoists an AK-47 while yelling the iconic “Wolverines!”, in one of the most famous moments), finally mentally cracks under the relentless pounding of the tank cannons firing directly over them, freaking out and needing to be restrained, before being gruesomely cut down while covering Andy, a reminder that they are still only kids who can only take so much.

Death of a Traitor – This is a tough scene to stomach. A group of Spetznaz special forces move to encircle the Wolverines in their mountain hide-out, only to have the kids turn the tables with a lethal ambush of their own, killing all but one of the Soviets. As they interrogate him (ie beat the shit out of), they discover that a tracking device he was carry is pointing straight to one of their own, Daryl (Darren Dalton), the son of Calumet’s mayor. It seems that somewhere along the way, he’d gone to town and been captured and forced to swallow a tracking bug before being quickly set free. Seeing no choice, Jed quickly executes the Soviet but can’t bring himself to kill Daryl, who’s been with them since the beginning and who begs for his life. With cold efficiency, Robert steps forward and guns the traitor down. It’s another stark reminder of the dehumanization of war and the madness and pain it can bring. The image of Daryl’s bloody body crumpled next to the corpse of the Soviet trooper, on a windy, snow-swept tundra as the surviving Wolverines solemnly ride away is a powerful one, in another example of dire consequences to the choices and actions the conflict forces upon the characters.

Surprise Helicopter Attack – Once Strelnikov takes over anti-insurgency operations, his troops lay a trap and, due to their hunger, the remaining Wolverines fall for it, retrieving an ‘accidentally’ dropped cache of food from a road. After retreating into the hills with their loot, they are set upon by a trio of futuristic Hind helicopters. If the scene where Andy and Aardvark were killed was the start of the Wolverines downfall, this scene is the reaffirmation of that trajectory, with Toni (Jennifer Grey) being instantly and grievously wounded and Robert (C. Thomas Howell) throwing in the towel and sacrificing himself in an epic machine-gun show-down with another Hind, after hurting one of the other choppers with a Rocket Propelled Grenade.

Return to Calumet – Following the further depletion of their numbers in the helicopter attack, brothers Jed and Matt, battle-fatigued to the point of no return, opt to take to fight directly to the enemy, in order to give Erica (Lea Thompson) and Danny (Brad Savage) a chance to escape to Free America, on the other side of the line of attrition, in order to pass on the story of the Wolverines and their fight. After a tear-filled goodbye, the Eckert brothers attack with machine guns and RPGs, throwing the Cuban and Russian forces into a state of confusion and disarray. The attack is devastating enough that they take a chance on surviving by riding a military freight train out of town, only to be spotted at the last minute by Strelnikov, who opens fire with his sub-machine gun, critically wounding Matt. This leads to a Western-inspired quick draw between Jed and the Soviet commander that leaves the enemy dead and Jed wounded and dying. In a last burst of waning energy, and after Bella, sympathizing with their plight, allows them to go, Jed carries Matt’s body to the old playground their dad Tom (Harry Dean Stanton) used to take them to. They both die in the quiet of the falling snow, in a place of happy memories. It’s a solidly sentimental example that effectively uses the tragedy of their sacrifice to both embrace the idea of the rugged, red-blooded individual doing what MUST  be done in the name of Freedom, Patriotism and all that other over-cooked American flag-waving bullshit, and the grim realization that through it all, they still died tragically, even if it was on their terms. Even if they had lived and fled with Erica and Danny, they would’ve been dead inside after all the loss and horror they had experienced for months. There is a certain poetry to how Red Dawn ends, and I’ve always been satisfied by it.

Now, to be fair, after drooling over what I do love about this movie, there are some elements that don’t quite work for me…and they have to be mentioned too.

Deleted Scenes – I always love checking out footage that was chopped in editing, but could contain elements that would’ve changed tone, or content or were just cool scenes in themselves but slowed the pace down. Deleted scenes from older films are always a treat to come across, but sadly, the scenes that I KNOW WERE FILMED; such as Soviet troops rolling up to a MacDonalds in a tank (featured heavily in the advertising), or a love scene between Erica and Andy, or a scene where Matt returns after seeing the execution of their parents and has to tell the group, have never been officially released. There are also sequences and pacing issues that suggest that some connective-tissue type footage is missing. Red Dawn is not a classic movie in the ‘classic’ sense and therefore that status may deem it not worth the restoration effort, but I for one would love to see what alternative footage was shot but not used.

Choppy editing – Some of the pacing and continuity in Red Dawn could be better. Going back to the Deleted Scenes issue, there are some sequences that are glossed over, such as when, and how, the hell did Daryl manage to get back to Calumet unnoticed by the group, get captured and then get released to return? When it’s revealed that this happened, at some point, I always remember being confused by it, as how the fuck would none of the Wolverines have noticed that one of their numbers was missing for an extended period and then just shows up to fight another day, again with no one asking questions? The narrative does breeze over large chunks of time, but that just seemed out-of-character with the situation, as it had been set up. There was also a scene where the group are taking a break and tossing a football around on the open plains. We see Charlie Sheen tackle Powers Boothe and I couldn’t help but to notice that Charlie’s jeans and team jacket look pristine, perfectly clean and brand new, not like it had been the only clothing he’s been wearing for weeks. No one ever shaves either. They are teenagers, riding the wave of puberty. There definitely would’ve been facial hair issues going on, but nope. They’ll all fresh-faced right to the end. For a movie as gritty and realistic as Red Dawn is, that was a detail I thought should’ve been introduced, either on the page or on-set.

Sound Effects – This is one area where I think a little more work could’ve been done, either at the time of production, or during the transfer to High Def for the Blu ray release. I always found that many of the explosions and gunfire had a stock sound-effects flavor, with too much high-end treble working the soundscape. In 1984, people were starting to look at sound design with a little more creativity and ambition. Hell, just take a listen to the action scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, released the same year, and tell me which of these movies SOUNDS more expensive. That’s right…Temple of Doom, which sounds WAY more engaging, escapist and dynamic. Granted, given the sense of realism Milius had running through Red Dawn, maybe he wanted more stripped down, less dramatic sounds to keep with that tone. Or they just couldn’t bloody well afford them. Personally, I think many of the effects we hear simply could’ve been better. But that’s just MY opinion.

As I mentioned earlier, I unapologetically love Red Dawn (1984). It’s an interesting snap-shot into the depths of Right Wing American paranoia, from a time when the Cold War was again threatening to heat up, that acts as both a lightning rod for hawkish war mongering, ie take the fight to the damn commies, AND realizing the myriad of different tragic consequences that such a fight would bring, for everyone involved. It’s also interesting to note the reception at the time of its release and the controversy that went along with it and how, with an objective look back at the film from today’s perspective, how unappreciated the hard work that Milius and Co. put into giving us this ‘what if’ nightmare scenario, and hypothesizing what would happen if a mujahideen-type guerrilla warfare situation emerged from the ashes of such a large scale conflict on American soil. The young cast, most of whom would go onto substantial careers, are great, the attention to detail is terrific (especially with the modest budget that it had), the action scenes are unique and all feel different, the violence is surprisingly graphic at times (Red Dawn, along with Temple of Doom and Gremlins helped usher in the PG-13 rating, though I still think Red Dawn is honestly deserving of an ‘R’) and the somber, mature tone separates this mid-80’s entry from the medley of macho shoot-em-ups that were all the rage at the time. It’s not perfect…but there’s a lot more depth and impact to Red Dawn than I think most people give it credit for. On that level…I can definitely recommend it to anyone who appreciates dark ‘what if’ scenarios or knows anything about the Cold War and might be interested to see this fictional extrapolation as a cautionary product of it’s time, which it most certainly is. It’s definitely not for everyone, as it really is violent as hell, riding on an unpleasant, tragic undercurrent but for those who give it a shot, either for the first time or a revisit, I think you may find yourself surprised by final result.

“Wolverines!”

*I already summed this sentiment up in my review for the 2012 remake (see the beginning of this review for the link), but do yourself a solid and avoid that hilarious piece of shit like the fucking plague. The laughable Chris Hemsworth version is a cheap, exploitative and idiotically-executed mess that never should’ve been made, period, that lacks all the effort, feel and ambition of the original. Just say No, kids. Just say No. Stick with the classic 1984 original. You won’t be sorry.

 

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