John Milius, director of Conan the Barbarian, went on to make another iconic movie in the ’80s- Red Dawn. Back when we thought nuclear war was inevitable, and we still stung from the shame of Iran holding our people hostage for over a year, we really believed that we could be invaded and taken over. But our country was born of a guerrilla war, so why not another one? Red Dawn delivers, with more violence per minute than any film up to its time. Remember, the guy who made this was the inspiration for Walter Sobchek in The Big Lebowski, and he lives up to his reputation.
Soviet Union suffers worst wheat harvest in 55 years… Labor and food riots in Poland. Soviet troops invade… Cuba and Nicaragua reach troop strength goals of 500,000. El Salvador and Honduras fall… Greens Party gains control of West German Parliament. Demands withdrawal of nuclear weapons from European soil… Mexico plunged into revolution… NATO dissolves. United States stands alone.
The story begins in the heartland of the American West, in a small Colorado town. We’re given little time to meet the characters or drink in the setting- like fellow partisans, we will meet them in combat. A schoolteacher is giving a lecture on Genghis Khan (one of Milius’s favorite subjects) when he sees parachutists landing in the schoolyard. He goes out to investigate, and is gunned down by paratroopers in uniform. The invasion of America has begun! Schoolkids are massacred, but a few boys escape in their brother’s pickup truck and make it to their Dad’s gas station and convenience store to regroup.
The boys are naturally led by the eldest, Jed- played by Patrick Swayze of future Road House (full review) fame- and include a young Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, and eventually some girls- Lea Thompson from Back to the Future as Erica, and Jennifer Grey, best known as Ferris Bueller’s sister, as Toni. Rob’s Dad sends them into the mountains to hole up, but Jed & Matt want to find their own father- and that leads them to the re-education camp, where the rebellious types, identified by the treasonous mayor, have been concentrated. Their Dad is none other than Howard Dean Stanton at his grungiest, telling them to cry no more, and to avenge him. Because he can’t pick them up when they fall off the swings anymore… they need to take care of each other. It’s situations like these where a pair of wire cutters comes in handy, but the Leatherman wasn’t invented yet, so I don’t blame the kids for not breaking their Dad out.
Shortly thereafter, they begin their partisan campaign- the town is overrun with Russians in tanks, commie soldiers burning books in the street, and you can’t even get your decadent rock music at the store without zoldatten peering at you from under their fur caps. No red-blooded American teen of the ’80s is going to tolerate Der Kommissar in the record shop. So they begin a guerrilla campaign at the gas station. In one of the movie’s most effective scenes, Toni lures a group of tankers into robbing her of food, and when they chase her, the boys pop out of ambush and take them out. From there, they are emboldened despite the Commies executing prisoners by the dozen.
Jed & Matt see their father executed from afar, and they commit to fighting the Red Menace, no matter what the cost. To their great luck, the sparse American resistance leads to a fighter pilot ejecting near their encampment, and they soon have a leader with military training leading their strikes- Col. Andy Tanner (Powers Boothe). He’s the perfect bad-ass, and tells them that compared to the folks in the cities that got nuked, they have it good- they can hunt deer for food, instead of rats, or each other. When a boy kills his first deer, they make him drink its blood to honor its spirit.
With Boothe leading them, the Wolverines become a terror to the invaders, striking everything them in their camps, their convoys, and even taking out tanks when they’re caught in the crossfire. They deal with traitors, crack commando squads, Hind helicopters hounding them on horseback. The group is winnowed by combat and soon every mission may be a final suicide ruin. We even get to see things from the invaders’ side, with Cuban colonel remembering his own days as a guerrilla, and giving the Wolverines a begrudging respect.
Milius keeps amping up the action while keeping to a tight story about teaching spoiled American brats what a real war on American soil would be like. Sure, it’s a fantasy of sorts- and if you don’t think the movie is trashy, it’s about rednecks saving the country against Russkies and Red Cuba foreigner types- but his relentlessly violent script isn’t mere wish fulfillment, but an attempt at bringing the reality of war home to a country that hasn’t seen it up close since the 1860’s. It’s much different when you’re sending your boys off to die someplace and aren’t seeing bombs dropped on Mom and her apple pie.
Milius doesn’t make the film oppressively brutal, either. There’s plenty of tongue in cheek, such as when some Soviet soldiers visit a National Park, and translate the sign through the filter of propaganda, or when he pans from a bumper sticker reading “They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold dead fingers” to a dead hand, with a gun in it, getting pried out by a jackbooted soldier.
The kids play touch football when they’re not planning missions, and the girls are treated equally- because they fight too. However, this is still a boy’s world. There’s no room for romance except Lea Thompson getting a crush on Powers Boothe, as creepy as that is. And whenever things begin to look too much like a pigeon shoot, we see the brutal reality of civilians mowed down for supporting the partisans, or the rain of metallic death awaiting kids with AK47’s against an attack helicopter.
Milky and I tried to recapture the Cold War paranoia of the early ’80s by donning our Soviet trooper hats and speaking only in pidgin Russian we’d picked up from movies. It felt horribly wrong to wear dirty pinko commie regalia while our people were being slaughtered, but that just speaks to the effectiveness of Milius’s nightmare fantasy- where America would have to be destroyed in order to save it, and once again slake the Tree of Liberty with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
Our country was born in revolutionary violence, and in the late ’70s and early ’80s whence I was raised, the country was in both an economic and spiritual malaise. We made even shittier cars than we do now, like the Pinto, of which I drove one of the few unexploded specimens. Until Reagan and Yakov Smirnov made us feel good about ourselves, we needed a movie like this. If you don’t believe me, after a few years of this Wall Street treachery we’ll see a remake.
Beers Required to Enjoy: Zero, but the more the better
Could it be remade today? Da! I mean, nyet! Russia is ally!
Quotability Rating: Awesome
Cheese Factor: Land O’ Lakes White American, baby!
High Points: WOLVERINES!
Low Point: The lack of Red Day, Red Dusk, and Red Twilight sequels
Gratuitous Boobies: No such capitalist decadence!