Successful action films come twice – the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Red Dawn is a classic of the Cold War, a near perfect encapsulation of the unique psyche of Conservativus Americanus during the long twilight struggle against Soviet Communism. Perhaps despite itself, it also contains Traditionalist themes that make it a true classic of the authentic Right.
The unfortunate new remake is in its own way a classic, a ludicrous example of the cultural establishment’s need to remake and redefine every aspect of the American past to fit the diversity-dominated American present. Whereas the first Red Dawn is genuinely subversive, the remake actually serves to buttress the system, a piece of patriotic propaganda for the post-patriotic, post-American Age of Obama.
Director John Milius is one of those Hollywood Right wingers who somehow snuck in and was allowed productive work over a long and fruitful career. A double rarity as a conservative filmmaker and a politically conservative Jew, Milius was rejected for service in the United States Marine Corps because of health problems. He compensated by creating a remarkable body of work that celebrates military values, patriotism, masculinity, and violence for a just cause. From writing the screenplay for Dirty Harry to creating the HBO series Rome, Milius’s long career has been surprisingly consistent and successful, especially his considering his frequent celebration of themes wildly opposed to the liberal intelligentsia. This is even more amazing considering Milius’s long history with legendary progressive filmmakers, including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. He’s also responsible for creating some of the most memorable dialogue in film history from “Make my day” to “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Nor does Milius’s reputation appear to be some kind of departure for the sake of art or use of irony. Milius once defended Arnold Schwarzenegger against Nazi accusations by boasting that he was the real Nazi. While we can doubt his commitment to National Socialism, Milius’s public and private pronouncements confirm he’s an old fashioned Jacksonian American nationalist, simultaneously despising effete liberals and corrupt “Wall Street Pigs.” While his career continues (although his health is failing), it’s hard not to think of John Milius as an ’80’s original, because like the culture of that decade, there is no irony in Milius’s filmography. He means it all.
Thus, Milius’s Red Dawn is not some kind of silly satire about American militarism or clichéd masculinity, but a deadly serious story about American teenagers resisting Soviet tyranny. Milius both at the time and later claimed that the story was inspired by the mujahedin’s struggle against the Red Army’s invasion of Afghanistan. Of course, this explanation doesn’t exactly age well but is forgivable in the era of Rambo III when Charlie Wilson’s War wasn’t a movie. Both at the time and of course today, Milius’s fantasy fulfillment about mowing down the Reds made liberals deeply uncomfortable, and the film was called “propaganda” and “paranoid” then and “fascist” and “hateful” now.
Red Dawn (1984)
Despite all that, the film actually has quite a bit going on besides wasting Reds, and deserves a place not just as a period piece of America’s Reagan-era Indian Summer, but as a Traditionalist film in its own right.
The film begins after Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen) and his friends are dropped off at high school by his older brother Jed (Patrick Swayze), with the sad tale of the scoreboard showing the Wolverines’ athletic defeat in the background. The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the Wolverines were made on the high school football field of (fictional) Calumet, Colorado. Jed’s condescending attitude towards his brother sets the stage – the alpha male of athletics will become the alpha of the partisan band. Unlike a million teen movies condemning the complicated hierarchies of high school, Milius’s tale accepts it and even celebrates it.
At school, the teacher, seemingly the only black guy in the state, is lecturing on the wholesale desolation created by Genghis Khan (possibly the subject of another upcoming Milius film), in a nice piece of foreshadowing. Subtly, quietly, the iconic parachutes lazily glide into the schoolyard. All hell immediately breaks loose upon landing.
Just like in horror movies, the black guy dies first, gunned down by a Soviet paratrooper. The Red Army proceeds to use its RPGs on critical military targets, like school buses, random hallways, and empty cars. Machine guns mow down unarmed students, and the viewer begins to question the sophistication of Soviet tactical doctrine. This is the one part of the movie that can justifiably be regarded as, well, batshit insane, although the Red Army’s treatment of civilians during their march through Nazi Germany suggests it might not be that crazy.
Jed drives his truck through the chaos, picking up his brother and their friends Arturo (the film’s nod to diversity), the mayor’s son and student class president Daryl, Robert (C. Thomas Howell), and young Danny. Arturo’s father is captured and yells to his son in Spanish but there is nothing they can do to save him. Driving to Robert’s father’s store, they take guns, supplies (including a football for some reason), and food, and make for the woods. An American helicopter strafes a Soviet checkpoint so the teens can escape, showing that U.S. military is still in the fight. Nonetheless, Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Soviet forces consolidate their hold on the town and begin occupation, under the command of the Cuban Colonel Bella.
The small group hunts for food and remains in the woods until they run out of supplies Reluctantly entering the town, they find that the KGB is looking for dissidents, that a concentration camp has been set up (with Jed and Matt’s dad an inmate), and that Robert’s father has been killed for providing the boys with supplies. Papa Eckert speaks to his sons briefly and screams the immortal line, “Avenge me!” before being dragged off by prison guards. The group also picks up two new members, Toni (Jennifer Grey) and Erica (Lea Thompson), and it is strongly implied that Erica has been raped by Soviet troops.
Nonetheless, the Wolverines don’t become a military rebellion until sightseeing Soviet troops accidentally run into them in the woods. In self-defense, the Americans are forced to kill them with bows and arrows and hunting rifles. In retaliation, the Soviets force American civilians to dig graves for the Red Army troops before executing them. Defiantly, the doomed men sing a startlingly off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful” before being gunned down by .50 caliber machine guns. Arturo’s and the Eckerts’ father are both murdered, as the boys look on in horror. Jed tells the weeping group to stop crying, and is joined by Robert, who is ready for vengeance. The guerrilla campaign is about to begin. All of this happens extremely quickly and is essentially a setup to develop several classical Right-wing themes.
At the top of the list is betrayal by the elites. When the group initially reaches the woods, Daryl immediately wants to surrender, absurdly using his school president position to try to pressure the group. While Jed is able to suppress this minor mutiny, it’s revealed that Daryl’s father, the mayor, is a collaborator. When asked to reveal the names of troublemakers, the mayor says that “it runs in some of the families” (i.e., the gun nuts, Right-wing paranoids, and militia types who had presumably been plaguing him). Laughing, the Colonel sarcastically says the people of the town enjoy good fortune in having such a shepherd like him.
When the townspeople are executed, the mayor is sickened, but he doesn’t actually do anything to resist. Milius suggests that in crisis (as in peacetime), the state and its (civilian) servants will be eager to turn on the nation. Even under foreign military occupation, the mayor thinks the real danger are those gun owning white workers and small businessmen with dangerous, anti-liberal ideas. The parallel with progressives quaking in their boots over some guys at a gun show but blithely unconcerned with open borders, foreign terrorists, or demographic conquest is obvious.
At the same time, there’s always been a strange tension between the military-worshiping, jingoistic instincts of the American Right and the simultaneous belief that our government is filled with traitors. Milius hammers away at some of the usual foreign policy tropes of the Reagan era conservative movement. The Eurosocialists, needless to say, turn their back on the United States, especially after the Greens take over the German government. NATO dissolves, and our allies refuse to help – “all except England, and they won’t last very long.” Ironically, the only strong American ally is China, though they’ve been culled by nuclear weapons. The Soviet invasion is enabled by Cubans and Nicaraguans “disguised as illegals” who infiltrate missile silos after sneaking across the Mexican border. The Soviet missiles “are a hell of a lot more accurate than we thought.” Just as American conservatives always suspected, foreign threats are understated, our allies are cowardly, and our militarily isn’t strong enough.
This belief among anti-government conservatives is strange because, after all, the military is simply the armed servants of the government. At the same time, the bond between the military and the nation is somehow stronger than the bond between the government and the nation. Milius is suggesting what many American conservatives believe: that the military “owns” and represents the nation more than the democratic politicians they serve. The nation belongs to those willing to die for it, not those who send out others to die on their behalf. It also serves as a reservoir of authentic national tradition, which is why liberals hate it. Even Stalin had to appeal to the heroes of Russian nationalism and re-open the Orthodox churches after military invasion.
Behind the governing ideology, behind the social contract, and behind the consent of the governed are the men with guns who more authentically represent the folk spirit of the nation. The Wolverines are an even more perfect representation because they aren’t actually a part of the government’s military. Although they work with a downed Air Force pilot and cheer American tanks, planes, and choppers as “ours,” the guerrillas are not accountable to anyone except themselves. Their sense of patriotism comes from their identity, not from their paycheck or loyalty to a government. Until they meet the pilot, they don’t even know if the government still exists. It’s for this reason that libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard called the movie more anti-state than anti-Communist. If anything, the Wolverines are a cinematic representation of a National Anarchist militia in action.
This distinction between state and nation is itself a key theme. Some liberal reviewers were outraged by this, suggesting that the guerrillas (and Milius) were simply motivated by the urge to kill, as “there’s not an America worth dying for” because the government officials were corrupt and treasonous. Such an interpretation is not surprising coming from people who think “the government is the one thing we all belong to.” Milius is suggesting that there is an America worth dying for, but it’s not the government, and certainly not the liberal elite. If anything, the government is opposed to the nation and would see no problem with collaboration if it means cracking down on the kinds of people they don’t like.
The tribal nature of patriotism is brought home by perhaps the most famous (or infamous) scene of the movie. Daryl disobeys Jed’s orders and sneaks into town where, true to form, his own father turns him in. Daryl is fitted with a bug (which he doesn’t mention to the group) and Soviet troops use it to attack the group. While the Wolverines swiftly dispatch them, the bug is discovered. Daryl and one surviving Soviet are to be executed, but Matt protests. “What’s the difference, Jed, huh? What’s the difference between us and them?” Jed responds, “Because we live here!” and executes the soldier. While he can’t bring himself to shoot Daryl, Robert calmly does it, and the group rides off.
“We live here” is in many ways a perfect expression of the motivations behind the true Right. To a liberal, there is no difference between an American guerrilla executing a captured soldier or a Soviet doing it. Both violate “human rights.” Of course, in the real world, there is a huge difference, because a person fighting for the concrete realities of his community and his friends can easily justify actions that he can’t explain on paper. Patriots don’t support their country because it’s the objective best any more than they love their family because all other families are objectively terrible. It’s because it’s theirs, and even though liberals can’t justify this philosophically, only an absolute monster violates such conduct in everyday life. Furthermore, the Americans in the film are fighting in defense of their own community, resisting a war of conquest started by someone else. As Saul Alinsky once said, the concern with means and ends varies in inverse proportion to direct involvement in the conflict.
This doesn’t mean that Milius celebrates savagery as purely a good thing. Despite the cartoonish image of the movie (and its unironic role as Cold War propaganda), Milius actually goes out of his way to discuss the brutality and ugly side of war. When Powers Boothe’s pilot Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Tanner watches the Wolverines ambush a Soviet column, he is ambivalent, rather than impressed. He mocks their military pretensions, saying “You think you’re tough for eating beans every day?” He alludes to the “siege of Denver” where people are eating the dead to survive. When he’s asked by one of the group if they’re doing right, he simply shakes his head and walks off resigned.
At the same, he’s hardly an enemy sympathizer. Watching an American jet fly over a Soviet column, he growls “Fry ‘em” and sacrifices his own life to take out another Soviet tank. Milius notes that he based the throwaway reference to the “siege of Denver” on the real life siege of Leningrad. In the same way that Tanner explains the root cause of the conflict as, “two biggest kids on the block, sooner or later they’re going to fight,” Milius is suggesting that the world is naturally cruel, that conflict is the norm, and that only the dead have seen the end of war.
The movie makes several clumsy but sincere efforts towards humanizing the enemy. Colonel Bella, always on the side of the insurgents in the past, is disgusted to find himself “a policeman” repressing a hostile population. At the end of the film, he disgustedly writes to his wife that he’s done with the “revolution” and that he will resign and come home to her. He even lets Jed escape (though presumably to die in peace) rather than finishing him. Soviet soldiers play tourist, playfully mock each other, and ineptly try to translate American monuments and identify local animals. There’s the occasional closeup to show that the Soviet soldiers are painfully young – as young as the Wolverines who are butchering them. One begs Daryl to tell him his name before he’s executed, so he doesn’t die alone. Another cries to God for help as he is dying, and turns away when Jed places a pistol to his head, too young and scared to face the reality of death.
While there are several allusions to the glorious tradition of Red Army rape (including of Lea Thompson’s Erica), most of the Soviet soldiers efforts to get with American women come off as clumsy, bumbling, and oddly charming. One young Soviet solider outside a “Soviet-American Friendship Center” earnestly asks Toni, “Miss? Maybe I speak at you a minute?” before hopefully telling her he’ll wait for her to come back. Unfortunately for him, Toni has smuggled in a bomb.
None of this suggests that Milius is suggesting the Wolverines are doing anything wrong. Milius even said the movie was part of an elaborate fantasy about stomping out the Reds. Nonetheless, war is war, and even a good cause means killing innocent people. Milius isn’t squeamish about this – he simply is telling us that the natural state of man is war and conflict.
A former board member of the National Rifle Association, it’s not surprising that Milius’s masterpiece contains absolutely classic American gun culture talking points. Almost immediately upon seizing the town, Colonel Bella tells a subordinate to go to the sports store and obtain Form 4473 (a real thing) which contains records of firearms ownership. A bumper sticker on a truck proclaims that guns will only be taken “From my cold dead hands,” and a Red Army soldier does just that to a dead American. When Jed and Matt sneak into town, a frightened girl tells them that the KGB is looking for them. The secret police want “people who they thought could make trouble, people with guns . . .”
Matt and Jed’s survival and leadership role is enabled by the training they received from their father. Their father named Jed after frontiersman Jed Smith and taught them to hunt and survive in the woods. When they encounter him in the concentration camp, he tells them that he was hard on them growing up, “but you know why now.” This can only be a reference to giving the boys rough training in survivalism, teaching them to “man up” in difficult situations, and filling their heads with paranoia about a dangerous world. Of course, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone there out to get you.
The purpose of the state under the social contract is to provide for the common defense. Red Dawn tells us that if state fails that duty, the people must be prepared to accept it themselves. In some situations, they must be ready to defend themselves against the state and be prepared for the day when the soldiers come crashing through the doors to take their guns and their freedom. If anything, today’s rhetoric about weapons of mass destruction, FEMA camps, and efforts to increase gun control make the message more relevant than ever. Milius is telling us that the social contract is a lie and that the people have to be willing to defend themselves against foreign threats and even against the government.
Finally, as with any great Traditionalist movie, there is the theme of initiation into adulthood through the act of violence. Early in the film, Jed and Matt take Robert (C. Thomas Howell) hunting. Dressed in a goofy “Star Wars” hat, Robert isn’t exactly formidable. After Robert successfully shoots a deer, Jed and Matt instruct him to drink the blood of the slain animal, symbolically initiating him as a man and a warrior. “You know, my dad said that once you do that, there’s going to be something different about you,” Matt intones.
Robert becomes the most fearsome and bloodcrazed of the group, the Wolverines’ berserker. Lt. Col. Tanner is troubled by Robert, telling him “All that hate’s going to burn you up kid.” “It keeps me warm,” he replies. Robert gets a death any Reagan-era patriot could envy, cut down while firing an assault rifle on full auto from the hip at oncoming Soviet choppers, screaming a battle cry. Though heroic (and portrayed utterly without irony), Milius is also telling us that a true warrior has no life behind the fight. Robert has been consumed by the struggle, and has to die.
Matt and Jed are also destroyed, going on one last suicide mission to save the two remaining members of the group. Erica begs them to stop, pleading, “You’re never going to know who won!” “Who will?” Matt replies dully. He might as well be saying, “Who cares?” The fight has become an end in itself, and the true warriors have to die so those who haven’t fully lost their humanity can survive and rebuild society. From a group of friends trying to survive, the Wolverines become a co-ed version of a Männerbund that consumes itself. Again, Milius acknowledges the cost, but tells us it is worth it. This is the price of heroism. After all, the last shot of the movie is the American flag flying proudly over “Partisan Rock.” The Wolverines have played their part in the great American victory in World War III.
Leftists then and now reacted to the 1984 film with barely concealed rage. Some of it is the usual scorn from “anti-anti-Communists” who may not be pro-Soviet (probably because the USSR was too Right-wing), but who hated and feared American conservatives worse than the KGB. The Traditionalist messages outlined above also predictably fueled the flames.
However, a great deal of the scorn came from “anti-racist” motivations. The movie paints the Nicaraguans and Cubans as part of the enemy force. It pushes the immigration button by showing how they snuck up through the undefended Mexican border. The Cuban colonel (though portrayed sympathetically) is even the face of Communist occupation for much of the movie. In the real world the Cuban military actually had a startlingly interventionist history in the Cold War, fighting bloody conflicts in Africa, Latin America, and even the Middle East. This does not fit with the oddly racist narrative of the anti-white Left, where Cubans, Nicaraguans and the rest of their little brown brothers are not historical actors in their own right but helpless children who need to be saved from white American proto-Nazis.
Red Dawn does not contain many non-white faces, which has led to the accusations of racism, but the still American West of the 1980s didn’t contain many either. With a (presumably) Mexican-American father executed by the Reds, a black teacher serving as the Crispus Attucks of the occupation, the son of the martyred Mexican a Wolverine who dies at the side of Lt. Col. Tanner, and the Cuban occupiers portrayed sympathetically, it’s hard to argue that Milius was being deliberately racist. The only reference to racial genocide comes from a Russian colonel, who argues that the Americans must all be killed like animals, just like “in Afghanistan.” The film is of course institutionally racist because it shows a mostly white America filled with mostly noble white people fighting in defense of their mostly white families. A progressive film would have showed them greeting the Cubans and Nicaraguans as liberators and begging their forgiveness for slavery, oppression of the Indians and the existence of the United Fruit Company.
Red Dawn was the product of a still existing American nation. It attempted to capture the spirit of the “real America” but echoed deeper Traditionalist themes. Whatever the jokes or sneers of critics predisposed to hate the film’s message, Red Dawn stands up remarkably well, especially compared to most of the other products of the irony-free 1980s. While reflecting its times, it’s also timeless.