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Red Dawn (1984)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

“The invading armies planned for everything — except for eight kids called ‘The Wolverines’.”

Many people may have seen this film at some time in the past and pigeon-holed it as a cold war era movie solely about an invasion of the USA by the soviets and their allies. Indeed, the plot consists of exactly that idea. I don't know whether director John Milius might now appreciate the irony of America being invaded by an occupying force and the bravery of young people in resistance. However, this film deserves a fresh viewing in light of the many changes in the world since its making.

The movie begins by stating some “facts” from the film’s world that stand in stark contrast with what actually did happen in the 1980s. In essence, the cold war goes the way of the Communist block, rather than that “evil empire” crumbling. The USA alone opposes the effort to spread the “soviet way.” As the credits roll a view above clouds accompanies a martial rhythm on the soundtrack, hinting at events soon to come as the view descends through the cloud cover. September in the Colorado rockies, means school for teenagers in the Western town of Calumet. Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) in his pick-up delivers his brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) and Matt’s friend Aardvark (Doug Toby) to their high school, nicknamed the Wolverines.

The scene changes to a classroom with Matt, Aardvark and classmates including student body president Daryl Bates (Darren Dalton) in which a male instructor, Mr. Teasdale (Frank McRae), discusses Genghis Khan and his “Great Hunt” methods. As he talks, outside but visible from the classroom windows, paratroopers land on the school grounds. When Mr. Teasdale goes to see what the paratroopers intend, one of them kills him with battle rifle fire, followed by general fire on the schoolrooms. Most students flee in panic, but others make a more organized retreat.

Daryl, along with Robert Morris (C. Thomas Howell) attempt to leave in a car. Gunfire disables the car, but they meet up with Jed, who has returned in his pickup truck to get Matt. Matt and Aardvark, Daryl and Robert, joined at the last minute by Danny (Brad Savage), all escape with Jed and head to the store operated by Samuel Morris (Roy Jenson), Robert’s father. Mr. Morris supplies the boys with sleeping bags, food, guns and ammo, bows and arrows (this film rates as quite 2nd amendment friendly), and sends them to the mountains, telling them not to come back. He’ll come to get them later. Battle between invading troops and US military rages as the boys almost miraculously escape into the Rockies.

There, some of the boys — Danny and Daryl especially, question Jed’s leadership. Matt and Robert back him. Jed tells the others they can leave, but if they stay, they do what he says. Aardvark agrees. Danny and Daryl remain silent, but join the group around a fire to stay warm. Weeks pass. Through hunting, fishing and foraging they survive reasonably well. However, they “need to know” about their families. So, they go into town.

Now occupied by the invading troops, Calumet has changed considerably. Troops watch the populace. Troops burn books in the streets of the town. Many citizens have been sent to a re-education camp at the Drive-in theater, which now shows propaganda to the captives. When Jed, Matt and Robert go to the Drive-in, they find Matt and Jed’s father: Tom Eckert (Harry Dean Stanton), caged behind a cyclone fence. He tells the boys their mother and the life they’ve known, “It’s all gone.” He also tells them not to cry for him, but as they leave he says to avenge him. On the way back, they visit Mr. Mason (Ben Johnson), who in addition to telling Robert his father was killed, tells them more details about the invasion and how it goes. Before they leave he gives them his granddaughters: Toni (Jennifer Grey) and Erica (Lea Thompson) to take into the mountains to seek refuge with them. That completes the introduction of the Wolverines.

In addition, Colonel Ernesto Bella (Ron O'Neal) leads many of the invading troops. An intelligent Cuban man (speaks Spanish and Russian, in addition to knowing about ATF 4473s) as well as battle hardened veteran, he loses his “socialist idealism” as the occupation lengthens. Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe) plays an American pilot rescued by the Wolverines later in the story. Col. Strelnikov (William Smith), a Russian commando leader, arrives on the scene even later. Some of the invaders get sympathetic treatment, especially Col. Bella. which makes the irony, spoken of below, even deeper.

Invasion of the USA by a foreign occupying army, other than perhaps a Canadian or Mexican force (either seems quite a stretch), doesn't seem very credible. America has always been protected by its ocean borders and its large land mass. Similarly, a successful sustained invasion of Russia or China by modern military forces also seems very difficult to conceive. However, indigenous forces managed to rise to totalitarian power in both of those countries. The possibility of home grown tyranny in the USA seems more likely all the time (the forms 4473 mentioned in the movie could help the Feds in such an effort, much as they helped the invaders in the film). When one responds to the possibility of a tyrannical FedGov by suggesting popular resistance, often people claim the FedGov has too much power. This movie gives a blueprint for how resistance might work. Many of those objectors just mentioned might then say: “It’s just a movie.” Yes, true, but more on that below.

The end of the film seems more nationalistic than most readers here might endorse, more than I like. However, that aspect conforms to the time when the film was made. In any case, one shouldn’t need the Russian political officer mentioning Afghanistan to make the connection of the partisans in this movie: the Wolverines, called insurgents by the movie’s invaders; to the partisans resisting imperial aggression in many parts of the world today. The greatest irony consists in the identity of the imperial aggressor in many, if not most, of today’s world conflicts. If one views the film keeping that irony in mind, its relevance survives the cold war and casts stark illumination on current events. Those current events also give a counter-example to “the FedGov cannot be defeated by partisan resistance” argument. All of these factors make this film very relevant outside the historical context of the cold war. I recently viewed this movie again and found it insightful in many ways which I had not noticed previously. Each time I've watched Red Dawn I enjoyed it immensely. I believe most of you will also.

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