Revisiting Red Dawn
I was a teenager during the eighties and grew up during the final days of the Cold War. The threat of another war in Europe was very real and the fear of a nuclear confrontation was always present. John Milius’s Red Dawn therefore had quite a profound impact upon the viewing public at the time. It certainly was not the first movie to tackle the concept of an invasion or to explore the role of the guerilla. However, what it succeeded in doing was depicting the idea in a contemporary way that the audience could relate to. The iconic image of Russian troops outside McDonalds encapsulated the films mood entirely.
The movie was unfairly labelled jingoistic and a product of the Reagan era and was to a degree discounted by critics at the time. Yet despite of writer/director John Milius's personal politics, the movie depicts partisans quite honestly, portraying them as everyday people, in this case teenagers. They are not invincible, infallible or morally unassailable. Fighting on their home-soil takes a very heavy toll upon them all. They have to deal with such things as PTSD, betrayal and family loss. There is also dissent among the group and war is depicted as not being a black and white situation. These are quite weighty themes and not something you immediately expect from a mainstream action movie aimed at the teen market. It is also worth noting that Red Dawn was the first movie to receive the PG-13 rating from the MPAA, yet it is curiously violent and frankly nearer to an R.
The magnitude of the ongoing war depicted in Red Dawn is only briefly glimpsed though the eyes of our partisan protagonists. We see small scale sorties against the enemy and are limited to the invaders activities in Colorado. In fact the Wolverines never really get a clear idea of the state of the war until they meet a USAF pilot who's been shot down. It is this minimalist approach, showing the how the occupation has personally affected a small town that bolsters the strength of the story. For a movie with teenage protagonists and aimed squarely at an equivalent demographic, it makes few concessions to pander to its audience. There is no major romance, comic relief or happy ending. Most of the Wolverines die, being shown as part of a wider national sacrifice.
Red Dawn is very much a product of its time, both politically and cinematically. Yet despite being a mainstream studio production it does not compromise its theme by trivialising it. It deals squarely with the idea of how war effects youth. Something that was absent from the 2010 movie Tomorrow, When the War Began. Based on the novels by John Marsden, the film depicts a group of young Australians struggling to cope with an invasion by an unspecified foreign military power. Where Red Dawn endeavours to show youth being thrust violently into an adult world and its tragic consequences, Tomorrow, When the War Began attempts no such thing. The invasion is simply an inconvenience and it takes long time for the protagonists to grasp the magnitude of their predicament. The movie avoids any geo-political explanation of the war itself and instead provides what the target audience expects. Thus we have complex relationships and teen angst and occasionally some guerrilla activities against a faceless enemy.
Roundabout the same time as Tomorrow, When the War Began was released, MGM/UA were preparing to launch their remake of Red Dawn. This re-imagining of the 1984 original was originally conceived to depict a Chinese invasion, similar to that shown in Tomorrow, When the War Began. However, due to the studios financial problems at the time, the movie was shelved. Problems were further compounded over the next two years by the expansion of the US film exports to the Chinese market. After recovering from near bankruptcy, the studio was left with a movie that now potentially maligned its biggest new customer. Thus Red Dawn underwent significant re-shooting and editing. The most significant plot change being the Chinese invaders being altered to North Korean.
Sadly, these radical augmentation do have a negative impact upon the new movie, which was finally released in 2012. The original story centred around a failing US economy and its reneging on its debt to China, hence the subsequent invasion. How the new storyline with North Korea as the antagonist plays out via the fanciful plot device of Asian imperialist aggression. Rather than attempting to explore post 9/11 sensibilities, Red Dawn is content to be yet another PG-13 teen orientated action movie. It is interesting to note that this time round, lead character Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) is depicted as having prior military experience, which does somewhat alter the underpinning concept of true homegrown partisans.
The themes of invasion, occupation and insurrection lend themselves to strong cinema. However, the relative peace we currently enjoy in the western hemisphere, means that these are ideas are that seldom revisited, at least with regard to our own nations. The 1984 original version of Red Dawn managed to explore these ideas even within the parameters of the prevailing political framework of the time. To accommodate more contemporary tastes, such notions were absent or only superficially addressed in Tomorrow, When the War Began and the remake of Red Dawn. Ironically Western politics seems to be at war with itself at present, which would certainly lend a new spin to the Red Dawn scenario. Invasion would more than likely be replaced in any screenplay with civil war. Perhaps such a subject is a little too close to home at the moment.
If you saw Red Dawn upon its original release and haven’t seen it since, perhaps a second viewing would prove interesting experience. The threat of war with other nations doesn’t seem so immediate now and has been replaced with the more nebulous fear of terrorism and the less clearly defined enemies. Younger viewers may find it difficult to grasp the prevailing dread that the Cold War perpetuated. And if the political aspects of the film along with its social themes, don’t appeal to you, at least you can enjoy an adequate action movie, free from preposterous CGI set pieces and committee driven ending.
*For those wondering why I have not referenced the 1987 US TV miniseries Amerika with its similar themes, it is simply because I have never seen it and it doesn't appear to be currently available on any home media format.