Bad Movie Night: The Reaganite Masturbatory Fantasy of ‘Red Dawn’

It's a clumsily obvious, jingoistic mess - but a fascinating footnote in political and cinematic history.

Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, in commemoration of its recent Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release, we look at the 1984 flag-and-machine-gun fest Red Dawn.

One of the outsize pleasures of watching specialty home video labels program their output is the degree to which they try to balance the high and low – how they’re trying not to just make predictable choices, but to throw in dashes of camp, popcorn, and even junk as counterpoint to the expected critical faves. Because Shout Factory is such a personality-and-popularity label, their new series of Shout Select titles has been as much, if not more, lowbrow than highbrow; even well-reviewed titles like Midnight Run and the Bill & Ted movies are still very mainstream picks, albeit ones that conform to the series’ stated goal to “celebrate the best in filmmaking.” That said, I’m not sure I’d go to bat for the filmmaking in Red Dawn, the 1984 action extravaganza that recently hit shelves as the thirteenth Shout Select release. But the fact that it’s a bad movie doesn’t mean it’s not an important one – both cinematically and socio-politically. Plus, they blow stuff up real good.

Red Dawn comes branded as “A Valkyrie Film” – presumably a riff on the most famous sequence in Apocalypse Now, the most famous credit of Dawn’s co-writer/director John Milius. (Milius penned Apocalypse’s script for director Francis Ford Coppola.) Milius was part of the “film brat” crew that took over the stumbling Hollywood machine in the 1970s, but stood out among his hippie-ish breather for his loudly and avowedly conservative viewpoint. That viewpoint blasts loud and clear throughout Red Dawn, from its opening frames – several screens of text, laying out the convoluted series of geopolitical events that would catalyze the events of the film, in which “America stands alone.”

The opening credits, complete with borderline-parody mock-patriotic score, give way to establishing images of small town America: Woods, lakes, postcard Main Street, tree-lined neighborhoods, Teddy Roosevelt statue, and nary a person of color in sight – except for our heroes’ history teacher, who, predictably enough, is the first to die. However, before he does, he gives a convenient military strategy lesson, interrupted by paratroopers hitting the ground out of the classroom window. You gotta give Red Dawn this much: it’s way overlong at 114 minutes, but they’ve got commies icing teachers and launching rockets down high school hallways inside of five minutes.

Of course, a small town in the middle of nowhere is exactly where foreign invaders would strike; history certainly bore that out. As the combined Russian and Cuban forces take over the town, our teen heroes head up to the mountains, for some survivalist training and macho bonding and whole lot of Learning to Be a Man. When they finally sneak back into town, they discover that their parents and other survivors have been sent to a “reeducation camp” at the local drive-in movie theater. Brothers Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen track down their dad (Harry Dean Stanton), who tells the brothers that they’ve “gotta take care of each other now,” as they cry unconvincingly. (There’s a fair amount of yelling and sobbing and general overacting in the non-action scenes throughout the film, and Milius was not, to put it mildly, an actor’s director.) But they get their mission, when Dad sends them off with a hoot of “BOYS! AVENGE ME!”

They pick up Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey along the way (though Grey and Swayze barely exchange any dialogue, blowing the chance for a Dirty Dancing preunion); the ladies blow the group’s cover in the very next scene, but with enough shooting and growling training, they soon prove themselves able to Fight Like Men. Finally, around the 45-minute mark, our heroes strike back, with many, many scenes of red-blooded American teenagers machine-gunnin’ the shit outta these commies, with a frequent rallying cry of “WOLVERINES” (their school mascot). The bulk of the film finds them riding around on horseback, shooting machine guns and rocket launchers, stealing tanks – it’s an adolescent boys’ notion of “playing war” around the neighborhood, brought to life.

The violence is primarily in the style of the era’s big TV sensation The A-Team – loud and plentiful, but free of real carnage. It’s nonstop but cartoonish, which is how Red Dawn became the first film to hit theaters with the MPAA’s PG-13 rating, established earlier in 1984 in response to the parental backlash to the violence of the PG-rated summer hits Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Red Dawn’s makers presumably avoided the R by keeping the violence mostly bloodless and distant – though at the time it was released, it was condemned for its violence, and for several years thereafter, The Guinness Book of World Records deemed it the most violent movie ever made (134 violent violent acts per hour, averaging two per minute). Kinda seems like an R-rated movie should’ve held that title, huh? But the precedent was set for the PG-13 rating, and it’s one that still holds: nonstop violence is fine, as long as you don’t show people fucking, or describe it that way.

But frankly, all that gunplay gets more than a little monotonous, with Red Dawn’s back hour-and-a-quarter alternating quip-laden scenes of teens blowing shit up with solemn campfire melancholy (“You’re gettin’ pretty lean on feelin’s, aren’tcha?” “Can’t afford ‘em”) and recitations of conservative dogma. There’s nothing subtle about the messaging here; in Back to Our Future, his excellent study of politics in ‘80s pop culture, David Sirota calls Red Dawn “propaganda in its most literal form,” noting MGM/UA exec Peter Bart’s subsequent confession that the studio intended to make “the ultimate jingoistic movie,” with the help of – and this is real – Ronald Reagan’s former Secretary of State, General Alexander Haig. Haig was placed on MGM’s board of directors and asked to “consult with [Red Dawn’s] director and inculcate the appropriate ideological tint”; after Haig took Milius under his wing, the filmmaker “found himself welcomed into right-wing think tanks and inundated with Defense Department analyses of tactical invasion routes.” The Pentagon even weighed in on the MPAA rating, suggesting removing the script’s profanities because “If distributed as an ‘R,’ it cuts down on the teenage audience, which is a prime one to the military services when our recruiting bills are considered.”

This targeted storytelling is all of a piece with Milius’s extremist worldview, which seeps in everywhere from the paranoid scenes of “reeducation camps” (a drum that still gets banged, by the likes of Glenn Beck and Alex Jones) to the scene of an enemy general sending his troops to the town sporting goods store to retrieve “records of weapons and lists of private ownership” (Fun fact: Milius was a former board member of the NRA, and prominently displays a bumper sticker with a variation on their “cold, dead hands” slogan in the film). When it was released in late summer of 1984, it was a big hit, which shouldn’t come as a surprise; this was the year when Reagan won the presidency in a landslide, and if nothing else, Red Dawn plays like a Reaganite masturbatory fantasy.

Yet I’ll give it this, as someone who watched it for the first time for this column (I was nine when it came out, and my parents thought it looked, whaddaya know, too violent): the opening scene of Russkies landing at your school, marching through their town, and taking over America may look silly now (or, I dunno, maybe it doesn’t!). Yet back in the mid-‘80s, this was pretty much what we assumed would eventually happen. Or, who knows, maybe we thought that because of movies like this.

The “Red Dawn” Collector’s Edition Blu-ray is available now from Shout Select. It’s also available for rental or download from Amazon, iTunes, and the usual suspects.