When it arrived in theaters in August 1984, John Milius’ Red Dawn didn’t immediately hit the US with the nuclear-sized cultural payload the right-leaning filmmaker hoped it might. But in the 38 years since the film’s release, several modern conflicts have reflected and validated the filmmaker’s vision for how an invading army is defeated by an insurgency of its own making.
America’s misadventures with counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan often looked eerily similar to Milius’ vision of how an American rebellion would shake out in response to an invasion. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, during which soldiers and volunteers defending their homeland have taken up the mantle of Red Dawn’s Wolverines, has poignantly illustrated what an armed populace that refuses to bow to tyranny can do to an invading army.
For Americans at the time of the film’s release, Red Dawn (which earned the first-ever PG-13 rating after the classification was introduced on July 1, 1984; the movie came out on Aug. 10) was about killing evil commie invaders. For Ukrainians, the real-life enemy is an army of mostly conscripted Russian soldiers who seem to fight with all the passion and zeal of a zombie horde commanded by a power-mad, post-Soviet reptilian.
The National Coalition on Television Violence called Red Dawn one of the most violent Hollywood productions ever made with “134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute.” Anyone who’s watched the Ukrainian military, its civil defense forces, and their allies deal death and destruction to the Russians might wonder if the film’s on-screen bloodlust and body count might be understated.
While it has often been critically panned as an ’80s throwback of Cold War paranoia (one reviewer called it “a Reaganite masturbatory fantasy”), Milius’ action-packed, fever-dream vision of teenage American guerrillas defending their homeland against an invading Red-commie axis of evil is actually a smart, layered anti-war film that carries a vital message about the human spirit and desire to live free.
In Red Dawn, the US — like Ukraine — stands alone against a Russia-led invasion after NATO “dissolves.” If Red Dawn holds a foreign policy lesson, it is the timeless precept that — as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis put it — “Nations with allies thrive, and nations without allies wither.” Another takeaway might be how galactically stupid it is to invade a country whose citizens own 40% of all the guns in the world.
“Of the more than one billion firearms in the world, American citizens hold 393 million, for a population of roughly 326 million,” the Independent reported in June 2018. “That is a gun ownership of 121 firearms per 100 civilians. The next highest rates are 53 in Yemen, 39 in Montenegro and Serbia, and 35 in Canada.”
“I’m a militarist, and an extreme patriot at times. I believe in all that rugged-individualism hogwash.”
Milius, who lived in the Colorado mountains for two years as a kid, understood all of this long before the US ever approached the unprecedented rates of gun ownership it has today. During the initial invasion of the protagonists’ sleepy Colorado town of Calumet, the director, who famously used to lay his .45-caliber pistol on the table during interviews with journalists, offers a close-up shot of a bumper sticker that reads, “They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold dead fingers.” Milius metaphorically pistol-whips viewers with his pro-gun ideals when he has the camera pan from the bumper sticker to a Russian soldier’s boot stepping on a dead American’s hand and prying a gun from it.
A scene follows in which Cuban Col. Ernesto Bella (Ron O’Neal) orders his captain to collect Firearms Transaction Records from local stores in order to track and target gun owners. In the movie, the Soviets have teamed up with Cuba and have invaded the US through Mexico, which just went through a revolution, and Canada.
Robert (C. Thomas Howell) is the main character through which Milius conveys the corrupting effects of war on the human spirit. When Robert learns his father was executed for providing the Wolverines guns and supplies from his sporting goods store, it’s a key moment in his disturbing transition from a quiet, happy-go-lucky teen to a cold, steely-eyed killer.
Loss of innocence and the hardening of young, otherwise pure hearts is Red Dawn’s powerful central theme, and many people, young and old, have doubtlessly undergone such a transformation in Ukraine. In an August 1984 interview, Milius said his hope for Red Dawn was to make “a cautionary tale … that is giving people pause for thought and reflection on the nature of war.”
One of the film’s biggest strengths is that Milius, who earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing Apocalypse Now with Francis Ford Coppola, avoided caricatured archetypes and simplistic renderings of both his heroes and his villains. The bad guys aren’t one-dimensional lunatics but soldiers carrying out a military and political agenda, and the American kids who become rebels in their own country are reluctant warriors who are forced to fight a war they never wanted.
Until a chance encounter with a trio of Russian soldiers in the Arapaho National Forest forces their hands, the teens are keen to avoid conflict and simply “stay alive,” camping, hunting, and foraging for food in the unoccupied Rocky Mountains. By killing the Russians to avoid capture, the Wolverines are transformed from noncombatants to insurgents.
After the teens are forced to kill for the first time, Milius shows them sitting stoically around the campfire, where Danny declares, “They were people.”
“Yeah, well, so was my dad,” Robert says coldly as he saws off the barrel of the hunting shotgun with which he just killed his first human being.
Group leader Jed (Patrick Swayze) leaves no question that the group has crossed its proverbial Rubicon when he tells them, “One thing’s for sure now. No one can ever go home again. Never.”
Red Dawn is often pigeonholed for championing conservative ideals and politics, but one of the film’s boldest scenes was ahead of its time when it comes to sensitive portrayals of realistic sexual trauma and how the boundaries of propriety and respect are established and negotiated within a tribe.
“I was the only person in Hollywood who would dare do this movie,” Milius once told an interviewer, referring to Red Dawn’s right-wing politics. “Hollywood is very left-wing. There’s parts of me that are very left-wing. Get me going about corporate greed, and I turn into a Maoist. But I have a lot of contradictions. I’m a militarist, and an extreme patriot at times. I believe in all that rugged-individualism hogwash.”
When Matt (Charlie Sheen) tells Erica (Lea Thompson) to “make yourself useful” and wash the dishes at camp, Erica defiantly slaps the dishes away and snaps, “You wash it! We ain’t never doing your washing again. Me and her is as good as any of you.” Matt’s response clearly triggers Erica, who we know by now was raped by the enemy before joining the Wolverines (as a rebel group, they take the name of their high school football team).
“So what’s up your ass?” he says. The words make Erica lash out. “Shut up!” she yells, standing up and punching Matt in the chest and shoulder. “Don’t you ever say that again … I’ll kill you.”
Within the context of a small group of guerrilla fighters, Milius’ belief in rugged individualism gets expressed as a feminist ideal: Women are equals, and they have a say about what is and isn’t okay in a community. Matt gets no intervention or support from any of the men in the circle, including the leader and his brother, Jed, which is clear from the firelit close-up of his face. Swayze, with beautiful subtlety, conveys respect and introspection about what sexual traumas the young women may have suffered at the hands of the enemy. It again reinforces the Western ideal of the strong man capable of savagery as well as masculine virtue, with the ability to keep it all under control and preserve one’s sense of vulnerability and humanity.
After the campfire scene, Milius lays out a sequence of events that speaks to the complexity of counterinsurgency operations and beautifully illustrates the transformation of this young group of people fighting for their home. Hoping to discover who the mountain-dwelling insurgents might be, Col. Bella — a former Cuban guerrilla — and his captain conduct what veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will recognize as a key leader engagement. They meet with Mr. Bates, the mayor of Calumet. Daryl, one of the Wolverines, is his son.
Mayor Bates assures them his son is not the guerrilla type and instead helps them identify some of the other boys’ fathers, including Jed and Matt’s. Those men are then rounded up and executed as Matt watches through binoculars. Mayor Bates is on hand to witness the ordeal and is sickened by his complicity.
In the nearly four decades since Red Dawn hit theaters, history has consistently proved that Milius understood how complicated counterinsurgency operations are.
For anyone who’s been on the Cuban colonel’s side of counterinsurgency operations and turned a source in a similar way, the mayor’s loathsome character may or may not read as more than an archetype for cowardice. Men like Bates — whose loyalties easily shifted based on circumstances — were often good guys for US forces. Whatever one’s judgment of Bates might be, the point is that war is full of terrible choices and terrible acts, and morality in war is often a point of view.
For the Wolverines, the mass execution of their family and community members is the final catalyst necessary for them to complete their transformation into dedicated insurgents. Back at the campsite, Danny and Matt weep as they mourn their fathers, but Jed yells through tears, “Don’t cry! Hold it back! Let it turn to something else.”
The Wolverines’ bloodlust begins immediately after that scene. They ambush a Russian tank crew at a gas station, adding to their arsenal of weapons in the process. Soon after, they ambush a Russian unit and save dozens of Americans before the Russians can execute them. A montage of highly Hollywood-ized combat sequences follows as the Wolverines go ham, killing droves of enemy soldiers in expertly staged ambushes that have them lobbing grenades into tank hatches with Steph Curry-like precision, cutting down numerically superior forces without suffering a scratch, and then raising looted rifles to the sky and shouting “Wolverines!” from the top of Righteous-Bloodlust Mountain. Basil Poledouris’ score swells to a jingoistic fervor as they leave their calling card spray-painted on smoldering Soviet vehicles.
From there, Milius again focuses his lens on the do’s and don’ts of counterinsurgency while giving greater depth to his antagonists. While the Russian Gen. Bratchenko is drawn with broad, cartoon-villain brushstrokes, Milius’ intent seems to be to contrast the Russian’s arrogance and incompetence with the tactical prowess and relevant experience of Bella, the former insurgent.
“They’re beasts, Ernesto,” Bratchenko tells the Cuban colonel, speaking of the Wolverines. “You must kill every one of them eventually. It’s the same as Afghanistan. They’ll never stop.”
It’s a haunting parallel in light of recent events. Bella responds, “I was always on the side of the insurgents. I have no experience in these matters, but it would seem necessary to win the support of the people. As our opponents used to say in Vietnam, ‘Win their hearts and minds.’ ”
“And they lost, Ernesto,” Bratchenko retorts.
In the nearly four decades since Red Dawn hit theaters, history has consistently proved that Milius understood how complicated counterinsurgency operations are. But while much of the film’s vision seems almost prophetic now, Red Dawn’s script undoubtedly has its share of narrative warts.
When Air Force Lt. Col. Andy Tanner (Powers Boothe) describes the strategic picture of World War III to the Wolverines around the campfire, one can’t help but wonder what Canada was doing as “the Russians reinforced with 60 divisions and sent three whole army groups across the Bering Strait into Alaska … across Canada to link up here in the middle.” NATO dissolving is one thing, but Canada just letting 60 Russian divisions roll through the Great White North on their way to reinforcing a communist invasion of the US is a stretch to say the least.
Anyone with even the slightest understanding of geography, military history, and logistics should recognize how laughably unrealistic Red Dawn’s vision for a US invasion is. The film’s iconic opening sequence of Russian paratroopers falling from the sky outside the windows of a high school history classroom in rural Colorado is brilliant and carried some serious gravitas for those mired in the psyche of 1980s Cold War America. But the idea of using “selective nuke strikes” and “crack airborne outfits” to secure a strategic foothold in the middle of the US before linking up with the Cuban and Nicaraguan armies infiltrating from Mexico is an invasion plan so bad even Vladimir Putin’s Ministry of Defense couldn’t have cooked it up.
If 2022 has shown us anything, it’s that expeditionary warfare is not something Russia excels at. Unfortunately, attacking and killing noncombatants is, so maybe that’s one of the many things Milius got right.
Despite its flaws, Red Dawn is a brilliant marriage of Milius’ unapologetic defense of the United States’ bedrock ideals of liberty and justice for all with a sensitive depiction of the corrosive effects of war on the human spirit. And for that reason, it’s a masterpiece of American cinema.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 print edition of The Forward Observer, a special publication from Coffee or Die Magazine, as “Red Dawn.”