1980s action films are seriously messed up, but none is more whacked out than John Milius' crypto-fascist masterpiece Red Dawn, which has a Collector's Edition DVD out July 17. Today Red Dawn plays less like a Brat Pack action flick and more like the wettest dream Dick Cheney's ever had.
The opening scene is the most terrifying in all of Red Scare Cinema. If someone remembers one image from Red Dawn, it's this one. In a classroom, somewhere in the Heartland (the town has a statue of Teddy Roosevelt), we see Russians silently parachute onto the field outside. The teacher goes outside and is shot. Then the Russkies take out the school with a rocket launcher. What follows is about ten minutes of pandemonium that makes you wonder if this movie should be called Red Dawn of the Dead. It's the worst nightmare of every kid who grew up in the 1980s come to life: the Russians are coming, and they're coming to your town first.
Why would the Russkies care so much about a slackjawed high school in a no-name town? Because they are pure evil, that's why. When you're a kid, this frightens you to no end, making the rest of the film less like entertainment and more like a 1950s safety and hygiene film, a field guide to surviving Armageddon (yes, you can piss in a radiator and the car will start).
Milius is wise to scare the kids but spare the parents. When the kids visit Harry Dean Stanton in the prison camp, he tells his kids that he was tough on them so they would learn to survive without him. This is just what every parent wants to hear: "See, Junior, I'm not letting you go to the mall with your friends, and you're taking out the trash, so that when the Russians invade, you'll be able to survive in the mountains and mount a guerilla counteroffensive and AVENGE ME! Now eat your peas."
Red Dawn starts out as a noble quest for survival, in which the local football team is in charge of not only safeguarding itself, but the entire American Character (and, later, the purity of the American Woman). It's in the second half of the film where the movie turns a bit jingoistic and chauvinist (you tell me what the Russians did to Lea Thompson). Our scrappy little revolutionaries, the Wolverines (because what's a paramilitary outfit without a catchy name to spraypaint on walls?), start to discover that they kind of like playing war. These kids become brutal killers. In the process of protecting their values, they lose them, becoming as cold and heartless as the Russians, but Milius doesn't really dwell on that as being a negative (except to point out that the most coldhearted of them all is a woman). These kids are warriors, and warriors live by a different code. It is up to these kids to defend Freedom, by any means necessary, even if it means killing one of your own. As long as the Wolverines die nobly, they can do whatever they want, and, for Milius, the only noble death is death during combat.
This is what serves to make the end of the film a total Pyrrhic downer. Just about everybody gets gunned down, most of them embracing death with moving strings and synths playing the background, as though we're supposed to find all of this inspiring. We're supposed to celebrate the Wolverines' descent into barbarism as man's ascent to the demands of Freedom and Honor.
It's almost as if Milius expects every kid watching the film to race out of the theater to the local gunshop and start stockpiling weapons. "Sorry, Suzie, I'd love to make out with your braces, but I have to learn how to field strip my dad's M-1. Don't worry, once the war comes, we'll have plenty of time for that wussy stuff while we're hiding out in a bunker behind the Old Mill."
But it's not all bullet holes and broken hearts: there's some hope. A man and a woman survive, which makes us wonder if Milius intends to suggest that they will carry out the arduous task of repopulating the Earth with Americans. In Dr. Strangelove, such an idea was a big joke; in Red Dawn, Milius couldn't be more serious. In fact, he's actually verging on sentimentality.
And it's this jingoistic sentimentality that makes Red Dawn a more terrifying movie after the Cold War because Milius sees all of this tragedy as a good thing, purifying America of all those who have gone soft. After the Red Dawn comes the Day of the Noble Warrior, a day in which the sun shines on the free men as they paint their faces with the blood of their slain enemies while the women prepare meat from the hunt. Oh, Mr. Milius, if only that blessed day would arrive!