Like most Gen Xers during the Reaganeighties, there was this silly threat that the Soviet Union was going to nuke America and everyone who supported this theory to prove it was the toughest kid on the street. Ironically, by the time Red Dawn premiered in the summer of 1984, the USSR was running on fumes.
While Josef Stalin ruled like a sadistic madman and Nikita Khrushchev was a fitting replacement, the smoke and mirrors was beginning to show that by the time Leonid Breszhnev came into power, the Soviet Union had lost some of its luster. So, it was only natural that if you’re going to prove you’re a bad motherfucker, you do something stupid such as invade Afghanistan.
And this was the end of the Soviet Union. While Americans were more concerned of what the Soviets would do to them, they could care fuck all about some people in the Middle East. But American politicians and powers that be were secretly funding the Afghan freedom fighters, the Mujahideen, to target the Soviets. You may remember this as the subject of The Living Daylights and Rambo III?
But Red Dawn did it first as the Mujahideen were now your home grown corn fed American youth from Colorado targeting an invasion consisting of Soviet, Cuban and even Nicaraguan soldiers. Why Nicaragua? Well, that’s where the Contras, aka the death squads, were going after the leftist Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction. The last thing we needed in Central America under Reagan’s watch was for the a country to fall to leftist. Unfortunately, the Vietnam War was still fresh on a lot of people’s minds. This was also a few years before the Iran-Contra Affair became national news.
So, here comes a movie about all these forces being taken down by a ragtag group of teenage guerillas who call themselves The Wolverines. They have no prior military training and basically only arm themselves off the cannibalism weaponry of the ones they initially kill with hunting rifles and bows and arrows. (This was one of the things the 2012 remake did differently with the military training as Chris Hemsworth played a former military service member.)
In all honesty, the Wolverines would’ve been very easily captured and/or killed. I mean, there’s only eight of them to begin with. But maybe they didn’t have enough equipment in Colorado at the time to firebomb the entire mountains.
The biggest problem with Red Dawn is we are never really given a big outlook on how bad things are. What we know is what the set-up goes. A group of Soviet forces airlift into the Colorado community of Calumet outside a high school. They kill some students and teachers, but local football jock, Matt Eckert (Charlie Sheen) and his older brother, Jed (Patrick Swayze) are able to escape with some of the other students including Robert Morris (C. Thomas Howell), his best friend, Daryl Bates (Darren Dalton), son of the Calumet mayor; Matt’s friend, Arturo “Aardvark” Mondragon (Doug Toby) and another student, Danny (Brad Savage) who seems to be the most sensitive and gullible one of the bunch.
They escape to the mountains outside of Calumet but not first stopping at a general store own by Robert’s father to stock up on food, supplies, camping gear, rifles, shotguns and ammunition. As weeks past, Jed, Matt and Robert go into Calumet to see the town is being occupied. Later they visit a friend of the Eckerts, Jack Mason (Ben Johnson) and his wife, who warn them that several people have been taken to camps. Others have been killed including Robert’s father for “aiding guerillas.”
Jack lets them have a radio to find out more as America is now divided between the Soviet-occupied section and F.A. (Free America). Jed and Matt’s father, Tom (Harry Dean Stanton) has been sent to re-education camps. Jack allows his granddaughters, Toni (Jennifer Grey) and Erica (Lea Thompson) to go with them back to their hidden camps. It’s implied that Toni and Erica have been victims of sexual assaults or attempts.
Eventually, a few soldiers make it up to near where their camp is in the Arapaho National Park and a firefight ensues with all soldiers being killed. Later, when Daryl’s father (Lane Smith) tries to collaborate with the Cuban Col. Ernesto Bella (Ron O’Neal), it only ends up with Tom Eckert and Aardvark’s father and others being gunned down in a mass firing squad.
With their loved ones murders and now on the run, they decide to fight back. Over time, they gun down Soviet soldiers and amass an arsenal as they encourage others to fight. Eventually, they get help from an actual military officer, Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe), a fighter pilot with the United States Air Force, whose jet is shot down in a battle resulting in Tanner parachuting near the Wolverine’s base camp.
Unfortunately, they discover the true horrors of war as the Soviets strengthen their forces and Aardvark and Tanner are killed during the middle of a tank battle. What’s more sad is Erica had developed a crush on Tanner and Aardvark had begun to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder before he was gun down.
They later discover that Daryl went into Calumet and got arrested. He was made to swallow a tracker that led an army to their camp resulting in everyone but one Soviet soldier killed. Upset over Daryl’s betrayal, Jed, now the defacto leader, sets up his own execution trial to kill the soldier and Daryl. But Matt and Danny oppose it but neither Jed nor Robert, who has become more aggressive and bloodthirsty, think they both should die.
In anger, Jed shoots the soldier in cold-blood but can’t find himself to shoot Daryl who pleads for his life. Casually, Robert walks up and shoots him with an AK-47 as Daryl falls on his friend dripping blood. It’s at this point, the movie goes from a pro-America conservative wet dream in a bloodthirsty nightmare. Jed and Robert have both ignored the Geneva Convention and didn’t follow the rules of engagement. Earlier, Jed shoots a wounded Soviet soldier to put him out of his misery but more in anger.
Sadly, this part of the movie has been lost on film fans over the years. The Wolverines are no longer heroes, but killers. After an ambush results in Toni and Robert being killed, Jed and Matt decided to go back into Calumet for one last battle, sending Danny and Erica on their way to Free America. They sabotage a lot of equipment and set fires and explosives to Soviet forces.
But the recently arrived Soviet Col. Strelnikov (Williams Smith) fatally wounds Matt leading to Jed to track him down. In the end, they both shoot each other with Jed telling him, “You lose.” By both fatally shooting each other, the message is that war is just people killing each other.
Bleeding and dying, Jed takes Matt’s body to the nearby park where they had happier times growing up. In a final sign of humanity, Bella gets the drop on Jed but seeing him carrying Matt, signals for him to go on, throwing down his AK-47.
According to Kevin Reynolds, who came up with the original script, the movie was supposed to be set in the 1990s or 2000s. And it was intended to be more of a Lord of the Flies set during World War III. Instead, Alexander Haig, who was President Nixon’s Chief of Staff during his final time in the White House, was on the board of directors at MGM studios and decided to make it a pro-conservative anti-communist movie. John Milius was brought in to re-write the script and direct it.
Milius also said he wanted to film a different movie but MGM pushed it into production to have a movie released during the summer of 1984. This complicated production as it was filmed during the harsh winter in the Rocky Mountains at times when temperatures were well below freezing. Swayze reportedly suffered frostbite. Milius, like Reynolds, wanted it to be more about the futility of war.
But at the time, and even now, it’s seem more like war is necessary. Most of the scenes are almost episodic as The Wolverines just pop up at a location to battle the Soviets. It was reportedly re-cut and re-edited to give it a more pro-America appeal. Also, the movie’s violence had to be toned down to avoid an R. The movie is famous for being the first movie released with a PG-13 rating following criticism over the violence in Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
As Russia’s invasion into Ukraine has brought up memories of this movie, it’s important to remember the true threat is never the low-level soldiers fighting but the higher ups willing to have them kill each other to gain territory or bragging rights.
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