A high-school history teacher looks out the window of his Colorado classroom and sees camouflaged paratroopers drop onto an open field beneath a clear blue sky. “I would say they are way off course,” stammers Mr. Teasdale, as students flock around him for a view. “Very unusual.” He walks outside to investigate. The soldiers scramble around, unloading weapons from canisters and shouting in a foreign language. “What’s going on here, my friend?” asks Teasdale. A paratrooper raises his gun, opens fire, and kills the teacher in a hail of bullets. Moments later, his comrades shoot up the school and fire rocket-propelled grenades down its hallways.
The Soviet invasion of the United States has begun.
Or at least it has in the 1984 film Red Dawn, one of the most hotly debated movies ever made. On November 21, a rebooted version of Red Dawn will reach theaters, but the new interpretation almost certainly won’t repeat the astonishing success of the original. Among conservatives who grew up in the Reagan years, Red Dawn is a cult classic, full of fighting spirit against the Evil Empire. Its one-word catchphrase — “Wolverines!” — has become an in-group allusion to a set of enduring American principles: live free or die, don’t tread on me, and so on. Red Dawn may not be a masterpiece of the cinematic arts, but as an iconic piece of conservative pop culture, it has enjoyed an outsized influence on American life.
Red Dawn was a summertime success, kicking Ghostbusters from the No. 1 spot at the box office and going on to gross more than $35 million. Its youthful cast seems familiar today, but back then its members were virtual unknowns: Patrick Swayze had top billing, joined by Jennifer Grey, Charlie Sheen, and Lea Thompson. They played teenagers who head to the hills following the Soviet attack, forming a resistance group that wages guerrilla warfare against Communist aggressors. The characters call themselves the Wolverines, taking the name from their high school’s football team — or, as one of the Soviet officers puts it, “the local sports collective.”
The movie begins with a series of headlines that establish the geopolitical situation: The wheat harvest fails in the Soviet Union; Poland riots and Moscow invades; Cuba and Nicaragua build up their armies; El Salvador and Honduras fall; Greens gain control of the West German government; revolution comes to Mexico; NATO dissolves. And then: “United States Stands Alone.” Writing in The Nation, a left-wing magazine, Andrew Kopkind summed it up this way: “In other words, The Nation’s political project is being put into practice on a global scale.” The movie’s stark prologue caters to the worst fears of Cold Warriors — and however improbable the idea of a Soviet invasion of the United States in the 1980s, it sets up a gripping scenario for an action movie about ordinary people who battle the Commies on American soil.
The driving force behind the film was John Milius, the director. Prior to Red Dawn, he was best known as a screenwriter for Apocalypse Now. Afterward, he made more movies and created the television series Rome, which appeared on HBO. “I was the only person in Hollywood who would dare do this movie,” said Milius in an interview that appears on the Collector’s Edition DVD of Red Dawn, released in 2007. “I knew that Hollywood would condemn me for it.”
He was right about that — and the newspaper critics were quick to pounce on the film’s right-of-center sensibilities. “Better dead than Red Dawn,” sneered the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley, who called the film “sick and silly.” Janet Maslin of the New York Times labeled it “rabidly inflammatory,” “incorrigibly gung-ho,” and “a virulently alarmist fable.” Bob Thomas of the Associated Press condemned its “bathos” as “unrelenting.” Perhaps these were the honest assessments of dispassionate reviewers. Even the most fervent fans of Red Dawn would hesitate to claim that it belongs on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest movies. Yet it was impossible not to detect the media’s biases at work: The makers of Red Dawn, complained Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times, “spent too much time playing to the rabid anti-Commies.” You know: The movie must be awful because those icky conservatives approve of it. Even today, many liberals resort to knee-jerk denunciations: “Its guiding ideology is actually fascism,” wrote David Plotz of Slate in 2008.
In reality, the ideology most clearly on display in the movie is Communism, a threat that many liberals refused to take seriously when it mattered most. Much of the story occurs in the fictional town of Calumet, Colo. — Red Dawn in fact was filmed in New Mexico — and the Soviets crack down on residents who find themselves trapped behind enemy lines. The invaders plaster buildings with colorful posters of Lenin, show the Stalin-era film Alexander Nevsky at the local movie house, and herd potential troublemakers into concentration camps and before firing squads. Red Dawn rejects moral equivalency: The Soviets are the bad guys, and the Americans who fight them are the heroes.
At least that’s the general rule. The details can get complicated. Despite its moments of rah-rah patriotism, Red Dawn is also a study in brutality that poses difficult questions rather than pushes easy answers. At one point, the Wolverines unmask a traitor in their midst, a boy who has secretly collaborated with their foes. On a snowy mountaintop, Jed Eckert, the leader played by Swayze, struggles with whether to shoot the turncoat or show mercy. As he wavers, one of his companions spontaneously chooses death. Is this a righteous execution or a cold-blooded murder? In another scene, a girl delivers a package to a “Soviet-American Friendship Center.” She leaves, and it blows up. Is she a freedom fighter or a terrorist? Red Dawn doesn’t say.
Red Dawn was the first movie to receive a rating of PG-13, that incremental step between PG and R. A month after its release, the National Coalition on Television Violence dubbed it the most violent movie ever made. The 2007 DVD includes a tongue-in-cheek “Carnage Counter” that tracks explosions (112) as well as casualties among the Soviet forces (81), civilians (22), and Wolverines (7). By 21st-century standards, the movie is pretty tame: “It contains considerable violence, most of it not very explicit,” wrote Maslin of the Times in her 1984 review. Today, it would hardly raise an eyebrow.
The violence of Red Dawn serves a grander purpose than cheap thrills: It means to show that the Second Amendment is in the Constitution for a good reason. Early in the film, the camera lingers on a Chevy truck’s bumper sticker: “They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold dead fingers.” Then the image tilts to the ground, where a Soviet pries a pistol from the cold, dead fingers of a fallen American. It may feel like an ad for the National Rifle Association — recall the late Charlton Heston’s rallying cry at the 2000 NRA convention, “From my cold, dead hands!” In this case, the slogan works as an ironic epitaph. As the story of Red Dawn plays out, however, America’s gun culture allows the Wolverines to fight back.
Red Dawn also fights forward. In 2003, the movie made the news when U.S. forces captured Saddam Hussein. The deposed Iraqi dictator was discovered in a location known as “Wolverine Two” in a raid called “Operation Red Dawn.” The code name was the brainchild of Army captain Geoffrey McMurray, then 29 years old. “I think all of us in the military have seen Red Dawn,” he told USA Today. “Operation Red Dawn was so fitting because it was a patriotic, pro-American movie.” Milius applauded the effort, telling the Los Angeles Times that the soldiers who found Hussein “are Wolverines who have grown up and gone to Iraq.” A handful of liberals uttered dutiful harrumphs, noting that in Iraq, Americans were the oppressing invaders and the Iraqi insurgents were the scrappy rebels.
They just refuse to let go — and they’re already mobilizing against the new Red Dawn. In September, Joe Leydon of Variety mocked “a premise arguably even sillier than the original Red Dawn.” He may have a valid point. In the 2012 release, the Soviets are gone, tossed upon the ash heap of history. Their replacements are the North Koreans, whose attempted conquest of the United States requires not just an old-fashioned suspension of disbelief but an indulgence of gobsmacking ignorance.
Yet the first Red Dawn makes it easy to root for the second one, and to hope that the new version dusts off a few hoary chestnuts of the Reagan era for a rising generation of moviegoers: Freedom isn’t free, peace comes through strength, and when the vast left-wing conspiracy appears ready to deliver its knockout blow, think of one word: “Wolverines!”