Directed By: John Milius
Starring: Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson
Tag line: "In our time, no foreign army has ever occupied American soil. Until now"
Trivia: The cast underwent an intensive 8-week military training course before filming started
My initial viewing of John Milius’ Red Dawn still ranks as the most aggravating experience I ever had in a movie theater. We were on vacation in August of 1984 when the film premiered, and went to a little theater at the Jersey Shore to catch it on its opening night. What struck me about this particular cinema (the exact name and location of which escapes me now) was how deep it was: there were more rows in this auditorium than normal. As usual, my father, brother and I sat in the last row, as far away from the screen as possible, and that proved to be a big mistake, because, aside from being unusually deep, this place had a very small screen. Naturally, being the film’s opening night, the theater filled up quickly, and while we were glad at first to have our back row seats, it was sometimes difficult to see what was going on in the movie; whenever there was a wide shot with multiple characters, I couldn’t tell who was talking, or who they were talking to. And because I enjoyed those scenes I could see, the possibility that I might be missing something important made for a frustrating evening.
Anyway... Red Dawn:
Society is in chaos. NATO has disbanded, and Cuban troops are on the offensive, sweeping through Central America and making it as far north as Mexico. But as the world quickly discovers, they have no intention of stopping there; with the help of Russia the Cubans invade the United States, catching the country’s military off-guard.
When enemy paratroopers land in Calumet, Colorado, a group of teenagers led by Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) loads up on supplies and guns, then takes off into the hills. Several days pass, and the kids, including Jed’s brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) and their friends Robert (C. Thomas Howell), Daryl (Darren Dalton), Danny (Brad Savage), and Aardvark (Doug Toby), talk of returning to town to see what’s going on. So, to satisfy their curiosity, Jed and a couple of others sneak back into Calumet, which is now under the control of Cuban Col. Bella (Ron O’Neal) and the KGB. Some locals are dead, while others, including Jed’s and Matt’s father (Harry Dean Stanton), have been sent to a “reconditioning camp”. Before returning to their mountain hideaway, the group visits the farm of Jack Mason (Ben Johnson), who turns his two granddaughters, Toni (Jennifer Grey) and Erica (Lea Thompson), over to Jed, asking that he keep them safe.
Not willing to let the war pass them by, Jed and his cohorts, now known as the “Wolverines” (the name of their high school football team), start fighting back. With the help of downed U.S. pilot Lt. Col. Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe), the youngsters learn the finer points of guerrilla warfare, and as the months drag on, the Wolverines inflict heavy damage on the enemy. But how long can this ragtag collection of teenage warriors hold out?
Red Dawn is a product of the ‘80s, when the Cold War was in full swing, and its anti-communist sensibilities might not sit well with modern viewers. In addition, its flag-waving patriotism is often heavy-handed (even in Harry Dean Stanton's capable hands, a line like “Avenge me!” just sounds hokey), and a scene in which the Wolverines plant a time bomb in a street-side café is, considering the current world climate, unfortunate to say the least.
But there are portions of the film that do work, including its well-choreographed action sequences (my favorite being the one where the Wolverines lure enemy soldiers into a field and surprise them). Even more impressive is the way Red Dawn examines how war can affect a young man’s psyche; after finding out that his father was killed, C. Thomas Howell’s Robert becomes the most gung-ho soldier in Jed’s small army, and at times is downright ruthless. This, plus the fine work turned in by its cast (Swayze makes for a convincing leader), ensures that, even today, Red Dawn is a fun movie to watch.
Especially now that I can see all of it!