One of Hollywood's noblest and most righteous pursuits has always been the anti-war film. For it is by using the power of cinema that one can best express the horror and pointlessness of armed combat. Like no other medium, crimson spattered celluloid shows us how high ideals - ideals that seem worth fighting, indeed, dying for - are rendered moot on the battlefield. Righteous men are reduced to base savages as the innocent are caught in the crossfire. Throughout the 20 century, Hollywood has offered numerous epics of high art that condemned man's addiction to war. "Paths of Glory." "M*A*S*H." "Johnny Got His Gun." And of course, John Millius's "Red Dawn."
"WHATTHEFUCK!??" you screech, your morning orange juice and vodka spurting out of your nose onto the computer screen. "I remember 'Red Dawn'! It was about as anti-war as the collected works of Chuck Norris! It was a red baiting, paranoid, pro-gun, jingoistic, super-patriotic piece of Hollywood dogswill. It was the first film to get the PG-13 parental rating and upon its release The National Coalition on Television Violence called 'Red Dawn' the most violent film on record. How could you call this piece of shit an anti-war movie?"
Peace, my friend. Peace be upon you. Calm yourself and I will explain. The truth is, up until last Friday night I would have agreed with you. But it was then, on a lark, that I decided to rent this icon of my wasted youth to see if it had aged any better than Judd Nelson. I was surprised to find that the film I saw was not the one I remembered. The "Red Dawn" I saw as a kid was a glorified action flick, an A-Team episode souped up for the big screen, with little room for nuance or pontification. But the film I watched recently was filled with struggle and angst and doubt. It was about people suffering and killing for reasons they had difficulty understanding. And above all it was about the pointlessness and futility of war.
How could this be, I mused. How could my second impression of "Red Dawn" be so different from my first? There seemed to be only one explanation: After its release John Millius secretly reassembled the cast and crew and reshot the entire film and then traveled the country from video store to video store, copying his new version over the old and eliminating any trace of the original from history.
However, this new version still follows a similar plot. After a famine ravages the Soviet Union, the commies make a last ditch effort at world domination and combine tactical nuclear strikes with a literal invasion of the United States. Our story follows the adventures of a series of Colorado high school students who escape the descent of Russian paratroopers onto their high school and flee up to the mountains armed with hunting rifles and bows and arrows. After a few months of living off the land, the team takes on the moniker of their local foootball team, "The Wolverines," and begins making surgical attacks on the occupying communist army (primarily made up of Soviet, Cuban and Nicaraguan military forces.) After some initial successes they face an ever mounting series of obstacles including loss of life and betrayal within and the effects of war takes its unavoidable toll.
That premise is, of course, complete and utter horseshit but no more so than any other "set in the not so distant future" war film. And once you suspend your disbelief for this initial set up, much of the rest of the film is grounded in reality.
But still, portraying the reality of war does not necessarily an anti-war film maketh. To truly be anti-war, a film must show scenes or war and then ask the question, "Was it worth it? Was the loss of life and humanity on the parts of both the defeated and the victor's worth it?" And to be truly be an anti-war, the film must at least hint at the answer "no."
The first scene that makes allusions to this concept comes early in "Red Dawn." Our heroes have been living in the mountains and have yet to interact with the occupiers. Their reverie is broken when a trio of Russians soldiers drive into the territory on a sightseeing trip. The Russians are surprisingly likeable - youthful and exuberent - essentially foriegn counterparts to our protagonists. In one humorous scene, the Russians reinterpret a sign marking a famous Indian battle in neo Marxist (and probably more truthful) terminology. "The Imperialist western forces came upon the peaceful Indians and wrestled their land away in a bloody slaughter etc. etc..." (Millius has a known affection for Indian warriors and scripted the biographical "Geronimo" about the Apache leader.) Minutes later the Russians stumble across several of the Wolverines and a gunfight breaks out. But it's hardly a display of crack military expertise, each participant is facing the aspect of taking another life for the first time and the fear and surprise inhibit their abilities. Via luck the Wolverines win the battle though Swayze's character flinches when he follows a wounded, unarmed Russian youth back to his jeep and shoots him in the head.
That is, I think, a key moment in the movie, because it is the first crack in the main characters' belief that one can fight a clean war. As the film moves forward, the Wolverines become more comfortable with violence and ruthlessness, but occasionally take pause, as if they are dimly aware of the harm their acts are doing to their souls. (At the end, the two most militarily effective characters come to believe the war has damaged them beyond redemption and sacrifice themselves for the two most innocent.) The "shooting of an unarmed man" scenario comes back to haunt Swayze's character when he must preside over the execution of a Wolverine who betrays the group. As he raised the gun, his brother asks, "What makes us any different from them (the Russians)?" The best Swayze can come up with is, "We were here first."
Like a lot of classic war films from the 50's and 60's, "Red Dawn" takes an, if not sympathetic, at least understanding look at the enemy. In particular, it follows the moral confusion of a Nicaraguan military officer who is charged with suppressing the insurgency in this Colorado town. ("I'm used to being the insurgency," he complains to a superior officer, "Not putting one down.") Slowly, he becomes a part of the entrenched machinery of the Soviet occupation apparatus, but ultimately, he is the first character in the film to reject the ways of war, passing up an opportunity to shoot an unarmed Swayze, and therefore claiming the moral high ground Swayze ceded early in the film.
One can't help but notice the parallels between the "occupation versus insurgency" narrative in "Red Dawn" and the current United States occupation of Iraq. In both cases, small combat teams are able to conduct surgical strikes against occupiers that inflict a damage disproportionate to their size. I'd argue that "Red Dawn" should be required viewing for U.S. forces in Iraq, if only as study in avoiding the mistakes the Soviets make in the film - trying to crush the resistance with such overwhelming force and brutality that it only serves to further anger and alienate the populace they are trying to rule, and granting martyr status on the insurgency. Ultimately, "Red Dawn" offers a hopeful message to the U.S. in Iraq, as the insurgency does (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT) lose the battle. (Though it's implied that the non-occupied forces of free America win the war.)
If you've gotten this far, you've probably realized that my original assertion that "Red Dawn" is an anti-war is essentially horseshit. At the end of the day, Millius clearly sees the Wolverines as courageous heroes fighting against all odds. But that said, he does paint with much more grey than detractors of the film (and there are many) give him credit for. Held up against the numerous war movies of the 80's - "Top Gun," the "Iron Eagle" Films, "Missing in Action Part 1-1000," even "Rambo," "Red Dawn" stands out as a film willing to take a hard look at the real costs of warfare. I'd posit that it has far in common with the gamut of left-leaning Viet Nam war films that came out in the same time decade like "Platoon," "Hamburger Hill," "Full Metal Jacket." And it's damn fine entertainment for a lonesome Friday night.
View Wil's Acid Logic web log, a stirring endorsement of sex with pandas!