Its portrait of Russia is dated. Its portrait of America is timely—and terrifying.
Milius' vision of the world is curiously—or perhaps presciently—congruent with that of modern Buchananite isolationists. World War III begins as an immigration problem: Mexico and the rest of Central America having fallen under Communist control, Latino illegal aliens infiltrate and sabotage Midwestern Air Force bases. Pathetic old Europe betrays America and refuses to come to our aid. The first thing the Commies do when they seize Calumet is round up all the gun owners—relying on "Form 4473," a real-life ATF form for registering gun sales. Milius pans from a "They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold dead fingers" bumper sticker to a Red Army soldier prying a gun from the cold, dead fingers of an American.
In my memory, Red Dawn celebrated America and its virtues. But its guiding ideology is actually fascism. The only politician in Red Dawn, the mayor of Calumet, is a quisling who rats out his neighbors for execution. His son, the student-body president, turns out to be the traitorous Wolverine, seeking immediate capitulation to the invaders and eventually leading the Soviets right to the band's hideout. Swayze takes command of the Wolverines by force, forbids a vote about whether to surrender, and demands that his fellow guerillas obey him without question. The warrior code of Red Dawn is nihilistic: Glory and death are the same; there is no higher aim than to fight. It never imagines an America that is worth saving: We have corrupt institutions and cowardly politicians.
But what's most unsettling about Red Dawn today is not its infatuation with the warrior death cult. It's that the movie's historical parallels have been turned upside down. In 1984, the Soviets of Red Dawn represented, well, the Soviets, and the Wolverines represented both the Americans and also the plucky Afghan mujahideen then defeating the Red Army in a guerilla war. But on re-viewing, Red Dawn isn't a stark reminder of Cold War fears. Rather, it's a pretty good movie about Iraq, with the United States in the role of the Soviets and the insurgents in the role of the Wolverines. In Red Dawn,the Soviets have invaded a country whose customs they know not—one of the only funny moments in the film is the Commies' inability to understand the Wolverines' connection to high-school football. They ham-handedly toss leading citizens into hellish prisons. They maltreat the civilian population. They appropriate private and government buildings for themselves. They replace local commerce with their own—the movie theater shows only Alexander Nevsky.
The insurgents are at first merely scared, angry kids, but they're hardened by the viciousness of the Soviets. Seeing nothing to lose, they become suicidal terrorists who assassinate, bomb civilian targets, gleefully murder wounded and captive Russians, and eventually martyr themselves in theatrical, insane ways. Howell faces down a helicopter gunship with nothing but a rifle, screaming, "Wolverines," as its machine gun cuts him to confetti; Swayze and Sheen make their inexplicable suicide assault on a base with hundreds of soldiers and heavy weapons; Jennifer Grey, mortally wounded and afraid of being tortured by the occupiers, booby-traps her own body so when a Soviet soldier touches her, it sets off a grenade that kills both of them. Ultimately, the insurgency and the anxiety of occupying a hostile land take their toll on the invaders. By the end, the Cuban commander is submitting his resignation, demoralized by his job of brutalizing the Americans.
Red Dawn is not an exact parallel to our situation, of course. The Iraq we invaded was no functioning democracy; our Army does not execute civilians; many Iraqis favor the American occupation. But Red Dawn certainly didn't stir the mad, patriotic fervor I felt when I heard Howell shout, "Wolverines" 24 years ago. MGM is so far tight-lipped about the plot of its Red Dawn remake, but I wonder: Will the new Wolverines be us—or fighting us?
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.
Clips from Red Dawn © 1984 MGM/UA Entertainment. All rights reserved.