Its portrait of Russia is dated. Its portrait of America is timely—and terrifying.
The middle Reagan years—the fingernail-gnawing, doomsday-clock-watching, pre-perestroika finale of the Cold War—were a dreadful time for movies in general, but they were the heyday of the Armageddon film. The mid-'80s gave us War Games, The Day After, Invasion USA, Testament, Amerika, and The Terminator, and they gave me nightmares. For much of my teens, I had a dream in which I was standing alone, minding my own business, when a huge helicopter gunship would appear from behind a building or a tree or a cliff and start shooting at me. This nightmare was, of course, a tribute to the feverish power of the World War III movie Red Dawn, whose most famous scene involved a Soviet Hind helicopter sneaking up on our American heroes, the "Wolverines," and unleashing a hellfire of bullets against them.
Except for The Terminator, none of the mid-'80s Armageddon movies has had as much enduring influence as 1984's Red Dawn.The film is beloved of American military types. In 2003, the Army named its operation to capture Saddam Hussein "Red Dawn" and dubbed the two Saddam safe houses it was raiding "Wolverine 1" and "Wolverine 2." Recognizing that we're again living in an age of existential dread, MGM recently announced plans to remake Red Dawn. With the Russian army having run rampant over Georgia and the Kremlin hissing over American plans to base a missile defense system in Poland, this seemed the right moment to revisit Red Dawn. I could think of no better way to recall the anxieties of the Cold War than to cheer on the Wolverines again. But Red Dawn did not conjure up the chest-swelling patriotism I felt as a 14-year-old. Instead, it turned out to be disturbing in an entirely unexpected way.
For those arugula-nibbling semi-Americans who've forgotten or never seen it, Red Dawn begins with a Soviet/Cuban/Nicaraguan paratrooper invasion of Calumet, Colo., a town in the foothills of the Rockies. World War III has begun! A few teenagers, mostly Calumet High football players, escape the initial assault in Patrick Swayze's truck and high-tail it to the mountains. Gradually, under the tutelage of Swayze, a slightly older kid who spent his childhood hunting and camping, they constitute themselves into the Wolverines, a band of guerillas who sabotage the Commie invaders, assassinate soldiers, ambush convoys, and blow up the "Soviet-American Friendship Center." At first, the Soviets retaliate by executing "America the Beautiful"-singing civilians; eventually, they send commando units after the Wolverines. In the incoherent climax, Swayze and his younger brother, played by Charlie Sheen, launch a kamikaze assault on the local Soviet headquarters, leaving exquisite corpses in the snow. Meanwhile, the only two surviving Wolverines escape across the Rockies into Free America.
Red Dawn embodies conservative nutterdom in a way few films not made by Mel Gibson have ever managed. If Ann Coulter made a movie, it would look like Red Dawn.This is thanks to director John Milius. Apocalypse Now screenwriter, Conan the Barbarian auteur, and former NRA board member, Milius is a military zealot, infatuated with the warrior code. Red Dawn is really a fetish movie, an ode to guns and blood. The 2007 Guinness Book of World Records judged Red Dawn the most violent movie in history. (Amazing it has not lost this title to a film of the Saw generation, isn't it?) The only extra worth the name on the 2007 collector's edition DVD is the "Carnage Counter," an on-screen census of RPG rounds fired, civilians executed, Soviets killed, and Wolverines martyred. Blood lust saturates the movie: The camera lingers on wounds and corpses; C. Thomas Howell becomes a man by drinking blood; a feral Harry Dean Stanton, playing a gun nut imprisoned by the Soviets, screams at his Wolverine sons, "Avenge me! Avenge me!"
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.