Ah, the Eighties. They were a time, weren’t they? We had MTV, big hair, narrow ties, Ronald Reagan and a commie behind every rock. John Milius’ tale of teenage insurgents fighting a communist invasion of the United States is violent, at times goofily operatic and it’s probably a better movie than you’ve heard. That violence earned it the distinction of being the first PG-13-rated movie ever released.
Milius and co-writer Kevin Reynolds don’t waste any time as Cuban paratroops immediately descend on the football field at the high school in Calumet, Colorado, gun down the history teacher and shoot up the school. In the chaos, a group of students, including Matt (Charlie Sheen), his older brother Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Robert (C. Thomas Howell), pile into Jed’s pickup and head into the mountains. After living in the mountains for a time, they come back into town and find that it’s being turned into an occupation zone, complete with a concentration camp set up in the town’s drive-in theater. Further, they learn that Robert’s father has been executed for helping them escape.
This convinces them that they have to start resisting the occupation. The trip into town although gains them two more members, Erica (Lea Thompson) and Toni (Jennifer Grey), who were probably “mistreated” at the hands of the invaders. After the kids starting bloodying the noses of the Cuban and Soviet invaders, the towns people start suffering deadly reprisals, but that only generates more support for the young insurgents, who have adopted the name “Wolverines,” after the mascot of the high school. Good thing they didn’t play for the Calumet Poodles. They also gain a valuable ally in a downed fighter pilot named Tanner (Powers Booth), who helps train the Wolverines for an attempt to liberate the concentration camp.
Of course, even at the time, the concept of a Soviet Bloc invasion of the continental United States is ludicrous, but I doubt that Reynolds or Milius intended to put this forward as a realistic scenario. Instead, the film seems to be designed to present the reality of a life under communist occupation through the eyes of characters with whom an American audience could easily identify.
Once you accept the outlandish premise and look past occasionally overwrought emoting, this film is not completely unrealistic. The young insurgents are not Rambo-esque supermen doing impossible things, but scared, hungry traumatized teenagers upon whom the fighting takes a serious emotional and physical toll. On the other side of the fence, the local Cuban commander (Ron O’Neal) is not a monster, but a war-weary soldier who’s not used to the role of occupier, giving him insight and a level of empathy for the Wolverines. Such care was given to recreating Soviet hardware that the production attracted the attention of the CIA.
Of course, the film is rife with Milius’ mostly conservative, pro-military worldview. Beyond the obvious anti-Communism, one of the events leading to the invasion is the Green Party taking power in West Germany, forcing U.S. forces out of the country and causing the dissolution of NATO. Also, U.S. gun control laws allow the occupation forces to know who has weapons and confiscate them, a not-too-subtle warning from NRA member Milius.
The young actors are occasionally not equal to the emotions required of them, but Patrick Swayze is surprisingly convincing as the older teenager who assumes command of the Wolverines and C. Thomas Howell is effective as a young man hardened by tragedy.
Of course, the right-wing testosterone may not be every one’s cup of tea, but Red Dawn is not as extremist as its reputation would have you think. If you enter into the film with an open mind, it can be a thought-provoking piece of Cold War cinema.