Saturday Matinee 008: Red Dawn: Guerilla Warfare at home

The parachute drop is a success and the troopers land safely and assemble. It’s just the thing to distract a bunch of bored high school students on a nice day. Their teacher walks out to see what the camouflage-clad men are doing as the kids line the widows to watch him.

And he’s suddenly blown away by a burst of machine gun fire. The troopers turn their fire on the school, and the horrified students freeze and die, or flee and probably die. It’s every man for himself.

Those are, of course, the opening moments of Red Dawn. More than a little far-fetched — invaders decided to begin with Colorado? Paratroopers in any army undisciplined enough to begin their war with a school massacre? — but it serves the purpose of grabbing the audience by the throat and shaking vigorously. The movie keeps shaking till the end, almost two hours. In the end the good guys win, but not without really paying for victory.

Red Dawn was a creature of its time, the early Reagan years, the high-water mark of the nightmare that was world Communism, the idiology that aspired to be, in Orwell’s phrase, “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” A few short years later Soviet Communism would have joined its fellow militaristic socialist utopias among history’s losers, defended only by academics and entertainers who had no first-hand experience of it, and denied by most of its ashamed former adherents and troops. So Red Dawn is a time capsule of the era that brought in Reagan and sent out Brezhnev, to the betterment of the entire globe. We were there when it opened… in a theater in Fayetteville, North Carolina, with an audience mostly of soldiers and their ladies.

The ideology behind a movie about a Communist conquest of the United States always sat ill with Hollywood in general. Hollywood mythology has the Communists as good guys and anti-Communists as hypocritcal McCarthyites or, worse, Republicans. A few Hollywood figures wore this hair shirt with enough pride to get this movie made and released — the principal sparkplug of the film being unabashed patriot (a word so out of fashion in the industry, it might be in the Carthaginian tongue) and fan of the military, John Milius.

So what did they make? Is it any good?

Actually, it is. It tells the tale of very ordinary people thrown into absolutely world-shaking events, given nothing but tough choices, and having to deal with it. The young actors are not great, although some of them would go on to be, if not great, at least famous (Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, and Charlie Sheen). There is one outstanding performance: Ron O’Neal as a lithe, committed, brave Cuban officer struggling with a nagging feeling he’s on the wrong side this time.

And not incidentally, it reminded Americans of exactly why we disputed the world with Conmunism, and exactly why it mattered to win.

The movie leaves the strategy of the war, and the war itself, almost entirely off screen. Instead, it deals realistically with the same conflicts of occupation that we saw in It Happened Here: collaboration, resistance, propaganda, terror. Because it takes the viewpoint, mostly, of the “good guy” resisters, it’s less subtle than the British film, but it doesn’t shrink from the extreme measures that civil wars and occupations produce — on both sides. It escapes cartoonish jingoism through the depth of Ron O’Neal’s character — which is partly the script, and certainly partly O’Neal’s skill. What ever happened to him?

Hollywood has been struggling to release an updated Red Dawn. The initial version had Red Chinese as the villians, and that was a non-starter in today’s Hollywood, which sees China as a market and a source of capital. So it had to be reorganized, and now the baddies are Norks. The idea of North Korea, a feeble army that rules a starving country, which can’t even feed the army let alone arm and support it, invading the US requires a suspension of disbelief that makes the original version’s Russian and Cuban occupiers seem much less far-fetched.