I’ve mentioned before on here that my younger-elder brother (the middle child to my youngest) worked in HMV when I was a kid. One day many, many years ago (we’re talking 20, maybe 21 or 22 years ago) he brought a copy of Red Dawn home on VHS, and I watched it. I would have been about 9, I think (even though it was a 15 certificate; transgressive, I know, and probably a danger to my juvenile mind).
Of course now, 20+ years, a degree in popular culture and philosophy, a job running an academic film library and a very minor career as a pop cultural critic down the line, I recognise that Red Dawn is John Milius’ most blatant piece of Team America propaganda, a far-fetched right-wing guns&ammo against-the-Commies diatribe of massive proportions that anyone with half a brain and a quarter of a political conscience should realise is execrable nonsense.
But when I was 9… oh boy. It was a danger to my juvenile mind.
You know Tremors, with Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward? I get amazingly excited when they find the guy with the basement stocked-up with survival gear just in case some kind of apocalypse occurs and he and his wife need to fend for themselves in order to survive. Have you read Z For Zachariah? I read it in English class when I was about 14. Amazingly exciting. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I Am Legend. Blindness by Jose Saramago. Children Of Men. The Survivors remake on BBC. The Walking Dead TV adaptation. Badlands, perhaps. My disturbing mental checklist that tells me a Toyota Hilux is the most durable vehicle in the world (thanks Top Gear) and where I can get hold of a rifle and a crossbow in Exeter (that shop down Heavitree High Street near the pet-grooming salon). The periodically recurring dream wherein I’m being chased by the police (but not OUR police) or by aliens or zombies or by shadowy government agencies or by giant llamas with laser-eyes. Red Dawn, I suspect, is to blame for my carefully-suppressed fascination with all these things.
Last night I watched Red Dawn for the first time in 20+ years.
Don’t worry; I’ve not rushed out and bought a Hilux and a rifle.
It’s a mad film. The title sequence is preceded by scrolling text revealing that NATO has collapsed, the Warsaw Pact has grown, Russia’s crops have failed, Cuba have taken Mexico, and all the Communists in the world (bar, bizarrely, the Chinese – a little more on that later) have banded together to overturn the capitalist pigdog scum of America. Inside 4 minutes we’re shown Communist paratroopers landing on the football field of a small-town America high school, gunning down the teacher (amazingly redolent of Cleveland from Family Guy and The Cleveland Show), and seizing complete control of the entire town within the first 10 minutes, while our intrepid heroes (Patrick Swayze and his little brother Charlie Sheen, plus C Thomas Howell and some other no-marks) head first for C Thomas Howell’s dad’s hunting supplies store and then for the hills. Leaving their entire families to get massacred by dirty commies while they do a bit of bonding over some deer blood and rescue Marty McFly’s mom and Baby from Dirty Dancing out of a cellar (the girls are referred to, amazingly, as “heirlooms” by their grandfather).
Swayze, looking oddly like Corey Feldman (he seems to age a decade between 1984’s Red Dawn and 1987’s Dirty Dancing) assumes leadership, convincing the teens to band together in the mountains and strike back against the dirty Cuban and Russian commie scum defiling their sweet and precious American dream, imparting such inspirational lines as “Don’t cry! Hold it back! Let it turn into something else!” when one of the kids is confronted with the news that his parents are dead. (At one point little brother Sheen says back to him “You’re getting pretty lean on feelings, aren’t ya?” He sure is.) There’s a (not terribly) moving and inexplicable through-the-prison-camp-fence scene with Harry Dean Stanton (Sheen & Swayze’s dad) wherein the lawnmower man says to them “I was tough on ya, I did things that made ya hate me sometimes. Well, ya see why now… AVENGE ME!” Tough love and lessons in shooting deer. It’s the only way to ensure the dream survives.
At the time, Red Dawn was notoriously the most violent film ever, with 134 acts of violence per hour or 2.23 per minute. (What the hell was my brother doing letting me watch it?) In 2011 it seems pretty tame in terms of blood & gore, but it’s still pretty relentless; there’s very little emphasis on anything other than the kids (who name themselves The Wolverines after the high school football team Swayze used to play for, because what’s more heroic than the quarterback saving the day?) killing the commies. There’s no explanation of exactly how Free America and the Occupied Territory relate to each other, or how the Communists managed to get all their tanks into small town America inside half a day, or where the kids get all their gear from (I assume they steal it from the dead commies, but it’s never explained). Instead we get red & yellow Lenin posters, “America is a whorehouse”, ‘re-education camps’, “They were people!” “Yeah, well so was my dad” dialogue and a bizarre exchange about China:
“So who is on our side?”
“600 million screaming chinamen.”
“I thought there were a billion chinamen?”
If you look at it from a strange, lateral angle, Red Dawn, for all its raving gun-club insanity (and it is so, so insane and raving) is almost quite forward thinking in terms of gender politics. It’s Jennifer Garner who takes first Communist blood, and Lea Thompson gets many, many goes with a big machine gun; they take down as many Russians and Cubans as the boys, and neither becomes an object of romantic interest for the kids (though there is a slight hint of romance with a shot-down US pilot which lasts all of three minutes before he croaks). Garner also spends a lot of time being… well, an undercover one-woman terrorist cell, basically; luring lusty commies into an ambush, planting bombs in shops and leaving grenade-laden handbags in awkward places. Even in death she actually becomes a roadside improvised-explosive-device herself; a grenade wedged under her body that takes out another hapless commie scumbag when he lifts her corpse to check whether she’s actually a goner or not.
Did I enjoy revisiting Red Dawn 20 years later? It was… fun, in a sense. Ludicrous, guilty fun. One thing I’m definitely glad about though, is that it seems to have been the start of my fondness for (far superior) post-apocalyptic cultural product.