' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Red Dawn

Friday, August 31, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Red Dawn

In 1999 ABC aired a sitcom called "It's Like, You Know" that is perhaps best remembered (that is, if it is remembered at all) for Jennifer Grey playing herself as a struggling Hollywood actress. And the first time masseuse/process server Lauren Woods (A.J. Langer) meets Jennifer Grey she ecstatically throws her hands in the air and shouts: "Wolverines!" This was crucial. There is a type of person who upon meeting Jennifer Grey would say "Nobody puts Baby in a corner" and there is a type of person who upon meeting Jennifer Grey would shout "Wolverines!" I am most decidedly the latter.


"Wolverines!" refers to the 1984 John Milius opus "Red Dawn" which garnered fame at the time for becoming the first ever (released) PG-13 movie, a rating cleverly devised so a film “hailed” then as the most violent movie ever made (according to the Guinness Book of World Records and The National Coalition On Television Violence) could gobble up that many more tickets from its youth-targeted audience. Released into theaters 2 days ahead of the closing ceremonies of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics that were boycotted by the Soviet Union and Cuba, "Red Dawn" opens with Soviet Union and Cuban (and Nicaraugauan) paratroopers landing in scenic Calumet, Colorado to begin an invasion of the U.S. Well, that’s not QUITE how it opens. It actually opens with a stately teacher intoning about the invasion strategies of Genghis Khan and the Monguls. As in, subtlety is not exactly "Red Dawn’s" strong point.

Once the invasion is underway a few teens with an ex-high school football star (Patrick Swayze) as their de facto leader take to the mountains intending to hide out until the conflict blows over. It doesn’t. They go into town and find books being burned and potential troublemakers locked up in “re-education camps.” They take in a couple comely nieces of a kindly fellow they know stuck in “occupied America.” And when things suddenly take a turn for the worse, this group finds itself a band of rebels, fighting back with all they’ve got which admittedly isn’t much but strangely seems more than enough to become a legitimate insurgency thorn in the side of Colonel Bella – the not-so villainous villain (“How did I come to this high, desolate place where there is nothing but loneliness?”) who comes to admire these “Wolverines!” even as he tries to take them down.

Originally conceived by Kevin Reynolds as a Me Decade Lord of the Flies, Milius – a self-admitted gun loving zen anarchist - wrote the screenplay with Reynolds and the end result was a fiercely jingoistic part-time morality play with lots and lots of guns. And RPGs. Don’t forget the RPGs. There is a moment when a downed air force colonel (Powers Boothe) who has joined forces with our band of “Wolverines!” tells another character “You’ve seen too many movies.” But I would propose that John Milius himself has seen too many movies. To my time-stained thirtysomething eyes "Red Dawn" sort of resembled a Cold War-era "Boondock Saints" – a movie that was mainly an excuse for its auteur to film a lot of guns being fired.


It’s not the distinct implausibility (where did they get the form-fitting winter military get-ups?) or the incessantly self-serious dialogue (“Things are different now” – Oh, things are different now, I’m so glad you’re here to tell us these things) as it is Milius’s clear insistence that God blesses us (i.e. America) and no one else. At times you want to believe the people involved are in on some sort of satirical joke (and Booth might have been under that impression) but I would counter that "Red Dawn" believes in the America of apple pie, fireworks and the Fourth of July as ardently as Trump believes Obama was not born in the U.S. Granted, I’m now a jaded coffee addict and I was neither of those things when I first saw this movie on HBO in the 80’s but "Red Dawn" comes across as overt a propaganda movie as the propaganda movies being shown in the re-education camps. What more proof of this do we need than the fact the actual military operation to capture Saddam Hussein was NAMED after Red Dawn?

There is a moment when C. Thomas Howell, who has consumed deer blood and, thus, obviously, transformed into a cold-blooded mercenary, stares down an incoming enemy helicopter, lifts his black mask to shroud his face, shouts “Wolverines!” and fires away helplessly with his puny machine gun before being shot to smithereens as the gloriously gung-ho soundtrack plays all the while. It cheapens death (and war) by sensationalizing it. And yet……

Yet I can’t help but remember myself as a pre-teen in the backyard with my friends and all of us choosing which characters we would be (except, of course, for Erica and Toni because we didn’t know any girls because we were cool like that) and then re-enacting our favorite "Red Dawn" scenes like a joyous WWIII Christmas Pageant and, yes, there was a time or two I faced down a pretend helicopter with a pretend machine gun and shouted “Wolverines!” I guess it would have been a little like singing “I had a brother at Khe Sahn” along with Bruce Springsteen that same summer without any comprehension of what those words meant.

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