By Craig Leask
Originating with the stresses surrounding the Post WWII Cold War, which was hitting an apex in the early 1980’s, self-proclaimed activist and gun collector John Milius was inspired to develop a “what if” scenario surrounding the premise of a Russian attack in middle America. That story became the film Red Dawn. In Milius’ film, a small group of Colorado high school students, unprepared by the surprise Russian attack, escape to the nearby mountains where they begin to muster skills, supplies and weapons to defend themselves and their home from the foreign invaders. Resonating within the film is the underlying message: “to what extent would you go, to defend your home”.
In a bizarre example of truth following fiction, all of this is now playing out in real time – not in the United States, but in the Ukraine. And, like the 1984 film, the unprovoked attack has necessitated average citizens arming themselves in defense of their homeland.
Avoiding the tedious need to establish the film’s historical framework and background, Director Milius simply sets the story’s context through a bold red text which opens the film, neatly summarizing the world events that led up to the invasion: “Soviet Union suffers worst wheat harvest in 55 years. Labor and food riots in Poland. Soviet troops invade. Cuban and Nicaragua reach troop strength goals of 500,000. El Salvador and Honduras fall. Green Party gains control of West German Parliament. Demands withdrawal of nuclear weapons from European soil. Mexico plunged into revolution. NATO dissolves. United States stands alone.”
Upon a recent re-reviewing of the film, I was immediately struck with the frightening similarities of this positioning of the film, and the situation which had been recently orchestrated within the American government. Not to single out any particular administration, but between January 2017, and January 2021, the White House began to initiate a breakdown of the global safety nets and long-established friendly relationships, ensuring the fictitious scenario forecasted in the film edged precariously close to becoming a reality.
During that brief four-year period, the United States unceremoniously began divesting itself from its allies, its decades old treaties and its military and trade agreements, including NATO, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), the Open Skies Treaty and the Iran Nuclear Deal (AKA the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) among many others. Concurrently, the U.S. initiated a trade war with the world by withdrawing from long standing trade agreements such as NAFTA, disrupting years of established trade networks, which created fissures in the entire global economy. In hindsight, what seemed like random actions at the time, now appear to have been strategically orchestrated decisions which caused considerable instability throughout the globe while presenting vast opportunities for more nefarious nations.
In directing Red Dawn, John Milius fortuitously resisted the temptation to embrace a “Disneyized” approach, common to most teen led conflict films such as The Outsiders (1983), War Games (1983), The Breakfast Club (1985). With an adolescent focus and a plot line heroizing that age group, there is the uncomfortable potential for the film to gravitate to a more idealized portrayal of war, complete with unrealistic representations of honour and sentimentality, an avoidance of casualties (for the good guys) and the requisite stray puppy. It was a pleasant surprise to see that this is not the direction Milus took. Aside from the portrayal of invading Russian forces as stereotypically evil, the film breaks form, resisting the need to portray American civilians as rational, polite, peace-loving citizens, instead showing that, in a true war time situation, nobody is really innocent. People, in this case mere children, are being forced to grow up quickly, becoming mercenaries capable of previously unspeakable acts. The war and violence in the film are not glorified, but instead portrayed as an unavoidable outcome in such a situation, leading to casualties on both sides. These casualties uncharacteristically include some of the main characters although they seem to enjoy a longer life span than the town’s adult population.
Starring in their early careers, are Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Grey among many others, all displaying their young age and inexperience in front of the camera. To be frank, none of the characters are overly noteworthy and the premise of ordinary citizens needing to buck up and develop resourceful strength against unprecedented odds is a plot which has been employed many times before. It’s only 38 years later, with the current parallels to the conflict in Ukraine, that this unremarkable film is again relevant.
Let me be perfectly honest. Red Dawn is by no stretch of the imagination a stellar movie, but like any relevant film, it does make you think, especially during this extraordinary moment in history. Had it not been for the current events unfolding in the Ukraine, the film would have remained as a John Milius’s pro-gun propaganda piece which only had relevance due to the Cold War, and then faded off into obscurity.
Red Dawn was remade under the same title in 2010.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.