'Red Dawn' Wasn't About the Cold War; It Was About Shooting People

Which means there's lots of room for improvement this coming week's remake

red dawn original 615.jpg

If a foreign army ever invades the United States, a small town in Colorado will be the least of its priorities. There are urban centers and missile silos to occupy, and an invasion starts from the borders inward, not the other way around. Still, dubious tactics were not a primary concern when John Milius directed Red Dawn nearly 30 years ago. The Soviet invasion classic, complete with a teeny bopper cast, is violent, campy propaganda. It has not aged well—Red Dawn is better known for its one-liners and not its action—but that didn't stop first-time director Dan Bradley from working on a remake, which will hit theaters this coming Wednesday. This presents one of those rare instances where the update might be better than the source material: Bradley has a chance to improve Red Dawn by learning from the original's mistakes and by watching similarly themed non-fiction films.

The original Red Dawn has a shrewd opening. Through terse title cards, Milius and co-screenwriter Kevin Reynolds create an alternate history of the Cold War, one where America is all that stands between peace and oblivion. This approach creates a sense of urgency, and Milius follows through with stark invasion imagery. Paratroopers land on a high-school football field, and when a history teacher greets them, he's shot dead. Writing in Slant, Fernando F. Croce notes that, "World War III might have seemed frighteningly plausible in 1984, but, as soon as the invading Reds are introduced parachuting down on the varsity football field of a quaint Colorado burg, it's clear that the picture is going to be set squarely in the realm of hairy-chested fantasy." This fantasy is a stark contrast to Army of Shadows, a ruthlessly realistic World War 2 French resistance thriller that opens with Nazi tanks rolling past the Arc de Triomphe. Milius terrorized his audience with a familiar setting, not an iconic one, which is a sneaky way of hiding flaws. Audiences clamored to see an America that resembled their backyard, and warriors who resembled the kids next door—or the heart-throbs next door—rather than action heroes.

But the Red Dawn remake cannot escape the implausibility of a young cast. Chris Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor) is Jed, the leader of the "Wolverines," and Nickelodeon mainstay Josh Peck plays his younger brother Matt. Even so, though, if Bradley is smart he'll give them more interesting things to do than Milius gave to Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, respectively. In the original Red Dawn, the Wolverines' strategy was simple: Shoot, shoot some more, and if that didn't work, use a rocket-powered grenade. Milius never offered his guerrillas a specific objective. They battled the Reds out of blind hatred, seemingly without a goal of victory.

There is so much gunfire in Red Dawn, in fact, that it once held the Guinness World Record for the most-violent movie ever made (according to The National Coalition on Television Violence, there were 134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute). Left-leaning critics took issue with the excessive gunfire in part because of Milius's political leanings. "[A] former NRA board member, Milius is a military zealot, infatuated with the warrior code," writes David Plotz in Slate. "Red Dawn is really a fetish movie, an ode to guns and blood." Hopefully, in the remake, the Wolverines will at least indulge that fetish with greater purpose.

Whenever his characters were not firing their weapons, Milius showed the green teenagers transitioning into hardened warriors. But his attempt at character development was half-hearted at best. Implacable hatred drove the Wolverines, and their fervor got to the point where they abandoned strategy. In an unintentionally funny death scene, C. Thomas Howell screams "Wolverines!" before losing a doomed battle with a helicopter. While preserving the domestic framework, Bradley should eschew this foolhardy martyrdom take his inspiration from foreign invasion thrillers.

The aforementioned Army of Shadow gets existential about the toll of sacrifice. Director Jean-Pierre Melville, who was part of the French Resistance, stripped the characters of heroics and gave them steely determination instead. Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley took a closer look at the emotional toll of guerilla fighting. Irish farmers approached warfare reluctantly and with ideology; unlike Red Dawn, in-fighting was about more than cowardice. They battled with conscience, even if it meant pitting brother against brother. There is simply no way Jed and Matt will reach such an impasse—the Red Dawn remake is a red-blooded action flick before anything else—but the only way to improve Red Dawn is to draw from films that handled the material with gravity and smarts.

Upon first glance, the biggest challenge facing a Red Dawn remake is finding an appropriate enemy. With a corny synthesizer score and the threat of the Soviets, the original certainly seems like a product of its time. But Red Dawn was more about jingoistic patriotism than it was about the Cold War. The Wolverine hatred of an "other," not the Reds specifically, is what drives the original Red Dawn. It could be about space aliens as long as a group of young, good-looking kids take to the hills in a mythical Real America. It's no surprise, therefore, that the remake easily switched its enemy from China to North Korea during post-production (at least they moved the action from Colorado to Washington State, a place where an enemy could conceivably invade). In the Red Dawn trailer, Jed energizes the Wolverines with, "For them, this is just some place. For us, it is home." The stream of pronouns preserves Milius's propaganda, but Bradley will hopefully split from the original when it's time to show how, precisely, the Wolverines avenge America.