Red Dawn (1984)


Introduction

Red Dawn is a 1984 American action film directed by John Milius, with a screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and Milius. It stars Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton, Ron O’Neal, William Smith, and Powers Boothe.

It was the first film to be released in the US with a PG-13 rating (under the modified rating system introduced on 01 July 1984).

The film depicts the United States invaded by the Soviet Union and its Cuban and Nicaraguan allies. However, the onset of World War III is in the background and not fully elaborated. The story follows a group of American high school students who resist the occupation with guerrilla warfare, naming themselves “Wolverines”, after their high school mascot.

A remake of the same name was released in 2012.

Outline

The United States has become strategically isolated after NATO is completely disbanded. At the same time, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies aggressively expand their sphere of influence. In addition, the Ukrainian wheat harvest fails while a socialist coup d’état occurs in Mexico.

On a September morning, in the small town of Calumet, Colorado, a local high school teacher pauses when he sees Soviet troops parachuting from An-12 transport aircraft landing in a nearby field. The paratroopers open fire when the teacher walks outside to question them. Pandemonium follows, as students flee amid heavy gunfire. Jed Eckert, who had dropped his brother Matt off at the high school, ragging him about a recent loss of a football game, returns to the high school and picks up Matt and several of their friends, narrowly escaping all that is going on. In downtown Calumet, Cuban and Soviet troops are trying to impose order after a hasty occupation. Cuban Colonel Bella instructs the KGB to go to a local sporting goods store and obtain the records of the store’s gun sales on the ATF’s Form 4473, which lists citizens who have purchased firearms.

Brothers Jed and Matt Eckert, along with their friends Robert Morris, Danny, Daryl Bates, and Arturo “Aardvark” Mondragon, flee into the wilderness after hastily equipping themselves at the sporting goods store owned by Robert’s father. While on the way to the mountains they run into a Soviet roadblock, but are saved by an attacking US Army UH-1 helicopter gunship. After several weeks in the forest, they sneak back into town, where Jed and Matt learn that their father is being held in a re-education camp. They visit the site and speak to him through the fence, and learn that their mother is already dead; Mr. Eckert, reminding his sons of how he had purposely raised them in a strenuous manner, orders his sons to avenge his inevitable death and that of his wife.

The kids visit the Masons and learn that they are behind enemy lines in “occupied America”. Robert’s father is revealed to have been executed because of the missing inventory from his store. The Masons charge Jed and Matt with taking care of their two granddaughters, Toni and Erica. After killing Soviet soldiers in the woods, the youths begin an armed resistance against the occupation forces, calling themselves “Wolverines” after their high school mascot. The occupation forces initially try reprisal tactics, executing groups of civilians following every Wolverine attack. During one of these mass executions, the fathers of Jed, Matt, and Aardvark are killed. Daryl’s father, Mayor Bates, tries to soften the blow against Calumet and save the lives of the captured citizens by appeasing the occupation authorities, effectively becoming a collaborator, but with little success. Despite the reprisal tactics, the occupation forces get nowhere.

The Wolverines meet an American fighter pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe), who was shot down by Cuban MiG-21s. Tanner informs them of the current state of the war: several American cities, including Washington, D.C., were destroyed by nuclear strikes; the Strategic Air Command was crippled by Cuban saboteurs, and paratroopers were dropped from fake commercial airliners to seize key positions in preparation for subsequent assaults via Mexico and Alaska. Most of the Southern United States and North Western Canada has been taken over by the Soviets, but American counterattacks have halted Soviet advances along the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River and the lines have stabilized. The only remaining US allies, the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China, are militarily crippled. Concerned about nuclear fallout, both sides refrain from the further use of nuclear weapons.

Tanner assists the Wolverines in organising raids against the Soviets. Their actions draw the attention of a Soviet General, who orders reprisals against the civilian population. The Wolverines’ actions, and the reprisals against civilians eventually leads to the high command of both sides of war to know the name “Wolverines”, and the Soviet generals publicly stating that the area “may not be pacified for much longer”. Soon after, in a visit to the front line, Tanner and Aardvark are killed in the crossfire of a tank battle. Daryl is caught by the Soviets after being turned in by his collaborating father. Using threats of torture, KGB officers force Daryl to swallow a tracking device, then release him to rejoin the guerrillas. A Spetsnaz unit is sent into the mountains carrying portable radio triangulation equipment, but are ambushed by the Wolverines. The group traces the source of the radio triangulation signal to Daryl, who confesses and pleads for mercy. He is executed, along with a Spetsnaz operative by an increasingly hardened Robert when the others cannot find the heart to kill their friend.

The remaining Wolverines are ambushed by Mi-24 helicopter gunships, and Toni and Robert are killed, Robert while successfully but suicidally attacking a gunship. Jed and Matt go to attack the Soviet headquarters in Calumet, to distract the troops while Danny and Erica escape. The plan works, but both Jed and Matt are mortally wounded. Colonel Bella comes across the brothers, but sensing the already too-great loss of the war, the colonel is unable to bring himself to kill them, and so he motions them on. The brothers reach a bench in the park where they spent time as kids, holding each other as they die. Meanwhile, Danny and Erica trek through the Rocky Mountain Wilderness where they reach the frontier of Free America.

In the closing scene, a plaque is seen with Partisan Rock in the background. The rock is fenced off and an American flag flies nearby. The plaque reads:

… In the early days of World War III, guerrillas – mostly children – placed the names of their lost upon this rock. They fought here alone and gave up their lives, so “that this nation shall not perish from the earth.”

Cast

  • Patrick Swayze as Jed Eckert.
  • C. Thomas Howell as Robert Morris.
  • Lea Thompson as Erica Mason.
  • Charlie Sheen as Matt Eckert.
  • Darren Dalton as Daryl Bates.
  • Jennifer Grey as Toni Mason.
  • Brad Savage as Danny.
  • Doug Toby as Arturo “Aardvark” Mondragon.
  • Powers Boothe as Lieutenant Colonel Andrew “Andy” Tanner, USAF.
  • Ben Johnson as Mr. Jack Mason.
  • Lois Kimbrell as Mrs. Mason.
  • Harry Dean Stanton as Mr. Tom Eckert.
  • Ron O’Neal as Colonel Ernesto Bella.
  • William Smith as Colonel Strelnikov.
  • Vladek Sheybal as General Bratchenko.
  • Frank McRae as Mr. Teasdale.
  • Roy Jenson as Mr. Samuel Morris.
  • Pepe Serna as Mr. Mondragon.
  • Lane Smith as Mayor Bates.
  • Judd Omen as Nicaraguan Captain.
  • Radames Pera as Sergeant Stepan Gorsky.

Production

Ten Soldiers

The film was originally called Ten Soldiers and was written by Kevin Reynolds. It was set in the near future as a combined force of Russians and Cubans launched an invasion of the Southwestern US. Ten children take to the hills when their small town is captured and they turn into a skilled and lethal guerrilla band.

Producer Barry Beckerman read the script, and, in the words of Peter Bart, “thought it had the potential to become a tough, taut, ‘art’ picture made on a modest budget that could possibly break out to find a wider audience.” He got his father Sidney Beckerman to help him pay a $5,000 option. Reynolds wanted to direct but the Beckermans wanted someone more established. Walter Hill briefly considered the script before turning it down. So too did other directors.

The Beckermans pitched the project to David Begelman when he was at MGM and were turned down. They tried again at that studio when it was being run by Frank Yablans. Senior vice-president for production Peter Bart, who remembers it as a “sharply written anti-war movie … a sort of Lord of the Flies”, took the project to the head of the studio, Frank Yablans.

The script’s chances of being filmed increased when Kevin Reynolds became mentored by Steven Spielberg who helped him make Fandango. MGM bought the script.

John Milius

Bart recalls that things changed when “the chieftains at MGM got a better idea. Instead of making a poignant little antiwar movie, why not make a teen Rambo and turn the project over to John Milius, a genial and rotund filmmaker who loved war movies and also loved war? The idea was especially popular with a member of the MGM board of directors, General Alexander Haig, the former Nixon chief of staff, who yearned to supervise the film personally and develop a movie career.”

Bart says most of MGM’s executives, except for Yablans, were opposed to Milius directing. Bart claims he made a last minute attempt to get Reynolds to direct the film and went to see Spielberg. However, by this stage Fandango was in rough cut, and Bart sensed that Spielberg was disappointed in the film and would not speak up for Reynolds.

Milius was signed to direct at a fee of $1.25 million, plus a gun of his choice.

Milius set about rewriting the script. He and Haig devised a backstory in which the circumstances of the invasion would take place; this was reportedly based on Hitler’s proposed plans to invade the USA. Haig took Milius under his wing, bringing him to the Hudson Institute, the conservative think tank founded by Herman Kahn, to develop a plausible scenario. Milius saw the story as a Third World liberation struggle in reverse; Haig introduced Nicaragua and suggested that, with the collapse of NATO, a left-wing Mexican regime would participate in the Soviet invasion, effectively splitting the US in half. Bart says, “Even Milius was taken aback by Haig’s approach to the project. ‘This is going to end up as a jingoistic, flag-waving movie,’ Milius fretted. As a result, the budget of this once $6 million movie almost tripled.”

Other changes included a shift in focus from conflict within the group to conflict between the teens and their oppressors, and the acceleration of the ages of some of the characters from early teens to high school age and beyond. There was also the addition of a sequence where some children visit a camp to find their parents have been brainwashed.

Milius later said, “I see this as an anti-war movie in the sense that if both sides could see this, maybe it wouldn’t have to happen. I think it would be good for Americans to see what a war would be like. The film isn’t even that violent – the war shows none of the horrors that could happen in World War III. In fact, everything that happened in the movie happened in World War II.”

Bart says Yablans pushed through filming faster than Milius wanted because MGM needed a movie over the summer. Milius wanted more time to plan, including devising futuristic weaponry and to not shoot over winter, but had to accede.

The Pentagon withdrew its cooperation from the film.

Casting

Milius wanted Robert Blake to play the US pilot but Frank Yablans overruled him. Powers Boothe was selected instead. Patrick Swayze as Jed Eckert. C. Thomas Howell as Robert Morris. Lea Thompson as Erica Mason. Charlie Sheen as Matt Eckert. Darren Dalton as Daryl Bates. Jennifer Grey as Toni Mason. Brad Savage as Danny. Doug Toby as Arturo “Aardvark” Mondragon.

Filming

The movie was filmed in and around the city of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Many of the buildings and structures which appear in the film, including a historic Fred Harvey Company hotel adjacent to the train depot, the train yard, and a building near downtown, which was repainted with the name of “Calumet, Colorado”, referencing the town in Michigan, are still there today.[when?] An old Safeway grocery store was converted to a sound stage and used for several scenes in the movie.

Before starting work on the movie, the cast underwent an intensive eight-week military training course. During that time, production crews designed and built special combat vehicles in Newhall, California. Soldier of Fortune reported that the movie’s T-72 tank was such a precise replica that “while it was being carted around Los Angeles, two CIA intelligence officers followed it to the studio and wanted to know where it had come from”.

Powers Boothe later claimed, “Milius cut out the emotional life of its characters. Originally, my character was anti-war, as well as a rightist. I was supposed to be the voice of reason in that movie. But certain cuts negated my character.”

Lea Thompson says the original cut featured a love scene between her and Powers Boothe but it “was cut out after some previews because of the age difference. And that was the main reason I took the movie – it was such a terrific scene.”

Some of the weaponry devised for the film did not work. Futuristic helicopters created did not have FAA approval to fly over people.

The budget increased from $11 million to $15 million. It eventually came in at $19 million.

Music

The film’s score was composed and conducted by Basil Poledouris; it was the first soundtrack album to be released (on LP and compact disc) by Intrada Records. The label issued the complete score in 2007.

Release

The film received mixed reviews.

Box Office

Red Dawn was the 20th highest-grossing film of 1984, opening on 10 August 1984 in 1,822 theatres and taking in $8,230,381 on its first weekend. Its box office gross is $38,376,497.

Home Media

Red Dawn has been variously released across a variety of formats.

  • 1985: Red Dawn released on VHS.
    • It was also released at the same time on PAL and Betamax.
  • 1985: The first LaserDisc release.
    • The film was released several times on this format, with the latest in April 1994.
  • 1998: First DVD release.
  • In 2007, a two-disc DVD Collector’s Edition was released.
    • Unusual among the “extras” are interviews of residents recalling the filming of the movie.
  • In 2015, a DVD release featured Red Dawn with the 2012 remake.
    • Another release the same year excluded the remake.
  • In 2017, the Collector’s Edition was released on Blu-ray.

Movie References

The movie being shown to American prisoners at the re-education camp is Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938).

Much of the story is set in the Arapaho National Forest, and a group of Soviet soldiers refer to the Colorado War, which was fought there between the Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes and the US government.

Operation Red Dawn

The operation to capture former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was named Operation Red Dawn and its targets were dubbed “Wolverine 1” and “Wolverine 2”. Army Captain Geoffrey McMurray, who named the mission, said the naming “was so fitting because it was a patriotic, pro-American movie.” Milius approved of the naming: “I was deeply flattered and honored. It’s nice to have a lasting legacy.”

Cultural Influence

Red Dawn has been referenced by and influenced a number of other mediums including music, film, and video games.

Film and Television

  • Numerous references occur in the movie Hot Tub Time Machine, including the movie playing in the Ski Patrol station and being watched by Blaine, who considers it one of the best movies of all time.
  • “Grey Dawn” is a South Park episode which parodies Red Dawn where the old people of the town, fed up with how they are treated, take over the quiet Colorado town.
  • SEAL Team is 2017 American military drama series that follows an elite team of the United States Navy Seals.
    • In one episode the team must rescue a Russian scientist and his wife and bring them across the Chinese border into Afghanistan as Russian Special Forces pursue them.
    • The SEAL Team successfully evades them and crosses into Afghanistan, at which point one of the SEAL’s raises his weapon and yells “Wolverines!” to his pursuers, a reference to an iconic scene from the movie.
    • The SEAL also states “don’t tell me y’all never seen Red Dawn before.”

Music

Rock musician David Rosenthal assembled prog rock group Red Dawn in 1992 with drummer Chuck Burgi and bassist Greg Smith.

Video Games

Red Dawn has influenced a number of video games.

  • Freedom Fighters is a 2003 video game that takes place during a Soviet invasion of New York.
    • This game is based heavily on Red Dawn in terms of characters, costumes and design, and the last mission closely resembles one of the final scenes when the Wolverines attack the Soviet base.
  • The plot of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 includes an invasion of the United States by an ultra-nationalist Russia, where members of the United States Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment have to repel the attack.
    • The achievement “Red Dawn” is awarded for completing the American “Wolverines!” and “Exodus” missions in Veteran difficulty. “Wolverines!” itself is a reference to the movie.
  • Homefront, is a video game by Red Dawn’s writer John Milius, about a North Korean invasion of America and borrows heavily from the movie.
    • One notable “easter egg” relating to the film is a large billboard at a school sport stadium which reads “Go Wolverines!!!”.
    • In turn, the plot of the 2012 remake of Red Dawn borrows heavily from Homefront, including the use of a united Korean threat, the use of rural and suburban settings for the primary action, and partisan warfare.

Red Dawn Emails

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a string of emails by Trump administration officials detailing concerns about the government’s response to COVID-19 were dubbed the “Red Dawn emails” in reference to the film.

Remake

The remake takes place in a slightly altered version of the modern day (c. 2012), with North Korea invading the United States.

Milius did not like the remake, and criticised it as “terrible” after reading an original script where the villains were Chinese.

See also Tomorrow, When the War Began, a 2010 film and 2016 TV series based on a novel about Australia being invaded by an unspecified Asian enemy nation.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): John Milius.
  • Producer(s): Buzz Feitshans, Barry Beckerman, and Sidney Beckerman.
  • Writer(s): Kevin Reynolds and John Milius.
  • Music: Basil Poledouris.
  • Cinematography: Rick Waite.
  • Editor(s): Thorn Noble.
  • Production: United Artists and Valkyrie Films.
  • Distributor(s): MGM/UA Entertainment Company.
  • Release Date: 10 August 1984.
  • Running Time: 114 minutes.
  • Rating: PG-13.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English, Spanish, and Russia.

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