When Red Dawn opened late this summer, I thought back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the last serious Communist Threat fantasy I could remember from Hollywood. During the interim we had had only farces like The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming (1966). Now the Communist Threat had returned in all its glory. Arguably this event was predictable and uninteresting, a pale reflection of real life events: the invasion of Afghanistan, the election of Reagan, and so forth.
On the other hand, cultural images have their own fascination. Director John Milius (The Wind and the Lion, Conan the Barbarian) may have little flair for narrative, composition of images, or clear thought, but he is vulnerable to moods and to myths. Do we suppose that the Russians must be resisted by military might and that war is an excellent builder of human personality? Do we suppose that the war in Vietnam was a disastrously misconceived venture for America and that war destroys character rather than building it? Milius encourages all these suppositions. Red Dawn takes us into a mental world where right-wing and left-wing beliefs intermix, producing a sort of phantasmagoria. Sitting through it is like confronting the ghosts of ideas: they're insubstantial, they must be illusions—and yet they press in on us so thickly.
A nuclear war starts. Apparently it is initiated by the Soviets. After several big cities and half of China are destroyed, the superpowers agree to fight with conventional weapons. Except for England, Europe has remained neutral. The real struggle is between the USSR and the United States. It is being waged on American soil. Even as we watch, Russian, Cuban, and Nicaraguan paratroopers overrun a small town in Colorado. There is no resistance. People are shot down before they know what is going on. Many end up in a political reeducation camp (a converted drive-in movie theater).
A few teenagers flee, founding a guerilla band named after their high school football team (the Wolverines). The guerillas are led by the team's former quarterback and his little brother. Their father has been hard on them. Now they know why. The Wolverines terrorize the occupying forces, evading capture—evading, above all, betrayal within their own ranks by a wimpy former Student Body President. They conduct daring raids, then retreat to hideouts up in the Rockies. Most of the Wolverines are sooner or later killed, though several escape to Free America. Ultimately the struggle is won, the Russian and Latin American troops repelled. America is free once more, though many people forget the heroism of the Wolverines.
Even if we accept the fundamental premise—the invasion—this plot is full of holes. How did the nuclear war come to a halt? Are there any other guerillas besides the band we are with? (Our heroes save hundreds of people from the reeducation camp and from firing squads, but the escapees just disappear.) Where do our heroes get their limitless supply of hand grenades? Are there supply routes from Free America? How do the Wolverines anticipate the arrival of the ambushers who almost trap them? Milius ignores most such questions. If we are going to appreciate Red Dawn, we have to ignore them too.
Now that we have taken this first step, we are ready for the plunge. We have to enter into what looks like a traditional right-wing polemic about war. Bob Greene recently came up with a seventeen-year-old girl who "believes that Soviet troops might someday launch a ground war in the Chicago area," and has therefore joined the National Guard. This girl moves from a comfortingly improbable fear ("The Soviets would be attacking my neighborhood, my friends, my school") to violent self-righteousness ("And for the people who go around saying how much they hate it here—well, I wish they'd leave before someone like me takes the initiative to make them leave"). To put the point another way: if we imagine ourselves as victims, we acquire the authority to do anything we like. If we keep the image in our minds of big red tanks rolling down Michigan Avenue, we get the energy to rout out local dissidents. Power must be disguised as powerlessness.1 Then we can act.
It's evident that Milius is working with this highly emotional sort of argument. He hammers away at the point that the Wolverines are defending their own territory. They have to discover, step by step, (1) that they can kill the invaders; (2) that they can enjoy killing the invaders; (3) that they can even kill one of their own—the wimpy Student Body President, of course—when he proves to be a spy.
It is hard to say what corresponds to these actions in our lives—that is, the lives of the audience watching the film—but so far as we empathize with the Wolverines we want to do some killing too. Maybe it needn't even be on our own territory. Once we get the spirit, maybe we can forget about the fantasy of invading forces. We needed that framework at first—but now we can throw it away, much as Bob Greene's young fighter seems tempted to do.
If Milius were a real rabble-rouser, that would be all there was in Red Dawn. As I remarked, however, Milius is enormously susceptible to his own fantasies. He gets caught up by them as few people would—and they take him to strange places. Milius refuses to use the link with the land, with territory, as a purely persuasive device. He genuinely believes that the Reds are coming. And because he believes it his power-powerlessness argument undergoes a metamorphosis into a left-wing rather than a right-wing dream. Instead of fighting guerillas as they did in Vietnam, Americans become guerillas.
Maybe Milius was odd man out in his youth some fifteen or twenty years ago, but now he turns out to have had the same dream as other romantic youths. He wants to get into a camouflage suit and fight hand to hand against imperialism. He comes very close to admitting as much. There are scenes in Red Dawn where Russian officers start talking like Americans in Southeast Asia; at one point somebody mentions "body counts." A Cuban officer—the nearest thing to a reflective character in the film—thinks back nostalgically to his own country and his own revolution. He is quite aware that he is trying to wipe out the sort of warrior he himself used to be. He wants to go back to the old days. So does Milius. Red Dawn suggests that the dream could be fulfilled: that Americans could become the winning underdogs fighting against a ruthless imperial power.
At first glance Milius seems to be using the invasion theme as one might a device in rhetoric: it is not to be taken literally, it points to something beyond itself. At second glance he seems infatuated with his own fantasy to the point where he is willing to live inside it. At third glance we can catch him struggling to get out again. He does not exactly succeed but his efforts are again most striking.
During the early part of the film, the Wolverines keep telling each other not to cry. They remain a lugubrious bunch. Eventually it turns out that war has scarred the Wolverines irretrievably, especially the quarterback and his brother. There is no going home for them. They embark on a suicide mission, blowing up the command station from which the invaders rule the town; after that, they drag off to die. They expire sitting in the park where their father once took them to play on the swings. "Daddy's coming soon," says one to the other as the snow falls gently around them.
This movie begins as a right-wing indulgence, transforms itself into a left-wing indulgence, then ends with the two attitudes weirdly superimposed. Along with many other film-makers of his generation, Milius is enamoured of The Searchers, the great John Ford/John Wayne Western. The Searchers ends famously with Wayne restoring Natalie Wood to her family (she was kidnapped by Indians many years before), then striding away into the desert, framed by the doorway of the homestead. The man of action has no place within the civilized world. He can help preserve it but cannot linger within it. Milius—who named his son Ethan after Wayne's character in The Searchers—wants to communicate the same message.
How drastically has he changed the emphasis, though! He does not choose to glorify individual will. Neither can he depict—as Ford did in other movies—the submission of a strong loner to communal values. There will be no silent striding away—just a regression to infantile desire. Far from having assumed the father's role, our guerillas are still asking for him. Their lack of fitness for any other end is pathetic rather than tragic. These kids are not John Waynes. They are just victims of John Wayne macho values.
It is hard to know just what Milius wants us to feel about the final scenes of Red Dawn. Because he is a terrible filmmaker and an incompetent thinker, his movie can be taken any old way we want to take it. I'm not usually inclined to regard this kind of openness as a value, but for once there is reason to make an exception. We try to keep our ideologies in little, separate compartments.2 Just as well to remember that myths of warfare, of action, and of social good can mesh with each other by a great many means. Such fantasies are a part of real life so far as they take possession of people and compel them to behave in specific ways. Such fantasies, moreover, are continuous. Understood against these premises, Red Dawn becomes a useful object of study—a disastrously bad movie, a wonderfully inclusive microcosm of those hopes and fears which make people vote, fight, or flee in chosen ways.
1Cf. H. Rider Haggard's She (1886-87), where British explorers penetrate to a hidden African kingdom; there they discover a superhuman and practically immortal woman who decides, after conversing with them, to take over England. "Tis a great people, is it not?" she asks—"with an empire like that of Rome!" Let the colonizer beware. The colonized will rise up. Can Haggard's heroes save the British empire? Tune in next week.
2Observe Kenneth Lynn in "Hemingway's Private War," Commentary, July 1981, trying to purify Hemingway of what he regards as harmful liberal notions about warfare and its effect on people. "Big Two-Hearted River" is "a sun-drenched, Cezannesque picture of a predominantly happy fishing trip." Observe Malcolm Cowley in "Hemingway's Wound—And Its Consequences for American Literature," Georgia Review, Summer 1984, producing an unpublished letter from Hemingway to prove that Lynn is wrong. The question remains: why did Lynn get himself out on this limb to begin with? And why are these guys fighting this way about books? If you want to say something about soldiers and their reactions to war, why not go to life instead of art? Answer: art has the fantasies. And if we can prove that said fantasies are of the appropriate political persuasion, then somehow we've won the game. A strange game.