35 Years Ago: ‘Red Dawn’ Celebrates Rugged Individualism, and Blowing Up Stuff
Red Dawn, with a script about local teens left to fight off the Soviet menace, was meant to tell larger truths about resisting authority. Yet, it remains very much of its time.
When the movie premiered on Aug. 10, 1984, the U.S. was in the midst of perhaps the chilliest moments of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. had just boycotted the summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles, not long after then-President Ronald Reagan – who'd set about funding anti-Communist operations and deploying medium-range ballistic missiles amid mass protests – labeled them the "Evil Empire."
So, a Red Dawn scenario in which Communists stage a World War III-sparking occupation wasn't just an inventive plot point. For many, it felt like a long-feared nightmare come true. The script also fit the cadence of youth, likely because it was written by future Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds while he was still a student in film school at the University of Southern California.
"Red Dawn was about the impending possible reality, which at that time was an actual fear of the Soviet Union invading this country," director John Milius told Mandatory in 2014. "People actually thought that way. That's why I made that movie; that's why people liked it. The fear was real and it played on that."
This tense environment was echoed in the film's very first scenes, as actors playing Communist paratroopers landed on set in Las Vegas, N.M. When one of them got blown off course and became stuck in a tree, he had to work to convince residents that he wasn't actually a Soviet militant.
That must have made perfect sense to Cold War kids like C. Thomas Howell, who played Robert Morris in the movie. "I grew up as a child living Red Dawn," he later told AMC. "I was leaping out of spider holes, mowing down Russkies at the age of eight."
Morris eventually becomes the most ardent follower of brothers Jed and Matt Eckert (played by Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen), who lead an ultimately doomed group of guerilla fighters including Arturo "Aardvark" Mondragon (Doug Toby) against the invaders. Familiar environs in their hometown of Calumet, Colo., become bombed-out shells as the Soviet occupation settles in. The local Calumet Drive-in is transformed into Communist re-education camp.
The teenagers flee to the hills, meeting up with Erica (Lea Thompson) and Toni Mason (Jennifer Grey) as mission prep continues. This subtly changes the group dynamic, but it doesn't alter the goal of saving their community from a red menace. Initial victories embolden the group before they become overmatched, and they start celebrating with shouts of "Wolverines!" in honor of the school mascot.
Watch as the Paratroopers Invade in 'Red Dawn'
Morris' blood thirst is stoked by the news that his dad has been killed. So has the Eckerts' mother; their father, a prisoner portrayed by the late character actor Harry Dean Stanton, is left to exclaim, "Avenge me!" They do, in an orgy of youthful aggression that sparked outrage and a change in the film's rating.
The National Coalition on Television Violence deemed Red Dawn "the most violent movie ever made" in 1984, and it became the first PG-13 movie – a designation between PG and R that had only been created in July. The coalition said Milius' film contained a whopping 134 acts of violence per hour, and should have garnered a X rating.
Milius, who made a point of accurately depicting the weaponry and armor of the era, wouldn't have had it any other way. He put the actors through an intense boot camp led by real Green Berets, so they could learn about survival skills and handling the weapons. The explosions were real. In time, even the secret missions back into town were.
"We would have, like, midnight raids," Lea Thompson told Entertainment Weekly in 2009, with a laugh. "In the middle of the night, they'd knock on our doors and go 'Wolverines!' We’d all kind of practice these maneuvers, because we were guerilla fighters. It would all happen in the middle of the night, like a fire drill. We'd grab our coats and run around the town in the middle of Las Vegas, N.M., in the middle of the night, pretending we were guerilla fighters. It was like camp. It was so much fun."
The original story, which Reynolds called Ten Soldiers, had more of a kids-gone-wrong, Lord of the Flies bent. Milius wanted to make a broader point about individual liberty, saying he thought the film "touches on people's desire to live free." And he also wanted to blow up a lot of things.
"My script was about the resistance – and my script was tinged by the time too," Milius told Creative Writing in 2015. "We made it really outrageous, infinitely more outrageous than [Kevin Reynolds' original] vision. And to this day, it holds up, because people ask, 'What's that movie about?' And I say that movie's not about the Russians; it's about the federal government."
Milius, who earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing Apocalypse Now, was well aware that he was courting controversy – and he certainly didn't shy away from it. In fact, Milius reportedly left one of his own guns on the desk during interviews with the media.
"I knew that Hollywood would condemn me for [Red Dawn] – that I'd be regarded as a right-wing warmonger from then on, uncontrollable and un-housebroken," Milius said in the film's bonus-disc commentary. "I was the only person in Hollywood who would dare do this movie. Hollywood was very left-wing, but I have a lot of contradictions. I'm a militarist and an extreme patriot at times, so I believe in all of that rugged individualism hogwash."
Watch as the Wolverines Fight Back in 'Red Dawn'
Because Patrick Swayze was older than the others, John Milius relied upon him to help corral his inexperienced cast. "Milius is a very intense director,” the late Swayze said in the movie commentary. "He's a very wonderful director, but we had to call him the General and he called me, he says, 'Swayze, you're my lieutenant. I'm directing these little suckers through you.' He put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, and I took it really seriously."
That didn't always sit well with the others – in particular Jennifer Grey, who apparently didn't like being ordered around by a co-star. As the film roared toward its brutal conclusion, however, they reached an on-screen detente. "At the end of Red Dawn, when we shot her character's death scene, she seemed to warm to me," Swayze later told the Daily Mail. "It's a tender scene and, as I stroked her hair, it was truly emotional. I think it endeared me to her, and it was clear she and I had chemistry together."
In fact, once they got away from the overamped set of Red Dawn, Gray and Swayze meshed well together on the smash 1987 film Dirty Dancing. "Everything on Red Dawn was epic in scale," Swayze wrote in his 2009 book The Time of My Life, "the hard-core training, the controversial plot, the insanely rigorous shoot, and the antagonism between myself and a certain young actress."
Filming at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico presented its own challenges. "You know it's cold when you're forced to spoon Charlie Sheen," Howell said in the film commentary. "That's what we were forced to do: to huddle together and pretend we liked each other." Swayze actually got frostbite, but managed to fall in love with the area anyway. He later bought a ranch near where the movie was filmed.
By then, Red Dawn had already soared to $38.3 million at the box office, against a budget of $17 million – setting the stage for successful careers not just for Grey and Swayze but for most of its then-largely unknown stars.
The movie's legacy lived on in other tangible ways, despite a forgettable remake. America's invasion of Iraq in 2003 was nicknamed Operation Red Dawn by Army Capt. Geoffrey McMurray. Meanwhile, Howell says he's still met with cries of "Wolverines!"
"I get that about twice a week in real life, and about 40 times a day through Twitter," Howell told USA Today in 2012. He responds, too: "I cannot help typing 'Wolverine' with a few exclamation points on it."