Friday, November 30, 2012

Dope Island: Better Dead than Red Dawn?

The remake of RED DAWN is now in theaters, a notoriously belated release. Really, any longer on the shelf and it would have been older than the 1984 original. Movies are stupid, they distort time and space, they can do that.
 
I'm in no hurry to see the 2012 RED DAWN, which I am given to understand concerns an invasion/occupation of the United States by North Korea. I am given to understand the Marxist enemy was actually the Peoples' Republic of China in the early drafts, but, given economic realities (the Chinese probably purchased half of Hollywood while this thing moldered in the cans), the material was hastily redone to make the villains North Korean. At least I HOPE that's what went down. Anything else is absolutely ludicrous. The thought of NK paratroops making it across the Pacific and holding the USA in chains is a concept that could only sell as MOUSE THAT ROARED-style comedy, perhaps by Matt Stone and Trey Parker (and they already sort of did it in TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE).
 
Yes, look up THE MOUSE THAT ROARED on Wikipedia or something, you modern kids. You guys probably think the original RED DAWN, with really, really, really old guys in it like Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Grey, was probably in black-and-white and with no sound. But I'm pretty old myself, and I have fairly lucid memories of when that Reagan-era DAWN did dawn, whilst I attended college at Syracuse University. A bad investment, by the way; SU diploma worthless in the capitalist job market. Had I known that back then, maybe I would have cheered the Soviets in the picture.
 
 
Unsurprisingly, as with most things in the 1980s, with the Reagan Cold-War hawks rattling their sabers and the fresh memories of Soviets Behaving Badly all over the world, when RED DAWN premiered it split opinions sharply along the American political divide. Dittohead neoconservatives proclaimed it the best feature-film achievement since BIRTH OF A NATION (I should really win awards for my film writing, I should). The liberals of the era, still the dominant force in the movie-review media but winding up the washouts that ALICE'S RESTAURANT predicted they'd be, acted like the what-if actioner was an unwatchable inbred throwback to the likes of RED NIGHTMARE with Jack Webb, back in the Hollywood-Blacklist 1950s.
 
As usual, neither POVs were very accurate. Written and directed by John Milius, a prolific screenwriter and one of Hollywood's few declared right-wingers of the time
 
RED DAWN is no masterpiece, but, viewed now with hindsight, shows a bit of brains behind the Calls of Duty, especially compared with the idiotic antics of RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD - PART 2 (which really hasn't aged well) and assorted Chuck Norris gun fantasies. Here the hard-sell surface message of sanguinary conservatism, patriotism and fighting for one's country/freedom are underscored by more complex morals (a la John Milius), about striving against impossible odds and taking doomed or hopeless stands for what is correct, and wondering even then if the bloodshed is worth it.
 
 
The ripped-from-Boy-George's-glory-days-headlines plot: a Motherland famine and a strong nuclear-disarmament movement in Europe (forcing NATO to power down) gives the USSR the impetus to do the unthinkable, an all-out invasion of the United States - preceded by selective atomic-missile strikes vaporizing both Washington D.C. and most of China (ironically, I think the Tea Party would approve that detail today). The conflict fails to go full-scale thermonuclear on a planetary scale - a dubious fringe benefit of UK and other US allies deciding to stay neutral and sit this one out. Things turn into a grueling back-and-forth war of occupation.
 
We see the action from the POV of Calumet, Colorado, suddenly infested by Russian paratroops and their Latin-American revolutionary pals. Captured US citizens get herded into the local drive-in movie theater, now a mass internment-camp and propaganda center (showing ALEXANDER NEVSKY to the prisoners, just like the Cleveland Cinematheque all the time. John Ewing you damned traitor pinko!).
 
In the fashion of Nazi-occupied France, the town mayor cooperates with top Commie officers to keep the community going as peacefully as possibly. But a group of high-school students - including prominent players on the school football team - escape into the mountains and refuse to surrender, forming their own armed resistance squad and striking back against the unprepared Soviets.
 
It's important to remember that RED DAWN really was the first big-scale American movie to render a prolonged ground-war outcome to a decade's-old US-USSR rivalry. Even DR. STRANGELOVE cut simply to blowing up the world. But it's a mixed bag. Just as Charlie Chaplin rendered comedy just by doing slaptstick in front of a mostly static and unmoving camera, so John Milius points the camera and lets stiff and absurd action stuff happen, as teenagers take a chunk out of the Red Army with ease.
 
But, on the other hand, a seemingly absurd concept of 80s American teens turned armed partisans is treated with great sobriety. There are no MTV music-video interludes and no angst about whether Leninist imperialism will forbid dancing at the prom. And, while the young characters seem particularly mature and disciplined, it's declared that the alpha teens paid a price in joyless, miserable childhoods learning hunting and killing under a strict survivalist dad (Harry Dean Stanton). One of the best scenes in the movie, in fact, has the high-schoolers faced with a question of whether to execute one of their own as a traitor.
 
Meanwhile one of the few sympathetic "enemy" characters, a Mexican revolutionary now helping his Soviet comrades, starts realizing that as an invader he's not much better than the oppressors he used to fight against. I remember 1980s critics jeering this detail in particular, but in Milius' hands it comes across as a classic dilemma for soldiers down the ages. Wonder what John Milius thinks now of the American role in Afghanistan - or if he's got a movie script about it?
 
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Milius' RED DAWN is [SPOILER ALERT] the ending - or non-ending. We learn no details of how this war ended, just that it did, and the fallen heroes were remembered on home soil, as others have before - and will again. That ambiguity is pretty daring, in a time period when the typical 80s action-hero aesthete would have a flag-waving, Schwarzenegger muscleman tearing the Soviets apart bare-handed, all the way back to Moscow.
 
So, to paraphrase John Lennon - who would kill me for this - All We Are Saying is Give the old RED DAWN a chance. There's some thoughtful stuff in there. Though I'll bet most of it was lost on heartland-American audiences who, then and now, already have their minds made up on who to fear to justify their frenzied gun-shopping fetish. Though the anti-Russian animosity that drove the plot may be history, RED DAWN later became embraced by paranoid anti-government, anti-immigrant and "militia" subcultures. In watching in their bunkers, they simply substitute the Kremlin menace with mythical United Nations troops supposedly massing just outside the USA's borders, in a conspiracy with a traitorous Obama or Clinton.
 
I don't know that the new RED DAWN will have even possess as much resonance as that. For today's Great Recession movie artistes it was probably just another name-brand 1980s property to pounce upon and indifferently remake. Just another audience-bait title on the to-do-list between PROM NIGHT and THE STEPFATHER. Wonder if there will be an electric car when the reboot of LICENSED TO DRIVE shows up.
 

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