The new version of Red Dawn premieres in theaters across America today. It arrives as the latest in a long series of remakes of popular 1980s films that have populated box offices over the last few years few years (see also: Total Recall, Fright Night).
As with its predecessor, Red Dawn focuses on a small band of teenagers who become a rag-tag resistance force in the aftermath of a large-scale invasion of the United States by communist forces in the not-too-distant future. The “Wolverines” (named after the local high school football team) attempt to disrupt and undermine the occupation of their rural Colorado town, where individual freedom is curtailed and those who resist are rounded up into camps and summarily executed. Whereas in the original the invaders were a coalition of the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua, the remake casts North Korea in the role of would-be invader.
The original Red Dawn was a commercial success following its 1984 release and maintained some cultural staying power, referenced in numerous popular media, recently the 2011 Kaos studios video game Homefront.
However, If I were to make an educated guess, I predict the remake will not achieve the kind of success of its predecessor. It could very well be a technically sound film and it may even be an enjoyable experience to watch. Maybe it turns out to be the breakout hit of the season and a successful film debut for stuntman-turned-director Dan Bradley (although early reviews tend to suggest otherwise). But I don’t see it having the staying power of the original.
It all comes down to understanding the historical context of the original. Red Dawn arrived in theatres during a period of heightened Cold War anxiety, and while a Soviet invasion of the United States might not have been probable, there were elevated concerns of some kind of confrontation between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.
In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, an act that had deep repercussions regarding US-Soviet relations. In response to the invasion, President Jimmy Carter announced a series of political and economic retaliations, bringing an abrupt end to the détente that had characterized interaction between the two superpowers during the seventies. Carter withdrew the American ambassador to Russia and imposed an embargo on wheat exports to the Soviet Union. He also backed away from his support of the SALT-II nuclear arms treaty, which was awaiting approval by the Senate. The United States also boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics, which were held in Moscow (four years later, the U.S.S.R. responded by boycotting the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles).
Cold War tensions escalated to new heights during the Reagan administration, following Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over Carter in the 1980 Presidential Election. Reagan, a fervent Cold Warrior brought increased anticommunist rhetoric and an unprecedented military and nuclear arms buildup. On March 8, 1983, in a speech before the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, FL, Reagan called the Soviet Union “the force of evil in the modern world” and dubbed them the “Evil Empire.” Two weeks later, he instituted the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a space-based nuclear defense program; rhetoric or concrete military policy, the “Star Wars” program represented an American foreign policy where war with the Soviet Union was an increased possibility. Moreover, the United States offered increased overt and covert support of regimes supporting regimes and resistance groups who took a hard line against communism, such as the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, the Contras in Nicaragua, and the October 1983 American invasion of Grenada.
The renewed Cold War fervor reverberated into American popular culture. On November 20, 1983, millions of Americans tuned into ABC to watch The Day After, a made-for-TV movie depicting the aftermath of a nuclear attack on American soil in grim (for network television) detail. The film was followed by a panel discussion on nuclear arms moderated by Ted Koppel, including such figures as Henry Kissinger, Elie Weisel, and Carl Sagan. Concerns over invasion and/or nuclear attack even made their way into video games through such titles as the popular 1980 arcade game Missile Command (where the player attempts to protect cities from nuclear missiles) and the less-well-known 1982 game Communist Mutants from Space.
It was in this environment of heightened political, military, and cultural tension that Red Dawn premiered in American theatres in August 1984. It was directed and co-written by John Milius. Milius, a longtime screenwriter who had worked on several high-profile films, including Apocalypse Now and the first two Dirty Harry films, was two years removed from his directorial debut with Conan the Barbarian.
Milius framed the events of his Cold War invasion in the context of the anxieties of the times, presenting a “what if” scenario of an escalation of the Cold War. As described in a series of expository title cards at the beginning of the film, following a failed wheat harvest (possibly instigated by the US embargo?) the Soviet Union begins territorial expansion. Meanwhile, as the Soviet Union marches across Europe, Cuba and Nicaragua begin dramatic troop increases. Left with no global assistance with the disbanding of NATO, the “United States stands alone!” as the last bastion standing in the way of complete Soviet conquest. The two hours that follow are full of action, gunplay, and over-the-top melodrama.
There is much that can be said about the film’s presentation and the messages it conveys to its 1984 audience, more than can be said here in the interests of brevity (I do encourage you to share your thoughts in the “COMMENTS” section). However, regardless of whether audiences believed a scenario such as the one presented in Red Dawn could actually play out, there were few that could deny the plausibility of some sort of escalation of conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The political and cultural environment of the time allowed Milius’ “what if” to at least be possible.
Twenty-eight years later as Dan Bradley stands poised to present his own personal take on an American insurgency resisting a powerful invader, we are not faced with the same context of nuclear brinksmanship. The plausibility of the mass invasion of a major communist country has gone down with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The recent film’s attempt to present a Cold War-style scenario in a world now accustomed to enemy aggressors bearing no specific national affiliation makes Red Dawn feel like an anachronism, a weak attempt by Hollywood to put old wine in a new bottle and hope people will buy it. The lack of cultural and historical context undermines the film, and I believe will guarantee it passes by as yet another unremarkable remake of what was once a successful film.