In the summer of 1984, with “Morning in America” well underway and a national election heating up, our Cold War skittishness was quickly giving way to militant triumphalism. The year before, the U.S. had invaded Grenada. Over the summer, a team of America’s best and brightest athletes rebounded from our boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games with a big, showy display of American exceptionalism held in Los Angeles, the city America goes to for lies about itself. And the weekend of the closing ceremony, a movie called Red Dawn opened in theaters, sparking the interest of a nation of impressionable kids raised in fear of what lay on the other side of an ever-shrinking world.
Set in a small town in Colorado, the original Red Dawn, a remake of which hits theaters November 21, posited a takeover of the country by a Cuban-Soviet alliance. A group of high schoolers stocking up at the friendly local sporting goods store adopt the name “The Wolverines,” after their school mascot, and take to the hills to mount an uprising against the invading forces. “In Our Time, No Foreign Army Has Ever Occupied American Soil,” one movie poster noted. “Until Now.”
“What both films succeed in doing is asking: ‘What if the fight was brought to your front door?’” noted Josh Peck, who has the lead role in the remake. “Everyone would have a visceral reaction to their home being threatened.” He noted that even a natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy for instance, could pose that sort of threat. In either case, tough decisions are necessary in times of crisis.
“The original came out at a time when kids were still hiding under their desks,” Mr. Peck added. “It was able to take advantage of the political climate. With this film, there was an effort to root it in reality.”
That means both a grittily realistic style of action—you really feel each grenade going off—and obtuse nods at the national scene, as in an opening sequence that edits together speeches by the real-life President, Vice President and Secretary of State to make them appear excruciatingly ineffective in battling the fictional Axis rising in the East. And just as the original film became a touchstone for the Patriot movement, the remake is poised, for a sizable segment of its audience, to speak to the despair over President Obama’s perceived incompetence and/or craven malevolence (take your pick) and his supposed second-term agenda of dismantling the free state.
Appeals to patriotism aside, neither version of Red Dawn is likely be screened at the Library of Congress. The 1984 version is most easily seen today as a dopey popcorn flick celebrating unity and fellowship among high schoolers, a time capsule of 1980s teen culture (among its stars: Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Grey) or a straight-up action movie. But its director, John Milius—who also co-wrote the first two Dirty Harry movies and directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian—may have had something else in mind with his story of a robust last-ditch national defense mounted by a well-armed citizenry. Not for nothing was the film listed among the National Review’s “Best Conservative Movies of the Last 25 Years.” And Mr. Milius is not your typical sushi-eating Hollywood elitist. A longtime member of the National Rifle Association’s board of directors, he has called for “mass denunciations and executions” of Wall Street leaders and for U.S. military intervention in Mexico’s drug-trafficking crisis. “We need to go down there, kill them all, flatten the place with bulldozers, so when you wake up in the morning, there’s nothing there,” he has said, adding, “I do believe if you have a military, you use it.”