“—SOVIET UNION SUFFERS WORST WHEAT HARVEST IN 55 YEARS
—LABOR AND FOOD RIOTS IN POLAND. SOVIET TROOPS INVADE
—CUBA AND NICARAGUA REACH TROOP STRENGTH GOALS OF 500,000. EL SALVADOR AND HONDURAS FALL
—GREENS PARTY GAINS CONTROL OF WEST GERMAN PARLIAMENT. DEMANDS WITHDRAWAL OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS FROM EUROPEAN SOIL
—MEXICO PLUNGED INTO REVOLUTION
—NATO DISSOLVES. AMERICA STANDS ALONE.”
These are the opening credits to the 1984 movie Red Dawn: An ominous, ALL CAPS warning to freedom-loving Americans that if America isn’t vigilant in the pursuit and destruction of communism around the world, the ideology of pure evil will spread like wildfire until the day when it arrives in America — or, more specifically, when it arrives in a small town in Colorado.
With the stage set for a world mostly under the control of communism, Red Dawn’s action begins almost immediately with a paratrooper invasion by Cuban, Nicaraguan and Russian forces, who shoot up a high school in the town of Calumet, Colorado. To escape the invasion, a band of teens led by a pre-Dirty Dancing Patrick Swayze and a pre-insanity Charlie Sheen flee to the mountains in order to fend for themselves. But as communism envelopes their small town and citizens are placed in re-education camps, the band of spunky, self-reliant teens fight back. Calling themselves the “Wolverines,” they terrorize their communist oppressors and inspire hope in the people of Calumet, as well as 1984 movie-goers, who — still in the Cold War era — took this as a dire, “what-if” scenario.
But what would a Marxist think of this movie, especially with its blatant, Reagan-Era propaganda? Let’s find out.
On the Invasion
Chauncey K. Robinson, Marxist and Rotten Tomatoes verified film and TV critic: Looking at the historical context, one of the fears when it comes to communism is that it’s going to be contagious to other places — that somehow, if we don’t stamp it out, other places are going to catch it. But what was really going on — and still is — is that the U.S. was this imperialist force going around affecting all of these other countries. So I thought it was funny how they were like, “The U.S. is just minding its own business!” and then we get invaded, but the U.S. never minds it’s own business. That’s not how we roll.
Skylar, Marxist activist: The idea that any occupying force is going to have so many spare generals, tanks and troops that they’re going to occupy every small town in America is ridiculous. At least later movies like this have invaders trying to take over the seats of power and invade New York or L.A. or something, but the idea that they’d get to a little town in Colorado is hard to believe. They also mention at one point that they’ve nuked Kansas City, but if they have nukes, why not just nuke all the biggest cities?
José, communist and film buff: What’s really funny is that you’ve got three invading forces in that movie — Russia, Cuba and Nicaragua — and all three of them are countries that America has invaded at one point or another and none of those countries ever invaded America. And so, it’s an incredibly bold piece of anti-communist propaganda, but if you can get past all that, it’s a pretty fun, kitschy movie.
On “The Wolverines” and the Rest of the Cast
José: It’s such a great 1980s cast. It’s like one of the dream teams of 1980s casting, you’ve got Swayze and Jennifer Grey before they met for Dirty Dancing, and you’ve got Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson and the guy from PeeWee’s Big Adventure who played the escaped convict. I don’t know his name, but he’s the one who’s like, “The law, the law!” when they’re approaching the police line and then PeeWee dresses up as a woman. Anyway, that guy is in this movie, and he plays the Nicaraguan captain.
Robinson: It’s funny, a lot of these people are familiar faces because they go on to do cute teen comedies and stuff like that. But they all did this movie where they were killing people with machine guns beforehand — that’s why no one puts baby in a corner!
Skylar: I made the mistake of watching the remake before the original, and the remake is terrible. It’s like a bunch of high schoolers made an homage to the original, there’s just no storytelling at all. With the original Red Dawn, at least it’s a good movie, even though it’s politically fucked up.
On Its Portrayal of Communism
José: It’s just blatant totalitarianism depicted in the movie, more so than any depiction of actual communism. Of course, there was never going to be any sort of thoughtful critique of communism in a Charlie Sheen/Patrick Swayze shooting-guns-at-communists movie. It’s just going to be portrayed as doom — as a death cult full of crooked and corrupt Russians who are coming for your daughters.
Unsurprisingly, Red Dawn is one of the hundreds of movies that the CIA and the Department of Defense has collaborated with Hollywood on over the years. With this movie and others, the Defense Department not only provided equipment and tanks and things like that, they also had a say in the script. At that moment in the mid-1980s, the U.S. was sponsoring right-wing rebels and violent groups in Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan and Cambodia, and it’s clear that part of what this movie is trying to do is shore up support for our various interventions all over the world. It’s such a Reaganite movie.
Skylar: The movie barely addresses communism. It took communism to mean the authoritarian enforcement of social uniformity, rather than resource distribution and emancipation of the working class, as it had to show communism as irredeemably evil and lacking in any humanity. Communism and Slavic, authoritarian militarism are so linked in peoples’ minds that we don’t actually have a way of thinking about communism without Russian authoritarianism. I certainly can’t speak for all communists — many saw the Soviet Union as going away from the ideals of communism long before it fell — but communism and Soviet authoritarianism is still intertwined in people’s minds, and most Americans remain confused about it.
In fact, what became clear over the course of the Cold War was that it wasn’t an ideological struggle at all. Instead, it was just about these two large countries jockeying for geopolitical power and the ideological stuff was just a veneer. Which is kind of true of this movie, too.
Robinson: Oh, it portrays communism badly, but in a way, it doesn’t really convey it as an ideology at all. There’s that re-education camp, and at one point, I heard someone say, “America is a whorehouse,” but that’s about it. It’s full of anti-communist propaganda, but like most propaganda, it’s devoid of the substance of what they’re actually portraying.
Later on, when they visit the town under occupation, some stuff just didn’t make sense. They were just walking through the town, and everyone’s like, “They’re looking for you!” But no one seems to recognize them at all or care that they’re just walking around town. Then they casually walk up to the re-education camp and just leave.
Then there’s the part when they visit their dad in the camp and he screams, “Avenge me!” That was pretty cheesy. I mean, they’re there on the other side of the fence, hiding from the communists, and he starts screaming at them! You’re going to get them caught!
On Why the Hell the Communists Decided to Invade Colorado
Skyler: The point of this, of course, was that it was the 1980s and the Reagan Revolution was happening, which was more suburban and affluent, whereas the cities were more like, “the Bronx is burning” and didn’t represent that image. So they had to set it in a small town because they wanted people to feel protective of America — the way to do that is to place it in idealized small-town America. There’s nowhere to run, they’re coming for you!
Robinson: It’s all propaganda. This movie was targeted for Midwest, middle-class America, and it was all about, “They’re gonna come and take everything you love!” It doesn’t make sense, of course — an invading force wouldn’t do that — but it was about who the movie was intended for. The heartland of America, it was all aimed at them.
José: They have these panoramic shots of the town, and it’s clear that it’s meant to be anywhere — it’s small-town Americana, and there are the jocks with their guns and they’re the ones who are prepared for this. There’s even a bumper sticker showing, “They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers,” so it’s a gun nut movie, too. There’s even a point where they explain that the Soviets figured out who had guns in the town by looking at the registry — so registering your guns is bad.
On Who They Were Rooting For
José: It was fascinating how they gave the Cuban general a crisis of conscience. There’s that moment where the Cuban guy is writing a letter to his wife about how he’s not in a revolution anymore and how he wants to go home to Cuba and it’s this beautiful thing, and right behind him a Soviet soldier is looking at a pinup in a porno magazine. So the juxtaposition between the Russians and the Cubans in the movie suggests that the Cubans had been pushed into war and also pushed into communism, and that Cubans are just unfortunate followers and lackeys of the Soviets.
While the Cuban character is sympathetic, as a Latino myself, I can’t help but feel the anti-Latino racism with the idea that they can’t think for themselves. Then there’s the explanation that America was invaded through Mexico, which certainly evokes some feelings now.
Skylar: I don’t know if I was rooting for anybody. I turned against Patrick Swayze when, right after these kids watched their parents get killed, he was like, “Don’t cry! Never cry again in your life!” Fuck you, that sucks. That’s a terrible approach.
There’s that one communist general, the Cuban, who expressed discomfort at being an occupying force, because he had been an insurgent — that felt legit. Then there’s that part where he’s got Swayze in his sights as Swayze is tending to an injured soldier, and they have a moment of shared humanity through the magic of cinema and he lets him go.
Robinson: I really feel like there wasn’t anyone to latch onto. I felt for the Cuban general, he was a good character, and I felt bad for the black teacher because — of course — he was the first to die.
I was surprised by the female characters in the movie, because when they’re introduced, they’re hiding in this crawlspace and they talk about how the soldiers tried to take their white-woman virginity, so I figured one was going to be a love interest and that their role would be this sympathetic, emotional base. But the girls were pretty heartless in some regards, and they step up in their own way, which was interesting. I mean, they were killing people.
José: I found it difficult to root for anyone. If this were real, my natural inclination would be to support the youth who are fighting the invasion of their hometown, but on the other hand, I can’t support a reactionary anti-communist avatar for the CIA’s support of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, the Contras, the Mujahideen and so on. In the end, the only people I can support are the Cuban colonel and the Nicaraguan captain, who I just like because he was the fugitive in PeeWee’s Big Adventure.
Skylar: As for who I wanted to win… I just don’t know. I feel like I do when the Yankees play the Indians, and I just root for structural failure in the stadium.