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Publisher's note: This guest film appraisal, and in-depth discussion on this one film, "Red Dawn," is unusual for the BCN film review series, but we would encourage more of it, because movies are obviously a medium of great interest in our American society.
Our guest film enthusiast, Dustin Dixon, wrote this paper on "Red Dawn" for his Film Studies class at ECU, so if the post appears a bit stilted toward a thesis for grade, please understand that we consider it still wonderful fodder for thought, especially for this film, which generated so much discussion in 1984.
If I have one objection with Mr. Dixon's well asserted tome, it is that I would have rated "Red Dawn" 3 3/4 stars, primarily because the film takes an impossible situation, and makes it appear real in a very unreal period, in retrospect, of American history - the Cold War years.
I remember well when this film came out, in 1984, and liberal pundits were having a veritable "conniption fit," crediting the Ronald Reagan administration's zeitgeist to bring all influence to bear on the destruction of the Soviet Union, with this film being pure propaganda, and actually a destructive force in negatively influencing peace talks between the USA and the USSR. Also, the "gun control" issue was rudimentarily cast in a negative light, with the occupiers (communists) gaining the local government lists of the permits of those that had guns, taking them, and summarily putting the gun owners in concentration camps. This very scenario is a real concern by your more knowledgeable 2nd Amendment advocates.
If one believes that Liberals are terrible now in their media bias, and that most "journalists" are media stooges, with basically a child-like understanding of real world issues, please be aware of this: they were just as terrible then, and moreover, hated President Reagan with an unmitigated passion back then in the 1980's. Remarkably, Liberals and liberal "journalists" in the 1980's were no smarter then than they are now.
To whit, I leave you with this one parting phrase from the "Gipper": "Mr Gorbechev, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL."
The Function of Reaganite Cinema in American Ideology As seen in Red Dawn
It was the late 1970's and America needed a booster shot. After the underwhelming presidency of Jimmy Carter and the American military's extended occupancy in Vietnam, some felt that a more conservative revolution was in order. Things had gotten out of control all over the planet and most people felt that America had gotten itself in over its head with international affairs. In the midst of a global nuclear arms race, America was desperate to feel good about itself again. Baby-Boomers had collectively reached adulthood, and with the radical cultural advancements of the '60s and '70s (women's lib, civil rights), some found it important to make things the way they used to be in order to feel safe again, and the best way to do that is through mass appeal.
This neo-conservative revolution was possible through the media more than anything else. How else could the higher echelon transmit its "back to basics" message than through television and movies? At this point, nearly every household had multiple television sets and more people were going to the movies than ever before. But, to effectively reach the general public, one must not produce the thoughtful, intellectual films of the 1970's. These types of films bordered art, and art can make people think, and too much thinking can confuse people. Thus, Reaganite cinema was born in 1979, even before Ronald Reagan's presidency was actually underway. In Reaganite cinema, the films attempted to emulate what Reagan stood for including his policies and political persona. The point was to influence Americans to revert to more conservative and patriotic cultural methods. "Film, in other words, locates the spectator in ideologically produced frames of meaning in terms of which he makes sense of specific representations as not only feasible, but natural." (Zavarzadeh, 1991, p. 95).
Hollywood began producing over-the-top, feel-good, conservative movies that would make a Republican swoon like a schoolgirl. These movies included excessively dramatic, blood-curdling action and patriotic heroes that made us forget about our military shortcomings in the past. Characters like John Rambo helped Americans believe that we were indeed the good guys in the fight against Communism and anything else that stood in our way of being free.
There were also a multitude of films that helped us forget our real life problems with breathtaking special effects and rudimentary, identifiable design. The imaginative, yet childish plots of movies like E.T. and Back to the Future aided in America's reassurance that everything would be okay, like a child unsure about what may come. Marty McFly gets the ability to go back in time and right the wrongs of his town's past, making viewers of all ages fantasize about "going back" and fixing things. These types of films would attempt to subconsciously mold American ideology. This was possible through simple stories with imaginative flourishes, so as to help enforce the neo-conservative motifs and ensure box-office success.
George Lucas, for example, took familiar ideas and concepts and masked them in outlandish alien costumes in order to give them new definition. "The fanciful trimmings of the Star Wars saga enable us to indulge in satisfactions that would have us writhing in embarrassment if they were presented naked." (Wood, 1986, p. 167). With this process, Lucas was able to take the identifiable problems of our reality (war, racism, socialism) then transport them into a new dimension and ultimately relieve worries about said issues. Along with cutting-edge special effects, these films were the architecture of a neo-conservative movement. "Ideologies are perceived-accepted-suffered cultural objects, which work fundamentally on men by a process they do not understand. What men express in their ideologies is not their true relation to the conditions of existence, but how they react to their conditions of existence; which presupposes a real relationship and an imaginary relationship." (Braudy and Cohen, 1999, p. 689.)
I chose to write about the former of my examples: the overly violent type of film that made viewers feel as though we, as Americans, had the right to fight and win, no matter what. Specifically, I structured my thesis on Red Dawn; the 1984 vehicle that shows a small group of attractive, Middle American youth overcoming the most unlikely odds and fighting back against a Soviet invasion after the United States is isolated from NATO. The film immediately throws the story into motion, not thoroughly introducing the viewer to any character. Right from the beginning, Soviet and Cuban paratroopers start falling out of the sky onto the high school football field sending a group of teenagers, Robert, Matt, Danny Daryl and the elder leader Jed, fleeing into the mountains. Eventually they wage a guerilla style war with the Soviet KGB squads hunting them.
As far-fetched as it sounds to have to defend against a Russian paratrooper invasion in Colorado, there was serious concern at the time due to nuclear anxiety and the United States' relationship with the Soviet Union during The Cold War. Even so, the fact that the protagonists of the movie are high-school aged teenagers tells us, the viewer, that everyone plays a part in the defense of our homeland. The film could have also worked as propaganda by helping teenagers at the time feel more responsible in regards to national defense. The film was released near the end of the era of other similar films, and near the end the Reagan era. Possibly the proverbial cherry on top of the sundae that was Reaganite cinema, Red Dawn fits into nearly every aspect of what Wood describes as Reaganite entertainment. It provides reassurance, all the while enforcing indoctrinated values such as patriotism and militarism. The film presents itself in a way so that the viewer does not even have to be an American or know anything about American history to be fully enveloped in the skeletal plot, although it might help. The viewer is thrust into a fictional scenario where The United States' allies have fallen victim to global dissolve and the biggest kid on the block is left alone and defenseless. It takes less than five minutes for Russian paratroopers to start falling out of the sky in a town we are barely introduced to. The characters are presented to the audience with no in-depth background, so we can immediately identify the good guys.
The reassurance aspect of the film lies in nearly every scene. We see these seemingly untrained teenagers set up camp high in the mountains of Colorado as they hunt, train and strategize in order to survive and overcome the unwanted Soviet intruders, naming themselves "The Wolverines" after their high-school mascot. We are witness to their relentless campaigns against small groups of their enemies at outposts and convoy stops. The audience sees these kids doing the skillful duties of a battalion of soldiers. These innocent young men and women learn to ruthlessly kill and assassinate. With this, the viewer may take comfort in the fact that if this motley crew can dust as many invaders as they did, then our real world armed forces should have no problem fending off whatever danger may come knocking at America's door. And in reference to the age of our heroes, the aspect of childishness comes into play. We get to watch our protagonists evolve into something more than adolescents. The more they train and fight, the stronger and more vigilant they become. Eventually, they lose their na´ve, fragile shells and become hardened to the world around them. For instance, Robert is transformed from a scared, young kid into the most merciless Wolverine.
Although Red Dawn is intellectually undemanding, it is just deep enough to make the audience ponder the possibility of war on American soil, and what it would take to do what they are seeing on the screen. And though we never see it, we are privy to the success of our heroes in the long run, although most of them die in the time of the story. Near the end of the film, they get word of allies coming from far and wide to help them. Their endearing efforts have inspired others to fight and have simultaneously inspired audiences to believe in their country once again.