Red Dawn (1984)

Red Dawn (1984), written and directed by John Milius.

When communist forces invade the western US, high school kids take to the mountains and fight a guerilla resistance. It's very heroic for a while, but war wears everyone down in the end.

I hadn't seen this since the theater. Some in the audience took it pretty seriously but we were sniggering in my row. For years afterward we would claw the air and snarl "Wolverines!"

In retrospect I have a more sober evaluation. Over the last hundred years many countries have been invaded and young people do take to the hills and their hit-and-run wars are bloody and vicious. If the US setting now seems ridiculous: during the Cold War it was less so, with tens of thousands of nukes ready to go and the Soviets having considerable success in both hemispheres.

How well does it work as film entertainment? What comes out of John Milius' head is a strange combination of super-patriotic bluster and moments of "hey, that was actually kind of interesting..." He's doing one type of story with the fantasy Robin Hood-style last minute rescue of civilians about to be executed, but later redeems it when the heroics turn sour and our young people slump into despair.

In the end I liked it more than I expected, without claiming it's an actual good film. I didn't notice at the time, but in the first scene, high school teacher Frank McRae summarizes the rest of the movie: the Mongols hunt and slaughter all the animals until one is left, which goes free.

Also: the small town theater now has free showings of Alexander Nevsky. Ouch, that hurt. I think Milius is at his best when he is less serious, as with Conan the Barbarian (1982) and even The Wind and the Lion (1975).

Apart from the many young actors near the beginning of their careers, a good selection of old timers adds weight to the story: Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton, William Smith, Powers Boothe.

Smith taught Russian at UCLA, so I suspect his accent is a good one. Boothe provides a good counterbalance, the professional soldier trying to temper the guerrilla fighters.

Basil Poledouris score.

Available on Blu-ray.