Red Dawn Would Like You to Die for America

Watching the ultimate boogaloo fantasy, in an isolated America

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<i>Red Dawn</i> Would Like You to Die for America

Boogaloo emerged as a mash-up of black and Latin American influences. Some 50 years later, the word is still part of American pop culture but with a very different meaning. It once represented a fusion of people and cultures. Now it refers to their coming apart, civil war—in some quarters, a race war. — Hannah Allam, in a Jan. 10, 2020 story for NPR

The world is falling apart. Ill news assaults our ears at every turn. Our leaders are callow and unprepared, pretending the problem doesn’t exist. We tried to keep on living with a brave face, but before we knew it, the enemy was in our streets, killing people. The people of America cower indoors, hoping they will not be next. So, naturally, it’s a great time to watch Red Dawn again.

The 1984 John Milius film—the Conan the Barbarian and Apocalypse Now writer both wrote and directed Red Dawn—is an ode to the ever-present and perverse desire among so many for the world to just please fall the hell apart so that the real heroes, the big dumb violent guys, can finally have an excuse to go camping and boss all the food, ammo and women. It is adorably stupid, one of the most fun ways you can kill about 110 minutes, and we now live in a world that proves every last thing it reveals about the American psyche so right and yet everything it argues about the world so, so wrong.

And for this (and, let’s be honest, Patrick Swayze being dreamy), I love it.

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Far better it is to dare mighty things than to take rank with those poor, timid spirits who know neither victory nor defeat. —Theodore Roosevelt

Robert: I say we vote on it.
Jed: No.

To its great credit, Red Dawn opens with glowering chyrons explaining just how impossible its premise is, laying out absurd geopolitical scenarios that all culminate in the United States being invaded just as Patrick Swayze drops off his two younger brothers (one of whom is Charlie Sheen) at school. The Soviet paratroopers make quick work of the only black person in the movie, and the brothers flee for the hills. As they do, the Soviets—in Colorado! That’s how far inland they made it!—use perfectly good bullets and missile launchers to wreck the kids’ school and blow up their civilian cars, which any military strategist will tell you is the first critical infrastructure you want to hit when invading a country.

Swayze and the boys retreat up into the mountains, where he establishes his dominance over the group by pounding C. Thomas Howell into the dirt. After some time hiding up in the mountains, they sneak back into town to find all their civilized friends and neighbors cowed before the Soviet occupation force. Swayze and his brothers have a tearful farewell with their father (Harry Dean Stanton) from the other side of the chain link fence that holds him inside a concentration camp: All he wants is for them to avenge him. It’s okay to tell them he loves them because he is about to die so they can be mad enough to kill some Reds.

Finally, a good half hour into the film, they stop by the humble homestead of two old folks who provision the boys with food, guns and the most precious resource of all: the young women they’ve been hiding in their basement. The girls are much safer running around in the mountains of Colorado in the autumn because they could get raped at basically any moment.

Slowly, the group uses guerilla tactics to ambush and kill Soviet patrols, making a name for themselves as the Wolverines (after the varsity mascot, naturally). They are somehow even better at guerilla tactics than the Latino Soviet officer who gets saddled with being the face of the exasperated enemy in the movie (Ron O’Neal). By the time they’re joined by a downed F-15 pilot (Powers Boothe), they’re already known and feared by the enemy.

The one thing too ridiculous for a movie about a landlocked state with almost no strategic value being the site of an actual land war is the idea that the Wolverines will actually win that war. They stage one final rout of the enemy to avenge their fallen friends and family, dying valiantly in the attempt, and we see the pretty monument erected in their honor.

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“I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country, like me … that what we all care about and what we love more than anything are those children. That we can’t lose our whole country, we’re having an economic collapse. So my message is let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living. Let’s be smart about it and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves. But don’t sacrifice the country, don’t do that, don’t ruin this great America.” —Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, on Fox News a couple weeks ago.

The “boogaloo” is the impending upcoming civil war, as weird paranoid right-wingers online have it, and it’s a deeply weird, seemingly fated detail that Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, where the word originated, and this movie that is the Platonic ideal of the modern use for the word both came out in 1984. The opportunity to be a man—a REAL man—only can come about when all is death and want, and you get to grit your teeth and give in to your base instincts. It is especially fun to watch how silly this idea is in Red Dawn precisely because it’s being play-acted by fresh-faced, big-eyed young people. Everybody from Milius on down to the least well-drawn member of the star-studded cast is playing the whole thing so straight-faced that you can’t even be mad at them.

Sure, democracy and freedom and all that are wonderful things, but they’re for soft times. The real heroes, the real patriots, are the ones who live on the hard ground and hoard ammo and would totally never take advantage of a girl half their age who’s sweet on them. The best thing they can do—the best thing you can do—is go die on the field of battle, like a true American. You’re much more useful to the state that way than alive, and therefore wanting, needing, thinking and questioning me when I am just trying to boss the food and ammo and women.

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Look out your window, and ask yourself: Who, now, is out there fighting? What does that fighting look like? It’s mostly being done by grocery store clerks, who every day risk contagion, all for the worst wages our societal will allow. Their battle is feeding people. The nurses, too, are in an epic struggle for the very lives of the sick, even as they daily risk their own, supplied with inadequate equipment and working grueling hours. Nobody is going to etch their names into a wall when they die. Thousands of others sit at home and sew masks, or operate local groups that try to help where they can. Young people who live alone try to check on their friends and maybe the elderly folk next door to them. We self-isolate out of concern for our fellow Americans and queue up a silly movie like Red Dawn and feel a pang of guilt, because is there anything else we could be doing, maybe, for someone other than ourselves?

Not a one of us would be helped by a bullet or landmine right now—when the military is helping, it is doing so by constructing field hospitals, building instead of destroying. The enemy is not some faceless evil army of other, browner men, but a virus that can be undone by nothing more complicated than hand soap and binge watching that show your ex-girlfriend said was interesting four years ago. The cavalry coming to carpet bomb the fuck out of the enemy and save us rides not in Thunderbolts or Eagles, but syringes.

Many years hence, we are going to get more snarling, stupid movies like Red Dawn, in love with their fatalism. It’s a testament to Red Dawn itself that those movies will probably not be nearly as fun to watch, and it’s a testament to humanity’s folly that the writers will probably not think to consult a nurse.


Kenneth Lowe is the honcho around here, sport. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog. You can also donate to the Arts For Illinois Relief Fund to support Illinois artists and arts organizations during the pandemic here.

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