This Memorial Day Weekend I sat down to watch the old and new versions of Red Dawn by accident. The original movie happened to be on TV and after watching my patriotism simply crescendoed into looking up the new one on YouTube where I found several full length versions. This was my first red flag. Disregarding the possibility that the movie was so bad and such a flop that the studio didn’t even bother policing its copyrights, I pressed on to see how this new film handled contemporary politics, much like the first one had. What I found was that things appear to have gotten worse.
The 1984 version told the story of a group of Colorado teenagers suddenly caught behind enemy lines in WWIII and fighting to reclaim their home. The plot plays off Cold War fears at the time – that the Soviet Union and the US could easily have gone to war, or in Red Dawn, the Soviets would invade with the aid of Nicaragua, Cuba, and Mexico. The movie is often hailed and admonished as an ideologically conservative film. The National Review Online named Red Dawn as one of the best conservative movies while numerous reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes slam it for over-the-top communist fearmongering.
There are plenty of conservative themes in the film apart from the Communist hate. There’s self-reliance, all-American lifestyles, the highest kill count for any movie at that time, and I think someone ate apple pie at one point. There’s also this scene
which for many on the right could easily be re-titled “Obama gives an order.” The town’s most patriotic citizens are rounded up for re-education or extermination as a reprisal for attacks by the Wolverines.
However, beneath the film’s conservative appeal is a much more nuanced political message. The Wolverines are favorably compared to the Mujahidden, the insurgents fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, and when the cliché war question of “What’s the difference between us and them?” is asked, the answer is “We live here.” There’s no focus on moral or cultural superiority but on the notion of fighting for your home which is perhaps closer to anti-imperialist sentiment than to any modern conservative ideology. In other words, the Wolverines weren’t fighting as patriots but as local insurgents defending their town from an invading army. When given the choice to cross over into “Free America” the protagonists decline the offer, unwilling to leave their home.
This theme continues right up to the end of the film where the Cuban (maybe he was Nicaraguan) commander tenders his resignation before the final assault. He had already shown dissatisfaction that the revolutionary ideals he fought for in his youth have become nothing more than a police state and throughout the film he sympathizes more and more with the Wolverines. He sees them fighting the same cause that he did and lets the wounded brothers escape the base to symbolize his own transformation.
Now let’s flash forward to last year, when the new Red Dawn came out. The threat of Soviet Imperialism is over and long gone; Russia may try to flex its muscles in its spheres of influence like Ukraine and the Caucasus but it’s largely become just another second-tier player in the global economy. Instead, the only countries actively engaged in Imperialist policies are the United States and China who are attempting to enforce market access and create new spheres of influence respectively. Using the insurgent and anti-Imperialist themes in the first film would naturally come into conflict with the current US role in the world. You can’t have characters talking about fighting to defend their home from occupation when the US is occupying and policing two countries. It might have worked if the enemy in the new film was China, but I think it speaks volumes that the invading nation was changed to North Korea to not affect sales in China.
Instead the new film gives us a hobbled plot about North Korea being part of an alliance with every country considered an adversary of the US.
The film hints that these are the nations that launch the attack on the US. The flags are pretty clearly North Korea, Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and some other country with a sort of mauvish red flag that I can’t identify. It’s possible this is supposed to be China and that they just didn’t want to make it too obvious. This plot makes the scenario in the original look like a bastion of historical accuracy but this isn’t a review so I’ll just ignore the absolutely ludicrous scenario other than to say that it appears to play off the similar “America’s enemies” fearmongering.
The new film also has several noticeable differences that help distinguish it ideologically from the first one. The main protagonist and leader of the Wolverines is a US Marine rather than just some country boy. This distinction already changes the theme from survivalist self reliance to military-trained resistance as we are treated to a montage of the marine leading the group and training them with weapons and combat.
The primary motive also seems to be revenge for their father’s death rather than avengence in the first film however subtle the difference may be. It’s best summed up by the fact that in the 2012 version, one person, the Korean commander, is responsible for the death of the father while the original version has the father shot in a mass execution of political prisoners.
A story of personal revenge
A story of avengence
In fact, the person who gives the order to fire is the same Cuban commander who later sympathizes with the kids and never becomes a primary target himself. This distinction most closely parallels the shift from Cold War state conflict to the War on Terror where we have built up personal enemies like Osama Bin Laden.
The most striking difference, which might also account for the difference in lengths of the films (the first was about half an hour longer) is that the new one has nearly no scenes from the enemy’s perspective – the entire narrative focuses on the American kids. In the 1984 version we are not only introduced to a variety of the invading characters like the Cuban commander, the Russian commander, the Russian specialist, and a captured Russian soldier, but we also see them actively planning, discussing their mission, discussing their mistakes, and rationalizing their role. In the new one we know the Korean commander but he is given no personality and barely speaks a word. Soviet troops were shown going sightseeing, hitting on local girls, and displaying other signs of humanity thoroughly lacking in the new one. The first one can show this as it justifies actions as defense from invaders while the new one is simply “us vs. them.”
Lastly, the ending of both films are remarkably different. The new version’s climax comes as the group infiltrates the police station to retrieve some North Korean technology that could win the war. They succeed at the cost of the life of the leader and one other US marine that has joined them (of course not after the protagonist gets his horribly-cliched revenge). His younger brother then goes on to inspire more rebels and leads them in freeing a prison where people rush forward with an American flag. The ending of the original culminates with a similar assault on the occupiers’ HQ, yet more as a suicide mission than a hope to turn the war. The two brothers send off the only two remaining members of their group and then load up on all sorts of weapons before causing all sorts of chaos. They are both injured, escape, and sit down to die on a school park bench. We are then treated to an epilogue where we are told that a plaque has been set up to commemorate the struggle of the Wolverines. It’s hinted that their efforts have been mostly forgotten having only occurred in the early days of the war, but that eventually the US was triumphant.
So in one version most of the group survives after capturing some vital hardware and is shown leading a revolution after and in the other almost everyone dies and are barely remembered in the vastness of the world war. Both play off patriotism yet in dramatically different ways – one focuses on a contemplative question of self sacrifice in troubled times and the other invokes a visceral reaction of “America, fuck yeah!” and sets up a sequel.
A pep rally
It is somewhat reminiscent of how the Greeks and Romans viewed their gods of war, Ares and Mars respectively. The Greeks saw Ares as a raging asshole bringing destruction and death while the Romans, used to winning, saw Mars as glorious and a source of pride. The lack of hardships in the recent film and the ending appear to once again glorify the fight and the scenario of rebellion while the Cold War version focused on sacrifice in the bleak landscape of mass destruction. In the new one Subway appears to be doing better business than normal and smart phones are still plentiful.
What do these key thematic and ideological differences say about conservatism in each film? It says that it’s gotten more one-dimensional and jingoistic. The new film is not about hardships and overcoming the odds but about kicking ass and taking names. Even though the film tells us that the odds are against them it never really feels like it. Of the four Wolverines that get killed in the recent film, none are killed in combat. Of the seven killed in the original, six die in combat and one is killed by the others. The enemy in the new film is dehumanized, treated as incompetent, and far inferior to US Marines or anybody that’s been trained by one. In fact, judging by the positive reviews of the film, it seems particularly geared towards combat enthusiasts who comment on how much more realistic the tactics are.
Another interesting choice was to give the new movie an urban setting as opposed to the original rural one. Choosing Spokane as the location probably points to the modern warfare Americans are now facing. As the older brother explains it as a battle between order and chaos when an occupying power tries to enforce a police state. This also seemed designed to appeal to gamers and people who play first person shooters – the film even alludes to Call of Duty.
Regardless, Spokane may have also been chosen for its location on the periphery of middle America. Seattle is considered a liberal bastion, as is the West Coast and the East Coast. With Spokane as the frontier of “Real America” they are fighting for freedom after the more cosmopolitan areas have fallen. Contrast that with the original where Free America was the coasts, everywhere west of the Rockies and east of the Mississippi. The heartland was targeted for its food resources and it was up to the coasts to win it back.
But these differences also bring up an important question: was the film supposed to appeal to fans of the original or was it meant to introduce the new generation to this type of patriotism? In other words, is its new brand of unreflective jingoistic conservatism a distillation of the conservative enthusiasm for the first film, or remade for the conservatism of today. If the former, it might serve to explain why all the more liberal aspects of the first film were wiped and why they just chose to militarize and propagandize the new one with an “extreme” makeover. If the latter, then I think Hollywood deserves most of the blame for simply following a recent trend to make everything formulaic and watered down. Either way, the fact that the film was a box office flop might in itself say that in this day a Red Dawn scenario just doesn’t have as much appeal.
Certainly the new one speaks of a new age, a new global landscape with new threats, and a new conservative landscape where hardline anti-Soviet sentiment has struggled to focus on a new enemy. The brand of conservatism that thrives off militarism and looking for new threats has found a home in the new Red Dawn. Stripped of the contemplative politics of the Cold War the narrative becomes one of individualistic revenge rather than community resistance. It takes the motto “Don’t Mess With Texas” to apply it nationally. Even while government incompetence left America’s borders lightly defended, resilient freedom fighters will make up for it. In summary, I suppose that if you can show the original Red Dawn on Memorial Day Weekend, you can only show the remake on July 4th.