Red Dawn (1984): Reactionary Cold War Propaganda in the Guise of Actioner

Made at the height of the new Cold War era, when President Reagan was at his height, John Milius’s Red Dawn is a right wing picture, based on an alarming political ideology–if taken seriously (which it should not).

The film generated a lot of criticism at the time due to its depiction of high-schoolers engaged in red-blooded Americana and extensive violence, not to mention its nature as a cheap and exploitation piece of propaganda promoting fear and paranoia.

A macho gung-ho, but not very good or savvy, director, Milius has previously produced ”Uncommon Valor,” directed Schwarzenegger in ”Conan the Barbarian” and written Coppola’s ”Apocalypse Now.”

Set in a small, all-American town, sometime in the near future, Red Dawn is concerned with the next big US battle, WWIII against the Soviets, portrayed as one-sided villains.  A history teacher lectures (of all topics) about Ghenghis Khan, when he spots some parachutists landing. Who are they? It seems that the U.S. has lost its allies, and that the Soviet Union is desperate for supplies, especially food.

Also seen early on is a bumper sticker that states, ”They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold dead fingers,” below the dead body of an American citizen, whose weapon is then taken by an invading soldier.

In Calumet, Colorado, a wild bunch of students heads for the mountains, equipped with essential armaments, bows and arrows. They engage in all kinds of strange rituals, like drinking the blood of a deer, or urinating in their own truck.

Calumet’s Main Street is a horrible site to behold, as all decent people have been put in a detention camp (formerly a drive-in), while the movie-house is playing the Soviet epic, ”Alexander Nevsky.”

Naming themselves the Wolverines, after the town’s football team, the boys are soon joined by two girls, and together they begin a guerrilla war against the invaders–Cubans, Nicaraguans, and other enemies.

Most of the action centers on the fateful struggle on Calumet. Occasionally there are references to news from ”Free America,” the rest of the country. In Denver, we learn, the people live on “rats and sawdust bread and, sometimes, on each other.” When asked ”Who’s on our side?” a youngster says, ”Six hundred million screamin’ Chinamen.”

You cannot consider the premises and events of Kevin Reynolds’ original story as anything but ludicrous.  Milius must have been aware that the storyline is ridiculous and preposterous for he emphasizes the battle and action sequences.

Ron O’Neal plays a Cuban commander leading the Calumet occupation. Ben Johnson and Harry Dean Stanton appear briefly, and the latter is given such lines as, ”Avenge me! Avenge me Now!”

Looking back, the movie may be more significant in introducing or promoting the career of a group of young thespians, including Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, and Lea Thompson.

Patriotic (no, chauvinistic) to a fault, Red Dawn is a movie which relishes the awful spectacle of Calumet citizens being executed by a firing squad, and in which youngsters are prompted to sing ”America the Beautiful” just before they are shot!


Running time: 114 minutes.


Produced by Buzz Feitshans and Barry Beckerman

Released by MGM/UA .



Directed by John Milius

Screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius

Director of cinematography, Ric Waite

Edited by Thom Noble

Music by Basil Poledouris


Jed Patrick Swayze

Robert C. Thomas Howell

Erica Lea Thompson

Matt…Charlie Sheen

Daryl…Darren Dalton

Toni…Jennifer Grey