Thursday, October 09, 2008
Red Dawn (1984)
No one sent the Siren a PR notice, but we're having a Red Dawn moment. David Plotz of Slate has written a DVD review of John Milius's 1984 evergreen actioner that has Jonah Goldberg of the Corner and Dirty Harry really, really, really irritated. (The Siren recently had a very courteous exchange with Dirty Harry and she hopes he will understand that she's just trying to put Red Dawn in its cinematic place, not get him back to hating her all over again.)
The Siren once named this movie as a Howling Dog for the Ages, and by any aesthetic standard that's what it is, but no movie that retains such a hold on people after the span of almost a quarter-century should be completely dismissed. The Siren would love to defend Mr. Plotz's article out of her general tendency to resist mouse-wielding mobs of commenters, but he has, in fact, missed the point of Red Dawn. He does seem to realize it's no more about resisting Communism than it is about John Galliano's 2009 resort collection. Riddle me this. Why, before mid-movie, are we informed that Americans are fighting alongside China, and pointedly told that China's population is now reduced almost by half? This was 1984, Deng was in power, Wei Jingsheng was in prison and the laogai, to quote Scrooge, were still in their useful course (as indeed they still are). We're allied with those guys, to fight Communism? I don't think so.
But Plotz's Iraq comparison, which is what has people firing up the keyboards, doesn't withstand scrutiny, either. The Wolverines don't have to confront any part of a guerilla campaign's moral questions, even to ignore them as the Iraqi insurgents do. For one thing, the fact that partisan attacks on a ruthless enemy invite civilian reprisals is dispensed with after a couple of incidents. The Soviet commander is happy to turn Denver into a charnel house but eventually, we are asked to believe, sees retaliation against noncombatants as counterproductive. The Russians conveniently ship most everyone off to camps, so our heros need never deal with the reality of attacking soldiers in the middle of a still-fully-populated town. If Gillo Pontecorvo ever saw Red Dawn it probably sent him to bed with a sick headache.
So this film isn't a bold piece of anti-Communist agitprop, nor is it some sort of weirdly prescient view of an occupying force. Red Dawn--and this is the key to its appeal--is a me-too World War II wish-fulfillment fantasy, with Russia doing double duty for the megalomania of the Nazis and the treachery of the Japanese. You missed out on the Greatest Generation? Not any more, kids! Here's our old friend, the soldiers-lost-behind-enemy-lines movie, given a teenage twist (brilliantly smart marketing, the Siren admits) and gussied up with a bunch of Resistance-movie tropes for good measure.
Skeptical? Pull up a chair. (What follows is a mess of spoilers, if you still plan to see Red Dawn and believe that plot twists are bound to be part of its virtues.)
First there's the sneak attack, a la Pearl Harbor, and incidentally the movie's one really inspired visual sequence, as paratroopers descend on a high school campus. The sight of the soldiers dropping to the lawn is authentically chilling. But then we get into full WWII-nostalgia swing. There's the brave schoolteacher and the civilian executions, as well as the treacherous mayor (This Land Is Mine, with a dash of The Moon Is Down). Ordinary people retreat to the hills to resist (Dragon Seed). Kindly shopkeeper helps out with supplies (One of Our Aircraft Is Missing). Everybody sings in the face of the enemy (Casablanca). The Russians shoot people in the back (Gung-Ho). The Wolverines go through small towns laid waste by the enemy (Objective, Burma! and about a thousand others). They pile up huge enemy body counts using nothing but guns, hubris and spit (The Dirty Dozen). The Americans admit that they're just a bunch of scared kids, and discuss that several times more. ("I'm no hero, I'm just a guy," says William Bendix in Guadalcanal Diary.) The Americans fight to the last man (Wake Island and Bataan). Powers Boothe dies saying to the Americans, "Come on buddies! come and get 'em!" (Robert Taylor dies in Bataan yelling to the Japanese, "Come and get it, suckers!") And then there's Jennifer Grey's death, as she rigs herself as a grenade booby-trap, a remarkably direct crib of Veronica Lake's demise in So Proudly We Hail.
There's also a real-life reference in the phrase on the radio, "John has a long mustache," a code used by the French Resistance that also popped up in The Longest Day. Its placement here is, I suppose, intended to be lacerating irony since we're told the spineless Europeans are sitting this one out. But it doesn't matter, since this is a world where the references are not to real-life countries or issues, but to other movies, down to the Russian officer's name (Strelnikov, as in Doctor Zhivago).
None of this necessarily makes Red Dawn a bad movie. No, that's the job of the stilted dialogue, the banal direction and the atrocious acting, as the young performers emote all over the place like they're doing sense memory at Interlochen summer camp. Indicating? My god, it's like watching a bunch of cars with their turn signals stuck. But what really makes Red Dawn a bad movie is the way all those old plot points are just applied willy-nilly to a different villain, with messy details like nuclear weapons waved away ("Whole damn thing's pretty conventional now," drawls Boothe). Pulse the old bread crumbs, shake and bake with a new chicken, like 1940s Hollywood sticking the Nazis into a Sherlock Holmes movie or a Western.
Now excuse me, I have a Kay Francis post to finish.