When the images of Ukraine from abandoned russian tanks tagged with the word “Wolverines” released in early April, moviegoers immediately understood: the Ukrainian fighters were consciously referring to the cult 1984 film Red Dawn.
Released during the height of the Cold War, it chronicles a fictional Soviet invasion of the United States, during which a group of teenagers – the Wolverines – mount a guerrilla war against the might of the Soviet army.
The tagged tanks were not the first instance of Red Dawn being summoned over Ukraine. At the start of the war, for example, some Western commentators compared the Ukrainian resistance to the Wolverines. And, more recently, dozens of Red Dawn-inspired memes have been circulating the internet.
A study showed that the film itself saw a 500% overvoltage in popularity on video-on-demand platforms around the world since the end of February. When a 1980s action movie starring Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Gray resonates so strongly with contemporary audiences, something is clearly going on.
A Cold War success
Produced by MGM during the height of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Red Dawn captured contemporary American anxiety about communist military might. MGM wanted to capitalize on American protests against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and ride a wave of patriotic sentiment generated by the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The studio enlisted one of the most conservative American directors of the time, John Milius. At the time of its release, the Guinness Book of Records listed Red Dawn as the most violent film ever made, with more than two violent acts per minute. But with a PG-13 rating, it proved a commercial success, grossing nearly US$40 million worldwide.
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Not everyone was enthusiastic, however, with liberal critics attacking the film’s explicit jingoism, violence, and anti-communist rhetoric. As Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote:
To all the whining lilies who assume that John Milius […] has already reached the pinnacle of cinematic machismo, a warning: Mr. Milius’ “Red Dawn” is more heartbreaking than anything he’s done before. Here’s Mr. Milius at his most alarming, delivering a rootin’-tootin’ scenario for World War III.
Elsewhere, media specialist Douglas Kelner argued that Red Dawn was an effort to reclaim for the political right the heroic figure of the revolutionary freedom fighter from leftist 1960s mythology. He saw the film as an attempt to legitimize US-backed anti-communist insurgencies. United in Afghanistan and Nicaragua.
against all odds
However, such readings of Red Dawn fail to capture the film’s ideological complexity. Despite Milius’ radical conservatism, it would be unfair to characterize him as simply in the grip of the US military.
Along with George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, Milius pioneered the “New Hollywood” period in American film history from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, characterized by an anti-establishment and formally innovative way of filmmaking. .
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During this time, Milius achieved international fame as screenwriter of Apocalypse Now (for which he also received an Oscar nomination) and as director of The Wind and the Lion (1975) and Conan the Barbarian (1982). ).
Unlike MGM, which wanted an unambiguously patriotic and anti-Communist film, Milius was more interested in the existentialist aspect of the story, especially the idea of fighting against the odds:
I took a lot from the French and Russian resistance stories – especially that they won’t make a big difference, but the fact that they fought and died makes a symbolic difference.
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Milius claimed that the depiction of extreme violence was necessary to convey the brutality of an imagined global conflict: “You see the enormous cost of everything. No one comes out whole or unscarred.
In fact, the film sometimes displays a subtle irony, blurring the ideological line between Americans and Communists. A sequence depicting Soviet special forces entering the hometown of the Wolverines, for example, is a clear reference to The Battle of Algiersquintessential anti-imperialist film in which French paratroopers are sent to fight anti-colonial militants.
The film’s anti-Communist credentials are further undermined by the Wolverines’ celebration of anti-imperialist values and the boldness of some of the invaders.
In addition, both sides commit brutal acts of violence, the difference between them increasingly indistinct. When the Wolverines prepare to execute a POW, a teenage guerrilla asks, “What’s the difference between us and them?” To which the chief’s only response is, “We live here.”
A lasting influence
Milius often claimed that Red Dawn’s perceived anti-communism earned him hostility from what he saw as a predominantly left-leaning Hollywood culture and ultimately contributed to the decline of his film career.
Over time, however, the film gained cult status and its title became synonymous with the threat of foreign invasion. The US mission to capture ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has been dubbed Operation Red Dawn. “I think all of us in the military have seen Red Dawn,” said Captain Geoffrey McMurray, who chose the name.
More recently, TV shows Stranger Things and South Park have paid homage to Milius’ film, and his influence extends to music and video games. Red Dawn’s vast following even motivated a 2012 remakeabout an implausible North Korean attempt to invade the United States, which failed to replicate the success of the original.
However, as its adoption by Ukrainian fighters shows, Milius’ World War III fantasy has retained a unique place in the collective imagination. Nearly 40 years later, Red Dawn’s austere portrayal of the brutality of contemporary warfare still resonates.