Red Dawn (1984), PG-13, and Hurtful Messages for Young Men (Review)
In the summer of 1984, America got its first taste of the PG-13 rating with Red Dawn. In the years prior, the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) had only four ratings for their films: G, PG, R, and X. For the MPAA, these four ratings seemed to be enough for categorizing films to their respective audiences, yet that wasn’t really the case. In 1984, two major blockbuster films released that caused a wave of controversy because of their ratings: Gremlins, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Both Temple of Doom and Gremlins were given a “PG” rating upon their release, and once they were brought upon audiences, a large, vocal outcry was heard about the dark, violent nature of these films, paired with a rating that many people had assumed was appropriate for children. I’d personally say a lot of that particular argument is bogus considering the fact that large adult-oriented films such as Poltergeist, Rocky, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the entire 007 catalog up until that point all had PG ratings, and barely a peep was uttered about said ratings. In my personal opinion, I feel a lot of the outrage was primarily through brand recognition and marketing, wherein the case of Indiana Jones, the series framed itself on being a more family-friendly adventure (as long as you look past that face-melting scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark), and Gremlins’ poster looking like the film would be an admittedly spooky, yet still cutesy adventure; neither of those ended up being true. With the large outcry for a more transparent rating for films that were too intense for small children, yet could still attract teenagers, Stephen Spielberg approached then head of the MPAA, Jack Valenti, about a new rating that could fit between PG and R; that rating went on to be PG-13.
We could talk about PG-13 for hours, and I’d honestly love to at some point considering the strange shifts in permissible content under that rating over the past thirty-six-years, but that’s a discussion for another day. What’s important was that this experiment for a new rating that was designated to attract the film industry’s most profitable audience (teenagers with free time and disposable income) was first tested with Red Dawn, to see if this experiment would deem profitable. Made with an estimated budget of seventeen-million and making back over thirty-eight-million over its theatrical run, Red Dawn, and in turn, PG-13, was deemed a major success. It’s unfortunate then, that the behind-the-scenes company politics about Red Dawn is the most interesting thing about it, because, for the film itself, Red Dawn is a weirdly problematic film when viewing it under the lenses of our current world.
I know that when it comes to looking at a beloved classics with a major critical eye, that many will turn their nose up to any notion concerning said classic being not only a bad film in terms of narrative, but also extremely problematic through its political statements, but I’d urge anyone who feels that way to hear me out. Red Dawn is one of the most blatant war and conservative propaganda films I’ve seen in a while, and any of its political statements receive zero nuance, as well as being doused in blatant misogyny and harmful messages for young men.
To get the more positive aspects of Red Dawn out of the way, it’s apparent when watching the film that there was an impressive amount of detail put into its production design; the sets are realistic, guns appear menacing, the costume work is fantastic, and so on. The production design paired with the fantastic visual effects work makes for some thrilling and tense scenes of suspense and action, which greatly appeals to its overall entertainment value, but I’d counter that by asking if a film such as this needs to be entertaining; I’ll be getting to that in a bit, however, as a truly technical showcase, the care and dedication put into crafting the setting of Red Dawn is great, although it would’ve been cool to maybe see it with some more interesting cinematography.
Anyway, I had questioned if a film such as Red Dawn should be entertaining, and I feel it’s a critical question to ask. War isn’t something to be celebrated; it’s dark, horrid, scarring, deadly, and any other negative adjective you could throw at it, but time and time again, we see war films revel within the glory of whatever nation produced the film, and often makes combat appear as something fun, when the opposite is true. Red Dawn fetishizes patriotism and war in ways I haven’t seen in some time, all under the guise of throwing children into guerilla combat as if it’s some super cool thing to do. I would maybe understand this perspective of having teenagers face the harsh realities of war if this was framed in a way similar to Come and See, which takes the basic formula of “innocent kid faces the horrors of war” and portrays it with much more nuance and shows that war isn’t some celebratory gathering of mowing down countless, nameless people, and the only mourning is when those close to you die (you can read my review of Come and See by clicking here). Essentially what I’m getting at is that you’re willfully ignorant as a filmmaker when you’re framing the harsh brutalities of war combat and actively choose to not depict the real psychological damage that comes with it; if you want a more light-hearted affair, that’s fine, you can do that without having biting social commentary to tag along, however, if you’re trying to be gritty and realistic, you can’t just do half the effort and call it a day.
“But Red Dawn isn’t trying to be realistic!” To that, I would almost agree; it’s admittedly ridiculous to have any sort of foreign power successfully invade the U.S. considering its needlessly expansive military budget, let alone invading a Podunk town in Colorado, and it’s equally ridiculous to have the main heroes for this narrative be a bunch of hotheaded twenty-year-old teenagers who can magically fire .50 caliber machine guns with the expertise of a trained military operative. I also found it hilarious that there’s a moment where Lea Thompson’s character just randomly stumbles upon a lone U.S. soldier camping out in the freezing cold, then proceeds to join this high school guerilla task force like it’s nothing. The issue is that Red Dawn wants you to take this story seriously, when all of the pieces putting it together are progressively more stupid the more the film treks on. It’s also a major issue when this silly, gung-ho plot is paired with questionable at best politics and some eyebrow-raising racial and gender stereotypes and messages.
For a start on this series of questionable to overtly problematic politics featured within Red Dawn: our only Black character that isn’t a villain is gunned down within the first few minutes after having a paragraph and a half of dialog, to then feature our only other Black person throughout the rest of the film as a bad guy; nice. I know that Red Dawn was made in the 80s, and with that, the politics have changed about representation in film, but it still feels gross to have every single person with skin darker than pink be some evil communist military force hunting down children. Something equally hilarious as it is borderline racist is that Cuba of all nations is the country invading the U.S. Really, Cuba!? I know that Cuba had the backing of the Soviet Union behind them for this invasion (Cuba did, in fact, have relations with the Soviets so that small accuracy checks out), yet I find it hilarious that it’s Cuba, of all tiny nations in the world, is the one leading this effort against the United States. We do see some White, Russian soldiers at certain points in the movie, which I guess is some sort of underhanded excuse to have this entire story framing be as stupid as it is, but I digress.
Besides a lack of any positive diversity within the protagonists of Red Dawn, it’s shocking to see the rather harmful political statements and behaviors of the characters throughout the story. The largest and most problematic issue for me is Patrick Swayze’s character: Jed, and his treatment of the other teens he’s leading. Jed’s neglect for the mental health of his companions is harmful at best, with him trying to brush off extremely emotional moments for these boys and the loss of their fathers by telling them to “get over it,” or to channel that deep-seated sorrow into anger to fuel their violent rage. I’ve critiqued this form of masculinity before when talking about Star Wars as a franchise and the series’ poor treatment of its male characters by trying to become more stoic and not harness the emotions that make them human (or sentient space beings or whatever), and Red Dawn echoes these issues tenfold. Red Dawn’s male characters are violent, sadistic, mean, and sometimes misogynistic towards their female counterparts (ironically, it’s Charlie Sheen’s character that’s the more overtly misogynistic of the bunch). Red Dawn gets very, very close to addressing some of these issues I had with its narrative, but it ends up falling flat: at one point in the story, the first of our protagonists who faced tragedy has turned sadistic in nature; he’s the most violent of the bunch, is often the most angry, and he relishes in the bloodshed he’s causing. After witnessing so much of this character’s violence, our rather silly “I just showed up out of nowhere to be a proxy father figure character for thirty-minutes until I predictably die in a blazing glory” character approaches this young man and has one single sentence commentating about the romanticism of violence; one sentence, and it’s dropped like nothing happened.
I’m often saddened by watching male characters being treated this way because I feel that trying to build more compassionate male characters in narratives is an extremely important point to tackle. We need to tell men that it’s okay to be sensitive, to cry, to love, and have vulnerabilities; Red Dawn is in a sea of other male-lead media that tells men to just “be a man,” to “bottle up your emotions, or use those emotions for inspiration to exact revenge,” and so forth. I’m not even grasping at straws when making this assumption, either, with an entire scene dedicated to having three of our leading men get a speech by one of their fathers locked up in a camp. In this scene, this character proceeds to admit that he may or may not have been abusive to these boys in their younger adolescence, attempts to justify it, and tells these vulnerable, traumatized young men to stop crying saying: “I don’t want you crying to me no more,” and “never do it [crying] as long as you live.”
Sadly, these problematic elements to the story shouldn’t be surprising considering co-writer/director John Milius’ political standpoints. Milius prides himself on being a “right-wing extremist” (his words, not mine), as well as a former chair member of the NRA, so I’ll leave it at that for you to make your own assumptions. Also, as I was researching Red Dawn and John Milius, I found it rather hilarious (and not at all surprising) that Milius also co-wrote the script to a 2011 video game: Homefront, which is essentially just Red Dawn, but with North Korea and nuclear weapons, instead of Soviet Cuba and teenagers (it’s also a terrible game); a rather hilarious detail for those of us who play games as well as watch films.
With our leading men forced to channel their emotions into rage, and to treat their partners of the opposite sex like they’re below them, I honestly couldn’t recommend Red Dawn with all the advancements in representation and the attempt to push more positive messages in today’s media. Although there’s a bit to admire from a technical aspect, and the business side of it with the MPAA is really cool, Red Dawn is hurtful sludge used to perpetuate harmful worldviews when just looking at the film and not just its business aspects. I understand that this piece has gone on for some time, now, but if you’re interested in further critique of Red Dawn and understanding its controversial, right-wing propaganda aspects, I’d urge you to watch a fantastic video by leftist media critic, Renegade Cut, in which he goes a bit more in-depth about the politics of Red Dawn (underlined).