Red Dawn (1984): The Settler Colonial Paranoia of John Milius

Early in the now iconic Reagan-era fantasy Red Dawn, director and screenwriter John Milius has some fun at the expense of three Russian soldiers. After the Russians, part of the communist army occupying the fictional American town of Calumet, Colorado, drive into the mountains to do some sight-seeing, they stop at the Arapaho National Forest Monument. One of them, who supposedly studied English, translates. He doesn’t speak English. What he says not only has little or nothing to do with the sign. It’s fiction, communist propaganda that imagines a battle that never was.

“Arapaho National Battlefield,” he says. “Here was a great peasant uprising in 1908 of wild Indians. They were crushed by President Theodore Roosevelt leading imperialist armies and cowboys. The battle lasted all Winter. More than 35,000 were killed. It was the greatest battle of the American West.”

Milius is a clever screenwriter, and Red Dawn displays an encyclopedic knowledge of world cinema, but I’m not quite sure if he knows how just much the joke is on him. The Russian does of course wildly inflate the kind of numbers any battle in the Nineteenth-Century Indian Wars would have involved. Neither the Battle of the Little Big Horn nor the Battle of Glorieta Pass had more than 3000 combatants on both sides. Chief Red Cloud, who defeated the United States in 1868, never had more than 2000 warriors under his command. But if the Russian is spinning a fantasy about the history of the American West, John Milius’s screenplay, where a group of school kids led by star quarterback Patrick Swayze become the most ferocious guerrilla army this side of the Viet Cong, is not only even more improbable than the “Battle of the Arapaho Forest.” It’s a case study in American settler colonial paranoia.

I realize that John Milius is writing fantasy, not attempting a realistic depiction of what a genuine communist takeover of the United States would look like. By dwelling on the scale of the Battle of Calumet, Colorado,  I risk being tendentious, but what I want to talk about is exactly why Milius gets the numbers so wrong. Milius is smart enough to know that Russia, which is a country of 150 million people, would have a difficult time occupying the United States, a country of 300 million people, so he very wisely decides that most of the invading army would be made up of Latin Americans, Mexicans, Cubans, and Nicaraguans. Milius’s screenplay not only reflects the paranoid Reaganite belief that a left-wing revolution in Nicaragua — a tiny, impoverished country of 6 million people — would be a threat to the United States. He outlines the only scenario by which the Russians could conceivably occupy a country with twice its population and many times its industrial base. They would have to back a united Latin Republic in the Western Hemisphere, and support a quite legitimate claim that Mexico has to Texas, California, and the Southwest. They would have to avenge the crime of Manifest Destiny.

“The first wave of the invasion came up through Mexico as illegals,” Lieutenant Colonel Andy Tanner, a crashed fighter pilot played by Powers Booth informs Patrick Swayze and the Wolverines, “then they infiltrated Sac bases all over the Southwest.”

Where Milius really gets the scale of World War III wrong, however, is not in the size of the invading army, but in the size of the resistance. From the moment Russian paratroopers land in the backyard of the Calumet High School and murder a black history teacher, they come in so hard and heavy, put on a display of shock and awe so out of proportion to what would be needed to occupy a town of 15,000 people – Calumet is “played by” Las Vegas, New Mexico – that they seem to be fighting an army of ghosts. While young Patrick Swayze is certainly believable as a red-blooded American guerrilla leader, his band of rebels, six young men and two young women, simply isn’t big enough to take on whole armored columns or liberate the makeshift concentration camp the communists have set up at the local drive in movie theater.

Milius has no conception of what a guerrilla war actually looks like. After young Jennifer Grey is hit repeatedly in the chest by heavy machine gun fire from a Russian attack helicopter – the kind of barrage that would have turned any ordinary mortal into shredded pork – and she survives long enough to have a touching death bed scene with Patrick Swayze, we can only conclude that Milius’s band of Colorado high school kids are nothing less than supermen (and women). There are a few touches of realism here and there. The Wolverines have the support of whatever part of the local population hasn’t been locked up in the drive in movie concentration camp, but Milius never even makes any pretense of dramatizing a genuine insurgency in the Rockies. That would have looked a lot more like the fictional Battle of the Arapaho Forest the Russian soldier invents at the Arapaho National Forest Monument than anything in Red Dawn.

So what is John Milius really trying to do?

The American West, as the three Russian soldiers correctly pointed out, is a landscape of genocide and extermination. By 1984, what was left of the real indigenous population of the United States was confined to Indian Reservations like Pine Ridge or Standing Rock. Milius doesn’t care about Native Americans. For him, they’re only a brief joke. What he does care about is painting the white, settler colonial population, not as colonizers and occupiers, but as the victims of Russian and Latin imperialism. One scene, for example, where an elite regiment of Russian soldiers arrives in Calumet, is an almost frame by frame imitation of the famous scene in Pontecorvo’s great film The Battle of Algiers where Colonel Mathieu and his paratroopers march into Algiers to crush the insurgency for good. Only here the white, North American settlers become the Algerians and the Russians and Cubans become the French. Red Dawn, in other words, is an elaborate exercise of settler colonial guilt and paranoia, a projection of the crimes that white Europeans committed against the indigenous North American population onto a fictional invasion by the Soviet Union. 

Probably the most fascinating character in Red Dawn is Colonel Ernesto Bella, a Cuban Revolutionary played by Ron O’Neal. If you’re a fan of blaxploitation films you’ll recognize him as the same actor who played Superfly. As Red Dawn goes on, he becomes more and more disillusioned with his role as the commander of an occupying army. “I’ve always been on the side of the insurgents,” he says to a far less sympathetic Russian officer, “and now I’m nothing but a policeman.” A real life Ernesto Bello in North America would more likely be advising the American Indian Movement, or fighting apartheid in South Africa, than he would herding white people into concentration camps. Patrick Swayze’s Jed Eckert, in turn, would probably be more like the cop who blew Sophia Wilansky’s arm half off with a grenade while she was protesting against Dakota Access Pipeline than a revolutionary. In the film’s climatic scene, however, Red Dawn flips reality on its head. Bello allows Ecket to escape and salutes him. “Vaya Con Dios,” he says. “Go with God.” The Third World has given its blessing to American imperialism, and absolved white America of the sin of Manifest Destiny. Milius, who knows he stands with the occupiers, has had his cake and eaten it too.

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4 comments

  1. Bawb Cawx · · Reply

    I just finished watching the film “War and Peace” – no time to read the book. The grand French failure in the snows of Moscow reminds me of home – minus 23 tonight, with wind chill minus 33 (Celsius, Centigrade). Who is going to invade Canada in frigid weather? I wonder if attack helicopters ice up in cold weather? Would you like to march from Plattsburg to Montreal? Never mind the camo, you need a lot of “cover” to keep your face from freezing. Some people getting off planes in Montreal are very brittle after a blast of minus 33 on the tarmac. Donald would want his hair “free”, but would end up invisible in a very realistic parka with a scarf over his face.

    1. Tolstoy also makes clear that it was more the scale of Russia than the weather. An army of 500,000 men (like Napoleon’s Grande Armée) needs to be fed. By the time Napoleon got to Moscow he had outrun his supply lines. So he had to turn back.

      1. And the same scale would defeat the invading army seen in both versions of Red Dawn, particularly the North Korean expeditionary force seen in the second version (Korea being a smaller country than the United States.)

        I would love to see a third version of this story called Red State Dawn, in which a poorer version of the Red States of the USA invades the Blue States to get the resources that they think exist in the Blue States, in particular the factories-I wonder how moviegoers would feel if they had to see a second Civil War on screen, only framed like Red Dawn?

        As to Red Dawn itself, I think that there would be a lot of collaborators with the invaders, particularly American communists who would see this as a chance to change the USA into what they’d always wanted it to be-that is, provided said invader would be able to withstand a whole population of people armed with guns, in large states that would take a while to cross.

        1. I would love to see a third version of this story called Red State Dawn, in which a poorer version of the Red States of the USA invades the Blue States to get the resources that they think exist in the Blue States.

          Might be interesting seeing some blue state “economically conservative socially liberal” types have to deal with a bunch of hillbillies taking over their “good schools” and making their kids read the Bible in biology class. It would even be more fun if the red state invaders used black collaborators against the “liberal” white upper middle class in the suburbs.

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