Monthly Archives: December 2016

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 just how 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.

Why I Talk to Trees

I was always told to refrain from eyeing an eagle. There is something unwavering yet so unclear about this memory that it becomes hard to fathom whether it was the given dictum or the one manufactured by self in someone else’s disguise. Flying eagles and the collection of similar memories have always engendered a distance, or some form of an emotional halt, in the continuing processes of my conscience. As I began to read some of Susan Sontag’s works on visuality and memory, I realized some theorisation on memory can be a plausible scope to pierce through some of these peculiarly constructed memories. However, instead of making it a theoretical importation of Sontag’s elemental study, I have endeavored to strip my experiences bare naked for you to find a parallel, or probably, a template or catena to some long awaited answers.

We remember our memories, perhaps, are represented to ourselves in shades and charades that are beyond the spacio-socio-temporal existence of our being. I have usually remembered scenes from my village, which is a humbled hamlet from a poorly developed State of Bihar, as stories intertwined with conundrums of an urban nuclear family. I remember running as a half naked child but it’s hard to picture any matter around enabling that run. Not even the ground upon which that run must have been occasioned. As I run aimlessly and in unknown directions, I can feel the joy that is reflected by the smile on my face that immodestly conceals one of my mischiefs.

Memories are usually broken pieces of a large boulder, scattered maybe, by waves of time. The reweaving of the tapestry is usually a task we never indulge ourselves into. So, when memories come to me as scattered scenes from what seems to be a larger and much more complex production, I get lost in the meanings each piece carries within itself. Instead of holding on to the fundamentals and piercing through this mystery, I get submerged into the layers of unseen charm of these scattered pieces of memory that behold a queer attraction in their own right. I think I remember one hidden staircase I always used to take while coming back from the general store but I just can’t remember what preceded or followed that choice.

It has never been easy for me to tell other people that I used to talk to trees. The reason that I see behind keeping to myself what might otherwise look like a frivolous juvenile fancy is probably the reality I attach to it. It was not one of those weird childhood habits that I was molded into by lack of material knowledge. My conversations with trees have been a matter of great revelation for me and probably that’s why I had never trivialized my talks and the memories that they bring in the overtly  denaturing adult conversations. As I’ll talk more about these conversations and other shades of memory in my subsequent posts on the similar theme, it’s important for me to explain that memories are not mere floating relics of the past. They evidence the ongoing process of one’s experimentation with truth.

Picture Credits: It’s a self portrait

The Devil’s Chessboard (2015)

Now that so many liberal Democrats have suddenly begun to see the CIA as their saviors against Vladimir Putin, we should probably remind ourselves what the CIA is really all about.

Writers Without Money

As we’ve seen in books like James W. Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable and Russ K. Baker’s Family of Secrets, there is a fairly good circumstantial case to be made that John F. Kennedy was killed, not by the “lone nut” Lee Harvey Oswald, but by the “deep state,” the unelected class of Wall Street bankers, lawyers, Pentagon warlords, chief executives, and intelligence officers who manipulate American politics from behind the scenes. There will probably never be a “smoking gun.” The people who operate the deep state are far too clever to leave their fingerprints at the scene of such an enormous crime, and it’s unlikely that the corporate media, which at its highest levels is also part of the deep state, will ever seriously examine the evidence that was gathered by the House Select Committee on Assassinations back in the 1970s. So the debate has passed on…

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