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Looking Back at the Cold War Fever Dream of Red Dawn

Red Dawn

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Legend has it that Walter Sobchak, John Goodman’s iconic character from The Big Lebowski, was based on John Milius, director of ’80s classics such as Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. He was very fond of his guns, and was known to show off his pistols to studio executives during meetings. Milius never served in Vietnam, and didn’t watch anybody die face-down in the mud, but boy he wishes he did.

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I feel like knowing this is integral to truly appreciating Red Dawn.

Almost 30 years after its release, MGM decided to remake Red Dawn in 2012, an odd choice considering that Red Dawn is about as “of its own time” as it gets. The Cold War’s over. Who’s invading us now? China? (Answer: kind of. Sort of. Not really.) The original Red Dawn was a gritty, dour, proselytizing polemic piggybacking on the anxieties of an increasingly conservative culture during the twilight of the Cold War. Its remake was a typical, mid-budget actioneer piggybacking on the anxieties of nostalgia and brand name recognition.

There is no reason to remake Red Dawn other than a general sense of a recognizable property, as unless we’re replacing the Soviets and Cubans with, say, aliens, the tale of a group of salt of the earth teenage guerrilla fighters fending off a land invasion of the United States doesn’t make too much sense. But who cares? I’m going to compare them anyway. Let’s take a look at what happens when one tries to remake a Cold War fever dream for the modern age.

(c)MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

(c)MGM/courtesy Everett Collection

Even with the original, one must suspend a metric fuckload of disbelief to accept that, even if the entire population of the rest of the world allied against the United States, a successful land invasion would be possible. This whole conceit would be hilarious if there weren’t so many people who considered this situation in any way viable. The Sobchaks of the world, if you will.

Patrick Swayze (who was thirty-two-years-old in 1984) plays young Jed, who with his brother Matt (Charlie Sheen) and some of their classmates manage to escape into the wilderness when their small town in Colorado is suddenly invaded by paratroopers. The invading force appears to be Cubans and Central Americans backed by the Soviet Union, but it might as well be the United States government who’s invading to round you up into FEMA camps and take your guns.

Fortunately, Jed and his brother were raised by a father who taught his boys the joys of hunting and the importance of responsible gun ownership, as well as to suppress un-manly things like human emotion. When they see their father for the last time, rounded up in a “reeducation camp,” he tells his sons never to cry again, as long as they live. In fairness, Swayze makes some rather unpleasant noises when he cries in this movie.

The bad guys in the original Red Dawn are portrayed in a much more unsympathetic light than in the remake, forcing citizens to dig their own graves before being lined up for mass execution as the Soviet anthem blares. Jed and Matt witness their father killed in one of these mass executions. Before the triggers are pulled, the condemned start defiantly singing an off-key “America The Beautiful” in an attempt to drown out the Soviet anthem. It would be the stuff of beautiful pastiche if it weren’t shot with such gruesome sincerity. Milius is not going for camp here. Oh no, son. This director has a vision.

An awful lot of movie goes down before these kids decide to militarize, unlike in the remake where they decide to fight back almost immediately. How these kids, brought up on hunting and fishing, learned how to use all this military equipment better than the Russians and the Cubans I’m not sure, but then again this is a Cold War revenge fantasy.

But if you thought the combined might of the Soviet Union and Central America was a stretch, get ready for North Korea. Let’s look at the remake.

©Open Road Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

©Open Road Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

“North Korea?” says a Wolverine early on. “It doesn’t make any sense.” Indeed it doesn’t, as the film was originally shot with China in mind. Because anxiety, sure, but mostly because it’s the more, uh, feasible scenario?

(In a hilarious twist, China appears to be on our side in the original. And yet the combined might of China and the United States still have a hard time fending off the Soviets? Still?)

I must assume the studio had eyes on a younger audience, casting Josh Hutcherson and Chris Hemsworth, who starred in The Hunger Games and Thor, respectively. Once again the invaders land in suburbia instead of, you know, military targets. But then again it would be pretty hard to make a story about a citizen militia if that were the case. Where in the original they invaded America because they wanted our crops, here they appear to be invading because fuck you. However, the remake isn’t straining so hard to reach some form of ideological purity, mostly because it seems wholly uninterested in ideology– look at how easy it was to change the bad guy from China to North Korea. The lack of conviction almost makes you miss Milius.

Hemsworth’s character is a Marine, so it makes sense that he’d actually be trained in how to be useful, unlike Jed Prime and Matt Prime, who only know how to hunt and build campfires. “When I was overseas, we were the good guys. We enforced order,” Hemsworth tells his guerilla troops, deluding himself. “Well, now we’re the bad guys. We create chaos.” Huh?

It’s a bit of a stretch to discuss theme in the Red Dawn remake, because that implies they were going for one, but we’re going to try to do it anyway. There are some scenes where speakers propagandize against the American greed and corporate irresponsibility that lead to the bad economy. So, like all Obama-era everything, this invasion is somehow about the economy.

This is probably at least partially a result of the PG-13 rating, but the remake also pulls far more punches. None of the Wolverines murder any prisoners of war, or one of their own. In the original, the Wolverines execute one POW and one friend-turned-traitor. The POW reminds Jed that the Geneva Conventions exist. “I ain’t never heard of it!” Jed shouts, shooting his prisoner.

There is no Benedict Arnold character in the remake like in the original Red Dawn — one of them does have a tracker, but hey, he doesn’t know about it (and therefore nobody has to execute him). It keeps everyone’s hands clean, and carries zero emotional punch, despite it leading to Hemsworth’s inglorious headshot. It’s an odd inclusion, frankly, since it comes about four minutes before the movie ends and doesn’t build to anything other than, hey, it was in the original (sort of).

The remake did keep the scene where Thor makes Peeta drink deer blood, although in this version, it’s not out of some reverence to some made-up Native American mysticism, but because they’re fucking with him.

There is a certain charm to the original Red Dawn, the gritty “war is hell” realism baked into cake made from the finest ingredients of batshit insanity. Say what you want about the Swayze/Sheen Red Dawn, at least it had an audience, and boy if it didn’t speak to it. Aside from the aging fans of the original, itself a teensy niche market, few theatergoers in the younger demographic are interested in war dramas. Why remake Red Dawn when you have no Red Dawn-worthy adversary to rail against? When you can’t even commit to an adversary in the first place?

I’m not sure who the audience was for the remake, other than the evergreen audience of brand name recognition and retaining film licenses. What do you think, Walter?

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Click here to see all upcoming showings of Red Dawn on IFC.

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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…