Red Dawn (1984)
Directed by John Milius Production Company MGM Studios
Starring Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson, Powers Boothe
Summary: Eight teenagers must deal with the onset of World War III.
This was another movie that I don’t remember seeing a “first time,” but rather was always on the TV at some point when I was growing up. (Ah, the 80s, when me and my brother could watch, at the tender ages of 8 and 10, teenagers getting shredded by machine guns and my parents didn’t bat an eyelash.) What Gen X’er, whether it be during a paintball war or a pillow fight, has not launched themselves into the fray with a guttural cry of “Wolverines!!!” Oh, and let’s just not talk about that 2012 remake.
Ok, ok, ok. I fully acknowledge this is a very cheesy movie. It screams 80s, it’s full of pretty people we’d see later in movies like Dirty Dancing and Back to the Future. The main thing most people seem to take away from it is “‘MURICA!” But I can’t help it, I still love it. I love the idea of the teens fighting against all odds and triumphing over a massive military campaign. It’s very David and Goliath. And I feel like it’s a must watch if you are interested in emergency preparedness at all (which you should be!) My brother and I have had many in depth “what if” conversations after watching this movie.
Oh, also, back in the day when I was a junior high youth leader, I’ll never forget one of my teens telling me how his dad MADE him watch it, “just in case, so he would know what to do”. I’m still trying to figure out if his dad was messing with him or not.
So grab a mug of whatever keeps you warm and keep reading to find out what God showed me in Red Dawn!
Spoilers For The Red Dawn Here!
It’s an ordinary September day in Calumet, Colorado. High schoolers Matt, Aardvark, Daryl, Robert, and Danny are in a history class when paratroopers start to drift down from the sky. The troops begin slaughtering teachers and students alike as Matt’s brother Jed rescues them from the attack, speeding them away in his truck. The group makes a supply run at Robert’s father’s store, and then retreat to the mountains to try and ride out the attack in safety.
A month later, the boys sneak back into Calumet for news, and find that they are in the middle of World War III. Calumet is now an occupied city under the control of Communist Cuban and Russian troops. Jed and Matt find their father Tom a prisoner in a re-education camp. Knowing this is the last time they will see each other, he encourages the boys to continue to stay alive, no matter what it takes, and to someday avenge his death. The boys visit family friends the Masons at their farm, where the patriarch, Jack, sends the boys off with supplies and his two granddaughters, Toni and Erica. Jack makes Jed promise to keep them safe.
The quiet solitude of the group’s wilderness camp is shattered when they must defend themselves from Russians exploring the woods. In retaliation for the dead soldiers, Cuban Col Bella orders several townspeople, including Jed, Matt, and Aardvark’s fathers, executed. The group, broken in their grief, decide to fight back, forming themselves into a loose guerilla fighting squad, the Wolverines (the name of their high school mascot).
The Wolverines pull mostly sneak attacks, such as bomb drops, supply chain raids, and citizen rescues. Erica finds a downed American fighter pilot, Col Andrew Tanner, and brings him to the camp, where he is able to share more information on the scope of the war so far. He helps the Wolverines complete more tactical missions, until he himself is accidentally killed by friendly fire while trying to escape to the Free Zone. Aardvark is also killed in the crossfire.
After the loss of their comrades, the Wolverines start to lose heart, especially when it is revealed that Daryl has betrayed them by going into town to see his father and swallowing a tracking bug that leads the enemy right to the Wolverine camp. Robert executes Daryl when Jed cannot bring himself to do so. The surviving Wolverines leave their camp in the mountains and are attacked by a helicopter gunship when foraging for food. Toni and Robert are killed. Jed encourages Danny and Erica to head for the Free Zone while he and Matt launch a final attack on the forces in Calumet to ensure their escape. Both Jed and Matt are mortally wounded in the fight. Col Bella sees Jed carrying Matt away, but sends them forth to meet their fates with a quiet, “Vaya con Dios”. Weary of war, he throws his weapon away and prepares to post his resignation and return to his family.
Erica and Danny reach the Free Zone safely, and the movie ends with Erica’s voiceover, remembering her fallen comrades.
Coming up on the Men at the Movies podcast, we talk about the 1985 movie Red Dawn. At some point in our lives, we’ve experienced enemy soldiers parachuting in and ripping our lives apart. How we respond is critical to how we move forward. But if we prepare now for the unexpected to occur, you don’t have to be afraid. Wolverines, join us as we discover God’s truth in this movie.
So What Did God Show Me?
-The beginning of the movie reminded me SO much of 9/11. It starts off as such a normal day, kids going to school, parents to work…then the whole day explodes when America is attacked out of nowhere. Nobody knows who the attackers are or what’s going on. So much confusion, so much violence, so much terror. But another thing we see in this movie that also happened on 9/11 was people reaching out to help each other stay alive. Jed returns to the school to save his brother, taking anyone he can fit in his truck to safety. Robert’s father tells the boys to take everything they can carry from his store. Sometimes God can use chaos and confusion in the world around us to draw us together and show us how we can help others.
-As someone who practices preparedness, I liked how the movie showed the boys focusing on survival, and how it portrayed Matt and especially Jed as young men who had been brought up with a preparedness mindset. They were at home in the woods and mountains and knew what to do to stay alive, and they were able to teach the others about finding food, building shelter, and working as a team. Learning how to survive on their own without the comforts they were used to and took for granted must have been incredibly hard for the boys, and I’m glad they had people who were experienced and able to shepherd them in that area. Although, even with a preparedness background, I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for the group, to have their whole world crumble around them, and then have to spend over a month alone in the woods, with no word, no idea what’s happening down in town. No idea where their parents and families are or if they’re even alive. I mean…dang. It also reminded me of David hiding in caves from Saul, first just to survive, then working together with his mighty men to form a fighting force to strike back at their enemy from their hiding places.
-During the scene where Jed, Matt, and Robert find Tom at the re-education camp, Matty laments to his father that he’s never going to see him again, to which his father replies “Yes you will, I don’t wanna hear that, Matty.” This makes me wonder if the Eckhardts were a Jesus-loving family. I know, maybe it feels like a stretch considering, but the fact that Tom says he will see them again, and that neither he nor his sons seem to fear death, but rather face it with peace. Even at the end of the movie, when Jed and Matt have both been mortally wounded, and Jed is saying “Daddy’ll be here soon.” Maybe I’m wrong but it was just something that stood out to me and made me wonder.
-When Robert, upon finding out that his father was executed for “aiding guerillas”, breaks down in tears of grief and guilt. ”I killed him!” he laments. But Mr. Mason is quick to correct him, “THEY killed him.” When bad things happen to those we love, we can be quick to assume the guilt. “If I’d only done this instead of that they’d still be alive.” “If I made a different decision she’d still be with me.” I guess in some weird way it makes us feel like we have a little bit of control when a situation becomes completely OUT of control. Friends, when our loved ones are hurt by evil people, or God forbid taken from us, we need to understand, it’s not our fault. It’s NOT our fault. It’s the ENEMY’s fault. Don’t take on false guilt that doesn’t belong to you, that’s not what God wants for you, and it’s not what your loved one would have wanted either. Release those regrets to God and be free of them, because you were never meant to carry them. I repeat, it’s not your fault.
-Erica makes the statement when she and her sister arrive at camp that ”Things are different now.” Again, this reminded me of 9/11, or more recently, the Covid lockdowns. I know that feeling, the feeling that the world has completely changed and is never going to be able to go back to what it was like before those events, that even if time passes and things go back to some form of “normal.” Things will never be the same again. For instance, in the case of 9/11, the process for traveling anywhere has changed dramatically, with security measures far different now then they were twenty five years ago. And look at Covid…if you want to know how drastically Covid affected society, just go into a crowded grocery store and cough and see what happens…yikes!
But the important thing to remember here is that no matter how much our lives change, no matter what is taken away from us, etc, that God never changes, and nothing about Him can be taken from us. His plan for our lives cannot be changed, and we are never outside His love. No matter what situation we find ourselves in, no matter how desolate, how desperate, we won’t lose the important things, the things that really matter, like His love and care for us.
-Ugh, Daryl’s dad, the Mayor. What a perfect example of a Pharisee: he thinks he’s doing the right things, trying to keep the peace and follow the rules, but in reality, in order to keep himself comfortable he’ll abandon the people he’s in authority over and allow them to be executed. He even disparages his own son! “He’s not a fighter, he’s scared,” and then turns him over to the Russians to protect his position! What a weak example of a man. Unfortunately, like so many politicians today, he is not a strong leader, but rather one that would try to please everyone but ultimately shows they are loyal to no one but themselves. Ugh, I want to smack him.
-One of the things this movie does well is show the different effects grief and loss can have on a person. For instance, look at Robert, after his father is killed, he is filled with hate for the ones who took his father’s life. “All that hate’s gonna burn you up, kid.” “Keeps me warm.” I feel so bad for Robert, that he’s allowed his grief to harden him to the point where he no longer cares about anyone or anything, except inflicting pain and death upon as many of his enemies as possible. Or Toni, when Andy, who she had a crush on, is killed. “I’ll never love anybody ever again!” She’s so afraid of being hurt that she vows to close down her heart rather than risk loving and losing again. I’ve had grief, and pain aplenty in my life, but the difference is, when you bring it to God, He is there for you in it. It’s ok to feel angry, it’s ok to not want to be hurt again. Those are really normal things to feel. But I’d encourage you to invite God into that pain, so that He can begin to restore those broken places with His love.
Let me try and give you another visual. I once watched another movie where a woman had lost her husband. In her pain and anger, she took a glass pitcher, saying “This was my life!” and then threw it to the floor, smashing it. “And now it’s ruined and can never be fixed.” Then she wakes up the next day to find a friend has taken all the broken pieces and glued them together into an exquisite glass statue resembling herself. Yes, hurt, grief, pain can smash your life. That pitcher will never hold water again, it will never be what it was. But the pieces left behind can be used to make something beautiful. Just because you’ve lost, doesn’t mean YOU are lost.
-Towards the end of the movie, we start to see the effects of the violence, both given and received, on the main characters. Matt makes the comment, ”Me and Jed, we’re all used up.” He encourages Danny and Erica to flee to the Free Zone because not only does he not want to see any more of his loved ones die, he doesn’t want them to have to fight any more. He’s seen the toll it’s taken on them and himself. “Someone’s gotta live, someone’s gotta make it!” Col Bella, too, is “all used up”…in a letter to his wife, he describes how he is so weary of fighting someone else’s war, and how he longs for the simple pleasures of running his fingers through her long hair, in their warm home where “the sun casts no shadow.” He has already decided to resign his commission when he has the chance to kill the brothers later, but instead sends them off with God’s blessing, throwing his gun away, and looking at his hands as if seeing them stained with the blood of the hundreds of men he has killed. I believe he will never pick up a weapon again.
I’ve been given crap in the past for liking this movie, and I understand where those people are coming from. But I don’t love this movie because it’s full of violence and I like seeing people get blown up and ripped apart and dying horrible deaths. That’s not it at all! Rather, I admire the movie’s message about first trying to avoid conflict (until it is thrust upon you and you have no other choice but to fight back), and then how difficult it is to actually take a human life, and what the price of doing so does to you. Despite how breezy all the action movies are about it, and how lightly we take all “red shirt” deaths, anyone involved in the military knows the weight of such a decision involved, and I have only the utmost respect for the men and women who volunteer to take on that burden to protect us and our country.
One of the things I’ve always appreciated about this movie is the theme of rising above your fear to fight for what you believe in, to leave your safe space and make the hard choices to do what’s right. The other is the price you often pay for doing so. Not necessarily death, but living with the choices you’ve made.
This is a movie that has gotten a reputation as right-wing propaganda, one that glorifies war, weapons, and violence, but I see it differently. It’s not just an action movie (although it’s usually described as such), and I don’t think it glorifies war as much as people think it does. Yes, at times it shows people acting patriotically, but only when up against an enemy who has taken away all their freedoms. Instead of glorifying violence and war, it shows very realistic portrayals of how war, death, struggle, isolation, grief, and the weight of leadership can wear down and affect a person. The director, John Milius himself, claimed that his main vision for the movie was to show the “futility of war.” I feel so much for Patrick Swayze’s character Jed in this movie, and the hard choices as a leader he has to make, and the toll it takes on him personally.
Whenever I watch this movie, I always, always come away with the question – “What would I do?” I hope I never have to find out. At the time of this writing, a war is raging in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine, one that we can feel the effects of even halfway across the world here in the United States. War is nothing new, we were born into and live in a world constantly at war. But what matters is what we let these times do to us. Will we give in and give over to our grief? Will we allow our anger toward tragedies to turn to hate that “burns us up” and kills our compassion? Will we stand by and try to keep ourselves out of harm’s way as innocent people die and freedom is lost? To choose to fight in a war of any type is never an easy decision, nor should it be, but I am thankful every day and pray for those who have and continue to lay down their lives to protect the American people and the freedoms they enjoy. Vaya con Dios.
Links I Like
-A video about Red Dawn filming locations.
-Lots of behind the scenes goodies at The 80s Rewind page!
–Wolverines: Reflections on Red Dawn, by Ryan Lewellin, is a book of short essays written about the movie.
–Real Life Wolverines: What if Red Dawn Really Happened? – an interesting article
–the original script written by Kevin Reynolds for his senior thesis at the University of Southern California. (Beware…the story is totally different and REALLY dark.)
–Preparedness Peace – This is an amazing class that I took about 10 years ago, about preparedness from a Christian viewpoint. It is Scripturally based and is a wealth of valuable info! Highly recommend it!
–Free First Aid – free online courses in First Aid, CPR, and AED.
What would you do in this situation? Would you fight if your country needed you? Leave your comments below!