Red Dawn is a 1984 war film by John Milius about a fictional invasion of the United States by the Soviet Union, Cuba and other Communist Central American armies, and the resulting guerrilla actions of a group of American high school students in the town of Calumet, Colorado. The movie features Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen, Jennifer Grey, and Powers Boothe.
Red Dawn was the first movie to be released with a Motion Picture Association of America PG-13 rating. At one time, Red Dawn was considered the most violent film by the Guinness Book of Records and The National Coalition on Television Violence, with a rate of 134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute.
In the small Colorado town of Calumet, a normal fall morning is interrupted by an invasion of Cuban and Soviet paratroopers in the empty fields behind the local high school. As the paratroopers begin their attack, a small group of teenagers obtains weapons and supplies and flee to the nearby mountains. When they return for a time to find news, they are joined by two girls - the granddaughters of an old couple who give the boys sanctuary for a time, and news on the death of one of their fathers. Led by Jed Eckert, his brother Matt, and their moody ally Robert, they begin a resistance against the Soviet-allied occupation force. The group calls itself the "Wolverines" after their school's team/mascot and proceeds to attack the occupying forces using ambushes, sniper attacks, booby traps, guerrilla-style bombings on Soviet positions in the town itself, and raids on the occupiers' supply depots and convoys.
Over time, the Wolverines are joined by a downed Air Force fighter pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Tanner, who gives them a brief description of the conflict so far and instructs them in more formal military tactics. The Wolverines later liberate a "political prisoner camp" where the occupation force has rounded up citizens whom they feel might resist the occupation.
Eventually, the Wolverines make a foray to the war's front lines, at a Rocky Mountain pass where M1 Abrams and T-72 tanks are engaging each other. This skirmish results in the deaths of Lt. Col. Tanner and Arturo "Aardvark" Mondragon.
As the result of escalating guerrilla attacks, the Soviet field commanders now view the Wolverines as a serious threat. Initially the occupiers had tried terror tactics, executing groups of civilians following every Wolverine attack, to intimidate the local population and the Wolverines into halting their attacks. However, this tactic backfired resulting in the civilians lending increasing support to the Resistance. Following a rise in popular support for the Wolverines, Strelnikov, a Soviet counter-resistance specialist, arrives to declare that there will be no more reprisals against civilians. Instead the specialist sends Spetsnaz commandos into the mountains to eliminate the Wolverines. This new strategy fails when the commandos are ambushed and killed by the Wolverines.
Following the ambush on the commandos, the group finds a tracking device among the dead soldiers. Daryl Bates, the son of the collaborating mayor of the town, admits that the Soviets had forced him to swallow a signal emitter, explaining that he only did it because he was tortured (after being handed over to the Soviets by his own father). Jed shoots the sole Russian survivor of the commando squad, but is unable to bring himself to kill his friend. Robert (who was badly affected by the early news of his father's death, and whose taste for killing had previously only included enemy soldiers) then executes Daryl with multiple bullets. The Wolverines break camp out of fear of additional raids by the Soviets.
Things become increasingly hard for the Wolverines; their morale has eroded as the war of attrition takes its toll on their numbers. The Soviet occupation forces are pushing them to the breaking point, although the Soviets' hopes for keeping the civilian population cowed into complacency and unable to fight back have all but collapsed.
The remaining Wolverines are then ambushed while eating food from crates deliberately dropped from a passing Soviet convoy they had intended to attack. Several heavily armed Mil Mi-24 gunships appear and attack the Wolverines, and though Robert is able to disable one with an RPG-7, they suffer severe and demoralizing losses. Robert chooses to die in a hail of gunfire. Toni Mason is mortally wounded and asks Jed to leave her behind. Keeping a hand grenade as the others retreat, she rigs a boobie-trap from the grenade, so that when a Russian soldier moves her body, he is killed by the grenade.
The Wolverines are down to four: Jed, Matt, Danny and Toni's sister Erica Mason. Jed and Matt realize that they cannot outlast the Soviets and if they keep fighting, they will all die. Matt tells Danny and Erica to head for "Free America," that he and Jed are "all used up," and insisting that some of their number must survive. The two brothers, meanwhile, stage a diversionary attack on the Soviet regional headquarters in town so that Danny and Erica can escape. In the confusion, the brothers apparently kill General Bratchenko, the Soviet commander in the area. Jed and his brother are both shot by Colonel Strelnikov, although Jed manages to shoot and kill him as well. Jed staggers away as he carries his mortally wounded brother Matt in his arms. Bella, the Cuban colonel who has commanded the occupation forces from the start of the invasion, has the chance to shoot the two brothers, but instead lets them go. Bella, a former guerrilla himself, had been composing a letter to his wife just minutes before the attack, telling her he was planning on handing in his resignation. Jed staggers away with his brother to a park bench to wait out his final moments. Meanwhile, Danny and Erica successfully escape to "Free American" territory.
The film's epilogue, narrated by Erica, suggests that the United States succesfully repells the invasion some years later; a plaque is displayed with "Partisan Rock" in the background, a rock which throughout the film has been a recurring motif as each dead comrade's name has been inscribed upon it by a member of the Wolverines.
Much of the progress and politics of the war is left to the viewer's speculation in the film's first half (putting the audience in the position of the characters, who also have no idea what is going on beyond their immediate surroundings), but specific facts are later provided by a downed U.S. Air Force pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Tanner.
Director/screenwriter John Milius reported that he had obtained the help and input of former Secretary of State and NATO commander General Alexander Haig to create the backstory/scenario, which required an invasion of the U.S. by Communist countries with minimal use of nuclear weapons on both sides.
The film's backstory involves several alternate history political precedents. The Green Party came to power in West Germany, forcing the removal of U.S. forces from that nation and all nuclear weapons from Europe. The resulting upheaval left NATO as a political nonentity, with only Britain remaining as a U.S. ally. At the same time, Soviet allies Cuba and Nicaragua each expanded their armies to 500,000 men, subsequently overrunning El Salvador and Honduras. A civil war in Mexico resulted in that country falling behind the Communist "Iron Curtain." In a parallel to Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet Union, like Nazi Germany, now had a broad base from which to invade its primary enemy, and thousands of troops from satellite nations to augment their own armies.
During this time, the Soviet Union was suffering its worst wheat harvest in 55 years and food riots were occurring throughout the nations of the Warsaw Pact. Apparently desperate for food to feed its people, the Soviet Union and its allies launched a full scale invasion of the United States. Although the movie was released in 1984, the story itself takes place in the near future, starting in 1989 and ending in 1990, because the Holodomor of 1932-1934 is probably what is being referred to in the opening narration as the previous "worst wheat harvest" that happened 55 years beforehand.
The Soviets utilize a three-phase attack. First, they use strategic nuclear strikes to destroy key points of communication including several major U.S. cities (Omaha, Kansas City and Washington, D.C. are specifically cited). Strategic nuclear weapons are also used to destroy ICBM bases in Montana and the Dakotas. In addition, Tanner says that Cuban infiltrators disguised as illegal immigrants aided in confusing U.S. forces by raiding Strategic Air Command bases throughout the Midwest and Texas. Coupled with these nuclear attacks, Soviet transport aircraft containing elite Soviet VDV and Cuban paratroopers slipped through the U.S. radar disguised as commercial airliners.
The second phase saw Cuban and Nicaraguan armies (with small contingents of Soviet forces) pouring across the U.S.-Mexico border into the Great Plains of the United States. The third phase involved a Soviet invasion of Alaska across the Bering Strait from Siberia. They crossed into Canada occupying the Yukon, British Columbia and Western Alberta, most likely including Calgary, and cut the Alaskan Pipeline, but were decisively stopped at the U.S.-Canadian border by U.S. forces (thus preventing a link-up with Soviet forces occupying the Great Plains).
Elsewhere, Britain remained loyal to its American allies, but suffered heavily for it. China also declared war upon the Soviet Union, however incurred significant losses, Tanner claiming that there were only "600 million screaming Chinamen". When asked "I thought there were a billion screaming Chinamen?", he cryptically replies "There were" and throws his drink in the fire, causing it to flare and suggesting China had suffered massive Soviet nuclear strikes.
The Communist forces manage to occupy and control a large region of the central United States, extending as far west as the Rocky Mountains, and north to Cheyenne, Wyoming, across Kansas to the Mississippi River in the east. Denver is also under siege. Tanner mentions that conditions in Denver are particularly bad, with people living on "rats, sawdust bread, and, sometimes, each other." He says the remaining holdouts most likely won't survive.
Once the lines are stabilized, it quickly becomes a conventional war with both sides ceasing their use of nuclear weapons. Colonel Tanner explains that the Soviets are reluctant to use any more nuclear weapons, as they want to conquer the United States, not destroy it utterly, and the U.S. government is unwilling to use tactical nuclear weapons on or over their own soil against the invading armies. The Soviets work through American collaborators, such as Daryl's father, at the local level to help them maintain order.
Director John Milius portrays the private ownership of weapons as a necessary element of anti-Communism. Early in the film, a bumper sticker seen on a truck states a classic gun owner’s creed; “They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers.” The shot moves down to a dead hand holding an empty Colt pistol as well as shots of the same pistol being pried from the dead person's hand by a Soviet paratrooper. As the protagonists flee the initial invasion of Calumet, they stop at a local sporting goods store owned by one of their fathers. He tells them to gather supplies and gives them several rifles and pistols along with boxes of ammunition. (The father and his wife are later executed because of the guns missing from the store’s inventory.) In a later scene, Colonel Bella, the Cuban officer, instructs the KGB to go to the local sporting goods store and obtain the paperwork of local citizens who own firearms. The Cuban officer specifically refers to Form 4473, which is the actual BATF form used to record the sale of a firearm by a dealer to a private citizen in the United States. Later in the film the Wolverines make almost exclusive use of captured Soviet arms from their first engagement onwards, possibly due to limited stocks of ammunition for their own civilian weapons (revolvers, pump-action shotguns, lever-action rifles and bolt-action rifles) or the greater effectiveness of the captured military weapons (such as the AKM, RPK and RPG-7).
Although most of the high school partisans are killed, a voice-over appears at the end of the movie by Erica, one of the two survivors, showing a World War III memorial. The American flag flying above it implies the United States had - eventually — won the war.
The exact quote framing "Partisan Rock" is:
"I never saw the brothers again. In time, this war, like every other war, ended. But I never forgot, and I come to this place often, when no one else does." "In the early days of World War 3, guerrillas, mostly children, placed the names of their lost upon this rock. They fought here alone; and gave up their lives, so that this nation shall not perish from the earth."
Red Dawn’s story and conception are similar to John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, which is a story about a town occupied by a foreign army. The book, which was published just before World War II, was widely circulated in underground Europe and extremely popular as propaganda because the people of occupied Europe believed it spoke directly to them in a realistic way. Unlike Red Dawn, The Moon Is Down is purposely vague and does not name the location of the town or the nationality of the invaders, but it did not start out that way. In the book’s early form, the town was in America and the invaders were Nazis. Steinbeck met much resistance for this version of the story from his colleagues because it seemed to be defeatist, and so Steinbeck stripped all national references from the book.
The movie was filmed in and around the town of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Many of the buildings and structures which appeared in the film, including a historic Fred Harvey Company hotel adjacent to the train depot, the Las Vegas train yard, and a building near downtown which was repainted with the name of “Calumet, Colorado” where the movie was set, are still there today as they appeared in the film. An old Safeway grocery store was also converted to a sound stage and used for several scenes in the movie.
Before starting work on the movie, the cast underwent a realistic intensive eight-week military training course. During that time, production crews designed and built special combat vehicles in Newhall, California. Among their "fleet" were 15 Soviet armored vehicles (including a ZSU-23-4 "Shilka" mobile antiaircraft gun, several T-72 main battle tanks, and various BMP and BTR armored personnel carriers), several Yak-38 "Forger" vertical take-off and landing Soviet Naval aircraft (the Soviet Navy flag is clearly visible on the side of the air intake), and three Mi-24 "Hind-A" helicopter gunships (improvised from Aérospatiale Pumas). Soldier Of Fortune Magazine reported that the movie's Soviet T-72 tank was such a precise replica that "while it was being carted around Los Angeles, two CIA officers followed it to the studio and wanted to know where it had come from."
Five of the 36 parachutists who took part in the invasion scene early in the film were injured when high winds blew them as far as one mile off target. Parachutist Jim Fisher, wearing a Soviet paratrooper uniform including full Soviet insignia and including an AKM Assault Rifle, landed in a tree and found himself calling out to local rescuers including armed citizens and police: “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! I am not a Russian soldier!”
The original tagline for the movie was "No foreign army has ever occupied American soil." This had to be changed because it was factually inaccurate. The British Army captured Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812 and set fire to the White House and other buildings. Fort Detroit was held by the British Army and Canadian militia and British forces from Nova Scotia captured most of Northern Maine in 1814 to occupy it until the war's end. In 1916 Mexican revolutionary hero Pancho Villa attacked and looted the town of Columbus, New Mexico killing 19 Americans before being driven off by the U.S. Army. In 1942, the Japanese seized the islands of Attu, Kiska, and Agattu in Alaska's Aleutian chain. At the time, Alaska was not a state in the United States, but it was a territory. The United States recaptured the islands the following year. Japan also conquered Guam, Wake Island, and the Commonwealth of the Philippines in the course of WWII, though they were later recaptured as well.
Additionally, in the video game by Westwood Studios, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, the first mission of the Soviet campaigns involves the invasion of America, which is labeled "Operation: Red Dawn".
The video game, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (GTA: Vice City) had used Red Dawn in one of their parody ads.
In addition, the video game Freedom Fighters, by IO Interactive, is heavily based on the premise of Red Dawn, even containing a level where the player and his group must retake a high school from Soviet control.
The popular television show Scrubs also mentions Red Dawn in the season 1 episode My Heavy Meddle.