It was never a question of whether John Milius' Red Dawn would become a reference point in the war on terror; it was only a question of when and how. In the 1984 film, Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey and C. Thomas Howell grind down a Soviet invasion with pilfered AK-47s and RPGs. When the raid that captured Saddam Hussein was coined Operation Red Dawn, the film found its place in history. The movie was immediately recalled by the press as "Cold War propaganda" and "jingoistic." But the central theme of the story?the bitterness of dying to protect one's country?was overlooked, as was the uncomfortable analogy to the war against insurgents in Iraq.
John Milius, the film's writer and director, who also co-wrote Apocalypse Now and Conan the Barbarian, discusses making Red Dawn, an American mujahideen and Bush's preemptive world.
I was surprised to wake up Sunday morning to see Red Dawn on tv. Can you tell me what you thought when you heard this?
I was very proud, you know. I was just thrilled. It's nice to be liked someplace in the world. I have very strong supporters in the military.
It seems the film itself, while it was a Cold War-era film, has a broader message. What message do you think people latched onto?
[I]t was almost like a Revolutionary War message. It's the nature of America's struggle against oppression. But the movie, because it was a rare patriotic movie in a time when that really wasn't done very often, I think it really struck a chord. It really struck a chord with people who've grown up [with it]? They've told me, "God, I just love that movie." Because everybody, I think, had that fantasy of what would happen if your home was invaded and you would fight the Russians and whatever.
I came of age watching the film, and it allowed us to indulge that fantasy in a very real way.
When I was a kid in the early 60s and 50s, even, actually I went to high school in Colorado. One of the big things we wanted to be, aside from football players and skiers and everything else?we wanted to be mountain men. And so we read everything about Jim Pritchard and Jim Carson, all that kind of thing, you know, to be a woodsman. The greatest fantasy of all was that we were going to go up to the mountains and resist the Russians with flint-lock rifles, cap-lock rifles, anyway.
One of the great scenes in that movie is when the kids go into the store and get to take everything. (Laughs) You take your sleeping bags and all the neat knives and thermoses and, of course, they take the football.
I revisited the film after Sept. 11 because we had been attacked and, in a sense, we were at war. The one scene that really stuck out was when the Wolverines execute the Russian soldier and the mayor's son, Daryl. The rationale that Jed [Patrick Swayze's character] gives is, "We live here." For me that sort of summed up the anger and fear that followed Sept. 11.
That's the emotional core of it, isn't it though? That's it. We live here. This is what we are. At the time I remember that was a very, very powerful scene... [I]t was extremely [difficult] to shoot that. We were way, way up on a place called Johnson's Mesa. It snowed. The wind was blowing in. It dropped below zero, everybody was getting frostbite, as well as the fact, I remember, everyone had dysentery. So you had the problem of everyone having to rush to various facilities wearing Avirex assault gear. It's funny how those are the things you remember.
I remember the power of that scene and that they got into it because of the fact that it was so bitterly cold. And yet it was so beautiful at the same time. Everybody became kind of strongly attached to the place. There are a lot of different scenes people think of as the most powerful moments.
I always remember?one of the things I love is when they talk about the "Seige of Denver." (Laughs) It's like people are eating each other like Leningrad. It was the whole idea of taking the Russian myth?which was true to them and extraordinarily powerful?of the Great Patriotic War and using it against them.
When I watched the film recently, it seemed like the Wolverines were sort of a mujahideen, at least in a strategic sense, the attacks on convoys?this is stuff we're seeing now. Were you addressing the Soviets in Afghanistan?
Yeah. The movie was made because the Soviets were in Afghanistan. Actually, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan the year before. Remember, we wouldn't let them go to the Olympics or they withdrew from the Olympics, and that's when the movie was made; that's when the people at MGM decided we're going to make this patriotic movie that's mirroring the situation in Afghanistan, and we'll release it during the Olympics.
And the movie was very successful. It was just roundly hated by the liberal community and critics. I was vilified and excoriated to a degree?and I was one who was used to being vilified and excoriated for my movies?but that movie really got their dander up.
I think the movie is a very complicated look at what war does to people. I don't think any of the characters are resolved as to their role in the whole thing; it seems like a bunch of them want to be children rather than fighting.
Yeah, and you see the tremendous cost of everything. Nobody comes out of it whole or unscarred. The ones that in the end, when they get away, they're looking down on this vast plain and say, "We're free now." And he says, "Free to do what?"
In Iraq the tables have turned; the United States is in a situation where we're occupying a country and we have to make ourselves open to the attacks that the Wolverines were perpetrating in Red Dawn.
I think that's a whole other thing. We're doing what we said we're going to do. Bush was very clear after 9/11 about what he was going to do, and he hasn't really deviated from that, even though people haven't liked it or anything else. He's been fairly resolute in saying, "You're either for us or against us." And where we find people against us, we're going to go get 'em and we're not going to tolerate blowing apart our cities and killing tens of thousands of Americans. We're not going to roll over.
It's very interesting. Again, it's one of these cases where, when people are not involved directly, they don't seem to care. We have a more [divided] nation now than we did in Vietnam.