FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*
In my review of YEAR ONE I wrote:
...most cavemen films can't resist tossing in dinosaurs. Such movies attain an "uncanny" status given that they're producing an altered version of real history, not positing the dinos as an intrusion of the marvelous upon the commonplace world. YEAR ONE, though, isn't mixing dinos with cavemen, but cavemen with Biblical priests and patriarchs. I suppose I should also judge YEAR ONE as "uncanny" on the same basis, given that historical periods are lumped together in the same cavalier fashion as the cavemen/dino flicks.
RED DAWN doesn't mix elements from different time-periods However, it's no less cavalier in its depiction of an alternate history in which the United States is improbably invaded by Russian soldiers, aided by Cubans and Nicaraguans. In many reviews, recently PREDATOR 2, I've also stated that simply bumping a film forward in time is not enough to give it marvelous phenomenality. As I've specified in greater detail on THE ARCHETYPAL ARCHIVE, this phenomenality depends on violating both the coherence of causal reality and the intelligibility associated with that coherence. In a film like RED DAWN, there is no violation of the standards of causal reality, but there is a deviation from the intelligibility of a naturalistic work. RED DAWN then conforms to the uncanny trope of "exotic lands and customs," which I've most often invoked with respect to strange civilizations off the beaten path of the known world. Here the strange civilization is a United States that can be easily invaded by ground forces armed with no artillery greater than helicopters with rocket launchers. It's a world altered to conform to the martial fantasies of gun-rights advocates, in which it's really really necessary to avoid registration of firearms, lest the information fall into the hands of an invading army.
That said, in my re-viewing of RED DAWN, I was surprised that it did not conform to the adventure-heavy, rah-rah mood of many Commie-baiting works of the period, not least the very similar Chuck Norris flick INVASION U.S.A., which appeared the next year. On its own terms, RED DAWN attempts to treat its heroic protagonists as capable of vacillation and even betrayal, so that the film aligns better with drama than with the adventure-mode of director/co-scripter John Milius' 1982 epic CONAN THE BARBARIAN.
Though both CONAN and RED DAWN deal with martial protagonists, some of the tropes used in the latter film by Milius and co-writer Kevin Reynolds invert those of CONAN. I observed in my review of that film that it displayed some surprising sophistication in spite of some lines so over-the-top that they've become more famous than the movie proper. But CONAN is also a lone hero out for revenge, who remains isolated from any community by the film's end. RED DAWN is about a society of teen warriors, American high-school students forced to grow up fast with the Russkies invade their country. The character of Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) leads the pack of kids who escape to the woods and begin living like what an earlier generation called "Red Indians," and for most of the film he's the charismatic leader who initiates the other young men-- and a couple of young women-- into the mysteries of hit-and-run warfare. Jed tells his new allies that he was named for early American trailblazer Jedediah Smith, which is patently Milius' attempt to align him with a past generation of heroes.
And yet, not only does the society survive at film's end while Jed does not, Milius inverts certain aspects of the heroic attitude. In one of CONAN's best-remembered quirky lines, Conan refuses to weep at the funeral of his lover, while one of his aides does it for him, saying, "He can't cry. So I do it for him." In one scene, Jed and his brother Matt are told not to cry by their captive father, who is never seen again and is presumably killed by the invaders, and in two more scenes, Jed tells other members of his troop not to cry. Yet toward the film's end-- at a time when both Jed and his brother Matt are getting burned out by their drawn-out guerilla-actions-- Jed does cry, not out of sentiment but in response to the pressure of being forced to execute helpless prisoners.
This is not to say that Milius is debunking the mythology of heroism. He even gives the guerillas-- who name themselves "Wolverines" after their school mascot-- a hated enemy to be destroyed at the climax, one Strelnikov (the craggy-faced William Smith). At the same time, another of their enemies, Colonel Bella, gets the drop on the Eckert Brothers. Yet he lets them go, his own acknowledgment of their common humanity. Milius then gives both brothers a mythic finish, by having them vanish from the story, implicitly dying after they've made it possible for the new society to be born once the Russians and their allies have been kicked out.
Most interesting is the film's process of identifying the Wolverines with Native Americans. No particular characters are identified as Native Americans, and a group of Russian soldiers pass scathing comments on the massacre of tribal peoples while the soldiers visit Colorado's Arapaho National Forest. Yet not only do the Wolverines take an animal name, they also practice a ritual resonant of tribalism: drinking the blood of a slain deer to fortify themselves. During the execution-scene, one of Jed's soldiers objects to the killing, asking what separates the Americans from their enemies. Jed's response is that "We live here!" This could have been the statement of a Native American justifying the tactics of extreme retaliation, but in Milius' hands, it implies not an opposition between the tribal peoples and those who invaded them, but a merging of identities not possible for the Commies and their allies.