I know it’s hard to believe there could be anything ridiculous about Red Dawn—what’s so silly about a band of high school kids taking on an invading force of Russians and Cubans? That scenario seems highly plausible. Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, and C. Thomas Howell are precisely the individuals I’d want forming a guerilla faction and defending the country against the Reds. But, in all seriousness, in Red Dawn we find a gem of a picture: a cacophony of horrible dialogue, horrible acting, and horrible action. Red Dawn has been described as a “camping movie with a few explosions,” but to its credit, it tries to do more than that: it tries to scrutinize the survivalist mentality; it tries to examine patriotism; it tries to pull on our heartstrings. It tries and valiantly fails on each of those counts, but that’s good news for us, because the worse it gets, the more entertaining it is. Here are five of my favorite moments from the film.
5. Powers Booth
What is Powers Booth even doing in this movie? Every scene with him is strangely uncomfortable. He claims to be in the Air Force, and that seems to be possible, though it could also be that he’s a spy for the Soviets. As soon as he appears, Booth sets about schooling the kids on how the world actually works. “Who is on our side,” one boy asks; “Six hundred screaming Chinamen!” comes the gruff reply. Later, he chastises them for doing a good job defending the country. “You think you’re tough, eating beans every day? There’s half a million scarecrows in Denver that would give anything for one mouthful of what you’ve got. . . . They live on rats, sawdust, bread, and sometimes... on each other.” Booth is clearly not interested in shielding the children from the horrible war that surrounds them. What I find most disturbing is his relationship with one of the girls in the camp. He’s pushing forty, she’s no more than sixteen, and he’s making passes at her! Though with a name like Powers Booth, I suppose you do whatever you please.
4. Old Man Jack announces that C. Thomas Howell’s father is dead
One of the most underrated moments in Red Dawn is when everyone convenes at Old Man Jack’s house after Swayze and Sheen have seen their father at the concentration camp. C. Thomas Howell is desperate to find out the fate of his own parents, and Old Man Jack delivers the news cut and dry: “Your daddy’s dead, Robert. They shot him. [C. Thomas begins to bawl.] The Russians found some guns missing so they shot him for aiding the guerillas. They killed him, son. Made him an example.” As we see, Old Man Jack is a very compassionate man. He doesn’t even pause to take a breath or to wait for the kid to collect himself—he just motors on with the details of how the Soviets liquidated the boy’s father. The others stand around and try to act like they feel sorry for C. Thomas. Everybody except for Sheen that is who, after just having downed something that looks like a bowl of cereal, rocks back in his chair and pulls on his bottom lip.
3. Swayze demands his peers get hold of their emotions
“Don’t cry! Hold it back!” So goes Swayze’s motivational speech to his cadre after they’ve just witnessed the execution of their parents, friends and family by firing squad. Everybody around him is on their knees and in tears, and he’s screaming at them not to cry. It’s a great way to begin a pep talk, but Swayze outdoes even that line. He follows it up by muttering, “Let it turn, let it turn...” about fifty times—I suppose he means, ‘Let the sorrow turn to anger,’ but we can’t be sure. Also, Swayze seems to ignore the fact that he himself already cried earlier in the film. He also doesn’t take his own advice to heart, because he cries on multiple occasions toward the end of the picture. It appears that Swayze is not one to hold it back, and not one to let it turn.
2. The invasion
The entirety of Red Dawn hinges on the premise that the Soviets, along with a number of their South American allies, could rapidly deploy an unprecedented number of troops in the United States, quickly seizing territory and essentially winning the entire country in some sort of hyper blitzkrieg. But it’s unclear how any of this actually happens. Why hadn’t our defenses spotted the first wave of Soviet airplanes flying over the Pacific? What happened to all our satellites? Was the entirety of NORAD asleep? The Department of Defense couldn’t spot an entire invading force of Russians closing in on us? Was there no intelligence from spies or from other Eastern Bloc states which hinted at such a massive invasion? I’m also not sure how the Cubans injected themselves in the mix. How did they get to Colorado moments after the invasion began? Did the Cubans also mount an airborne invasion, or did they just roll unopposed through the South? Red Dawn provides no answers for these troubling questions.
Here’s another thing that’s unclear: why was such a big force of Russians and Cubans centered on a small backwater in Colorado? Swayze and Sheen’s town has one main street, a small residential area, and a handful of commercial buildings that look like they were constructed in the nineteenth century. What do the Reds want with Little America? If they’re determined to crush the rural folk, imagine the damage they did to the cities.
1. Swayze and Sheen’s father requests they avenge him
All that other mishegas is fine, but the greatest moment in Red Dawn comes when Swayze and Sheen roll up to a concentration camp to talk to their father. They find him on the outskirts of the camp and talk to him through a chain link fence (evidently the Russians don’t keep a close watch on their prisoners). The father has a lot to say, and he’s not a very good actor, so the scene is a little hard to sit through. Occasionally the camera cuts back to the boys. Sheen furrows his brow—I think he’s trying to look sad—and Swayze’s face is all screwed up, with tears streaming down. Eventually the father tells them to go, because the Russians will soon notice them talking and he doesn’t want his boys to be caught. They turn and slink away. Guard dogs are barking in the background. Two guards are slowly approaching. Seeing that his sons have made it all of ten yards away from the fence, the father suddenly bellows out, “Boys! Avenge me! Avenge me!”
What’s wrong with you, old man? You’ve just told your children to flee so they don’t get caught. You’ve instructed them to stay quiet, to stay out of sight, and you think it appropriate to yell at them at the top of your lungs while they’re still in range of the guard towers? Why not just shout, “They’re over there! They’re over there!” That is the most ridiculous moment in Red Dawn. I’ll often put on the movie just to watch that scene. It has it all: horrible over-acting by Swayze, horrible non-acting by Sheen and the father, and inane dialogue to boot. As it happens, that’s pretty much the entire movie—and that’s just great. Oh, Red Dawn. How we love you.