Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Patrick Swayze and 'Red Dawn'

Fox News and other media outlets are reporting the death of actor Patrick Swayze:

After a very long and public battle with pancreatic cancer, actor Patrick Swayze died at home Monday with his family and friends at his side. He was 57.

Swayze, who was diagnosed in January 2008, defied the odds in many ways – living for more than a year-and-half with this extremely deadly form of cancer. During that time, he put together a memoir with his wife and even started filming the new crime drama “The Beast,” in which he refused to take painkillers because he was worried it would affect his performance.
A quarter-century ago, I wrote my first movie review. Written for the Journal of Civil Defense (not known for its arts coverage), the review was about Red Dawn, a Cold War-era drama directed by John Milius and starring, among others, Patrick Swayze (pre-Ghost and pre-Dirty Dancing).

Aware of the embarrassment likely to ensue from the reprinting of any juvenile work of criticism, I'm willing to take the risk and post that review here, as it appeared in the October 1984 (!) issue of the Journal of Civil Defense.
“The Outsiders” Meet Darth Vader:
Schoolkids Battle Red Army in RED DAWN
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.
Red Dawn — Directed by John Milius. Produced by Buzz Feitshans and Barry Beckerman. Screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius. Executive producer, Sidney Beckerman. A Valkyrie Film distributed by MGM/United Artists Entertainment, 1984. Rated PG-13.

What would America be like under Communist military occupation? To answer this question, United Artists has released a movie more frightening than The Day After, as suspenseful as The Empire Strikes Back, and as real as the war in Central America. Directed by John Milius (The Wind and the Lion), it is called Red Dawn and stars Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen, and Oscar-winner Ben Johnson. Former secretary of state Alexander Haig says of Red Dawn: “It’s a provocative and extremely interesting film which depicts the futility of war without underestimating the essential need to maintain the preparedness to fight war.”

The movie’s premises are stated flatly: Russia has suffered its worst wheat harvest in 55 years. The Green Party has captured a majority of seats in the West German parliament. Cuba and Nicaragua increase their armed forces to more than half a million; El Salvador and Honduras fall to their might. NATO collapses. Mexico has a revolution. Soviet troops march into Poland to suppress a workers’ rebellion. The United States stands isolated in the world …

As the film opens, a high school history class listens to Mr. Teasdale (Frank McCrae) lecture on the methods of conquest used by Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes. They would spread out over hundreds of miles, he said, pushing cattle, villagers, and soldiers towards the center — a policy of encirclement. In the midst of the lecture, paratroopers land in the schoolyard and start shooting anyone who steps in their path. World War III has begun.

Some of the students escape to nearby mountains in a pickup truck. Jed (Swayze) and Matt (Sheen) are brothers who know the ropes of hunting and survival; Jed’s namesake is mountain man Jedediah Smith. Daryl (Darren Dalton), the mayor’s son, is president of the senior class. Rounding out the group are frightened teenagers Robert (Howell), Danny (Brad Savage), and Aardvark (Doug Toby). Eventually they are joined by Erica (Thompson) and Toni (Jennifer Grey), the granddaughters of Mr. Mason (Johnson), a rancher who gives the boys food, horses, and ammunition.

On their first trip into town from the mountains, the boys discover that Cuban and Nicaraguan soldiers have turned the area into a massive concentration camp: the town — Calumet, Colorado — is forty miles behind the lines in Soviet-occupied territory. Beyond the lines lies “Free America,” a rump of the United States, mostly east of the Mississippi.

As they take over the town, the Cuban officer in charge (played sympathetically by Ron O’Neal) orders his Nicaraguan lieutenant to go to the sporting goods store and find all the gun-registration forms, so the guns can be confiscated and their owners rounded up and put into the ‘re-education camp” (what used to be a drive-in theatre). At the drive-in, the residents see movies with messages like “America is a whorehouse that has betrayed its revolution.” In town, the theatre marquee advertises “Alexander Nevsky -- All Day Saturday — Admission Free.” Posters of Lenin plaster the sides of buildings; Russian troops burn books.

After the boys see the conditions in the re-education camp, they decide to turn into guerrillas — or, as the Red Army major says, “bandits.” After they kill their first Russian soldiers, the authorities line up about a dozen civilians, who are executed as they sing ‘America the Beautiful.” Fifty other Americans are forced to watch the execution.

This sets the stage for a series of brilliant guerrilla attacks against the Communists, their camps, and their equipment. The plot takes several twists, some comic, some bittersweet, some plain bitter, punctuated by superb performances by Patrick Swayze as the group’s leader and C. Thomas Howell as the innocent teenager turned bloodlusted guerrilla. This is no lighthearted entertainment; its darker, tragic aspects compete vigorously with its inherent optimism.

The movie is bone-chillingly real. The Communist strategy of encirclement — no doubt culled from the experience of the Mongols, Russia’s overlords into the 16th century is in process now. The Cuban colonel, viewing the dead bodies of his troops after a guerrilla attack, says, “I’ve seen this before ... in Nicaragua, San Salvador, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Angola — but I’ve always been on the other side.” The use of terror against the civilian population — mass executions of innocents — is frighteningly reminiscent of Soviet tactics in Afghanistan, where booby-trapped toys maim and kill small children for the purpose of scaring their parents into submission.

The scenario, too, is realistic — much more so than the one we saw in The Day After. Early in the movie there is no indication of the use of nuclear weapons; later we learn that there was a very limited use of missiles, surgically striking missile bases in the Dakotas, SAC headquarters in Omaha, and communications centers like Washington and Kansas City. The United States fails to respond in kind, and the war stands at a conventional stalemate. The Soviet invasion’s first wave comes by commercial aircraft to California and the mountain states. Cubans and Nicaraguans infiltrate U.S. air and military bases in the South and Midwest, disrupting communications as a fifth column. The effect is Soviet occupation of the Great Plains up to Cheyenne, Wyoming; Denver is suffering a siege as bad as Stalingrad’ in the Second World War.

Pacifist Western Europe “decides to sit this one out.” Only two countries are fighting on our side: Britain and “600 million screaming Chinamen,” according to Colonel Tanner of the U.S. Air Force, who joins the kids in the hills. He’s asked: “The last I heard there were a billion screaming Chinamen.” Well,” he says, “now there’s only 600 million.” Silence.

The sheer terror of the movie, present in the constant watchfulness of the occupying troops, the KGB, the torture, the animal instincts to which our teenage heroes descend, the herding of civilians into concentration camps all this should be a lesson to the Helen Caldicotts of this world who were so moved by The Day After and Testament, two films which showed the aftermath of nuclear war without showing the alternative: slavery and faces mashed by hobnail boots.

Director John Milius is an anomaly on the Hollywood landscape. With films like Reds and Missing being praised so highly of late, it is rare to find a filmmaker who professes a belief in peace through strength and is willing to admit that yes, Cuban interventionism in Central America threatens America’s ultimate interests — our survival as a nation. Red Dawn portrays everyday American kids as heroes -- the Nathan Hales of the twentieth century — and can touch the heart of every American, It undermines belief in the heroism of "progressive revolutionary forces” and it shows the Communist slave-drivers as they really are: vicious, bloodthirsty, vindictive, brutal.

The film does yield to liberal sentiment in its expression of “What’s the fighting all about?”, “What’s the difference between us and them?” Yet the underlying theme remains: We fight because we love. If there’s nothing to die for, there cannot be anything to live for. The film does not shy away from death and gore; its heroes are not immune from suffering; no one tries to persuade us that war is pristine, a romantic, or cathartic. Indeed, one is comes away convinced that this dirty business has to be averted — but that it sometimes is just and obligatory.

Red Dawn echoes, in varying degrees, the Star Wars trilogy (rebels vs. the evil empire), Lord of the Flies (given the right conditions, even children can devolve into savages), The Green Berets, Sands of Iwo Jima, Battle Cry, and other heroic war movies, and The Outsiders (Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell played brothers fending for themselves in a rough, violent world in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film of the popular teen novel). Moreover, it remarkably parallels the concrete experience of the Contras in Nicaragua, the freedom fighters in Afghanistan, and the European resistance movement of the 1940s. With insufficient provisions, no training, but with a lot of courage and chutzpah, even children can fight for the values we cherish: freedom, self-determination, honor, and love.

MGM/UA must be commended for making this film. Far from the vacuousness so characteristic of our San Fernando Valley culture of American filmmakers, this is a jarringly realistic portrayal of the the world as it might be. I predict it will be very popular among Americans in 1984, especially those who have overcome the “post-Vietnam syndrome” and look proudly on one major achievement of American strength, that since 1980 no nation has fallen captive to Soviet adventurism. In fact, American fortitude of has rescued one country — Grenada — from its alien rulers. Nonetheless, Red Dawn has a sharp message: It can happen here. We must prevent it — or suffer dire consequences.

* * * * * * *

Richard Sincere, a member of the board of the American Civil Defense Association, has directed, designed, or acted in numerous plays and musicals, including Fiddler on the Roof, The Hot I Baltimore, God, The Fantasticks, The Brig, and (most recently) Company.

After earning $8,230,381 in its first weekend, Red Dawn went on to gross $35,866,000 in its initial U.S. release. It was not much of a critical success (its only significant award was a nomination for a Young Artist Award for supporting actor Brad Savage), but it has remained a guilty pleasure for many Reagan-era young conservatives. Years later, "Red Dawn" became the code name for the military operation that captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.


Patrick said...

The Lasting Tribute website has updated its memorial pages to include Patrick Swayze.


It's a respectful memorial to Patrick and somewhere to pay tribute to his family's fortitude at this difficult time.

EVERY comment is monitored so that nothing offensive or inappropriate is published.

Admin said...

I really admire Jennifer Grey's tribute to Patrick Swayze. She's doing Dancing with the Stars for him, class.