World War III Pop Culture: Red Dawn Part I


A couple of years ago the 1987 film Dirty Dancing enjoyed a resurgence in popularity and was capturing a new generation of fans (Millennials) who finally realized just how bad the movies of their generation really were. So they focused their attention on the iconic films of the previous generation (Generation X) and latched onto films like Dirty Dancing, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and others.

So, one day in 2015 some of the younger worker bees on my staff were discussing ‘80s films with a few of the old heads, myself included. One of them asked a question along the lines of, “What was the movie that Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey were in together? You know, the famous one that launched their careers.”

Red Dawn,” I answered almost instinctively, and the room went quiet for a moment. A couple of my fellow old heads suppressed chuckles while the Millennials just sat there in stunned silence.

“Um, no,” one of the offended snowflakes replied after she Googled the answer. “It was Dirty Dancing.”

“It was after Red Dawn,” I insisted-correctly. “Swayze and Grey were in that movie first.”

Well, they didn’t argue further. Probably because I was their boss and they seemed to like their jobs. But the doubt was etched unmistakably on their faces. Thinking fast, I decided to turn this little incident into a leadership exercise and possibly bridge the generation gap in my office. Five days later, instead of holding the usual dull monthly staff meeting, I brought my entire staff down to the auditorium and screened Red Dawn in all of its glory.

A couple of hours later the Millennials on my staff, without exception, came away having loved the movie. In time, they would become superfans of the movie almost to the point of annoyance, and find themselves initiated into the universe of Red Dawn fandom.

For the readers out there scratching their heads at the moment and wondering just what the hell a ‘Red Dawn’ is, the remainder of this series of blog entries will answer all of your questions.

Red Dawn is a motion picture from 1984 that centers on an invasion of the United States by Soviet bloc forces, and the transformation of a group of young Americans from teenagers to partisans. The group witnesses the start of the war, their hometown being occupied, and family members rounded up for political reeducation by the invaders. If this brief plot summary seems familiar, it is because this plot has been the inspiration for a number of novels, and movies created afterward. Tomorrow, When the War Began probably has the most parallels to Red Dawn, only it is set in Australia, which has been invaded by an unnamed foreign power. So essentially, it is Red Dawn: Down Under. Instead of “Wolverines!” as their battle cry the Aussies probably use a more congenial “G’Day, Mate!” before raining fire down on their enemy.

The cast of the film included a number of actors and actresses who became quite well known in the years after its release. Aside from Swayze and Grey, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, and C. Thomas Howell also starred in Red Dawn. A cadre of already-established veteran actors such as Harry Dean Stanton, Lane Smith, Ron O’Neal, and Powers Boothe helped to round out the cast. In retrospect, it was a diverse, and talented group that at the time was underappreciated by critics. John Milus directed the film. He was already an established director in the early ‘80s with some military-themed films to his credit such as Apocalypse Now. In the years after Red Dawn, Milus worked on The Hunt for Red October, and directed Flight of the Intruder. Milus is an unapologetic patriot and militarist. In the liberal Hollywood environment, he’s essentially considered to be Satan incarnate. Or at least he was back in the 80s. President Trump holds that title now. Anyway, Milus was selected to direct the movie by MGM, and given a $1.25 million salary and the gun of his choice. ‘Murica! 😊

The setting for the movie was Calumet, Colorado, a fictional town located at the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. Filming took place in the small town of Las Vegas, New Mexico and surrounding area. Geographically, the town fit the bill, and filming in New Mexico actually helped enhance the realism value of the movie in some small, but important ways. I’ll discuss that more in the next post.


Author’s Note: The Red Dawn series will include 3-4 posts and run through the end of the holiday weekend. Initially, I wasn’t expecting it to be so big, but there’s a lot to discuss about the film and the impression it has made on American culture. 

17 Replies to “World War III Pop Culture: Red Dawn Part I”

  1. Your anecdote about the younger folks and Red Dawn reminded me when I showed Red Dawn to my daughter. She was in her late teens, and I wasn’t expecting her to do more than watch a movie with Dad.

    She loved it! The characters were compelling, and even if she didn’t grok the military gear and strategies, well the Wolverines didn’t either at the outset.

    The movie has just the right amount of rough edges: Snot bubbles, people misunderstanding each other, not having the perfect witty rejoinder… It lends an air of authenticity, and you forget the seemingly outlandish premise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. There’s something in it for everyone, really. Even if you don’t enjoy the military gear and strategies like us, most folks can find some interesting aspect of the movie and latch on. Glad your daughter loved the movie.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. One of my favourite films. Also the first PG13 film, I lied about my age to get into the theater with my brothers. Wore out the vhs tape over thd next decade….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I saw it for the first time on HBO in ’85. I wore out a few VHS tapes and DVDs since then. Now I just stream it whenever I want. Three cheers for technology. 🙂


    1. If Ivan jumped into Bethlehem, I guess instead of “Wolverines!” you guys would’ve been shouting “LIberty!” and setting up ambushes on 22. 🙂


    1. That would be great if you did a post on Invasion fiction. There are a lot of good, bad, and in-the-middle examples out there spanning the last 120 years or so.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Bit of trivia: there was a deleted scene in Red Dawn showing Soviets surrounding a McDonalds, but it was removed because of a prior gun attack that left many dead at a McDonalds in California around the time of the film’s release. I remember seeing the McDonalds’ scenes in promotional stills, and then when there were none in the movie, I figured it might have been because of that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep. Check out a video of the movie trailer and they show the scene of a Soviet tank pulling up to a McDonalds. You’re right too, that mass shooting is the reason they pulled the scene.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve watched the movie back in the late 80s/early 90s on VHS videotape, and for almost 30 yeras wondered, what chassis was used to create the mockups of Soviet “T-something” tanks 🙂

    From the Polish perspective the whole “occupation and resistance” story looked all but funny – though possibly in the US the movie could be seen as very patriotic indeed.
    Yet after many experiences from WW2 times as well as 1956 ij Hungary, 1968 Czechoslovakia and 1979+ in Afghanistan, I’d say that neither the Soviet special forces would be as stupid as shown in the movie (geeez, having “a guy with a bug” inside the partisan group they bother to make a “search and destroy” operation – which is AMBUSHED? HOW the heck did “Wolverines” knew the Spetsnaz was coming? and after the Spetsnaz team is destroyed OBODY bothers to look after them and allows the Wolverines to sit around the fire and investigate the captured soldier plus making a vengeance on a traitor…? man, that should have ended in entirely different way…) nor the occupation would look as it is shown.

    However, the initial scenes are still good show to see, with all those VDVs landing around the school just after the history teacher talks about the Genghis Khan… 🙂 and the Soviet paratrooper “prying a gu from dead cold fingers” of its owner lying under a car with an appropriate writing on it… 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They actually used M-48 Patton chassis’ for the tanks. All in all, it seems to have worked. The T-72s looked real.
      I think the film director took some liberties with the occupation. He wanted to make it look as bad as possible. Yeah, we never did find out how the Wolverines found out about that ambush, did we? I assume there was a scene or two cut out that covered it.

      The paratroopers landing, and securing the town did have some powerful scenes. Along with the ones you mentioned, I liked the ones showing US aircraft flying by (F-111, and UH-1 Huey at the gas station) and the gunship attacking the Soviet roadblock and BMD. It showed the audience we were still in the fight.


  5. Not exactly M-48, rather M8A1 Cargo Tractor (variant of the M41 Walker Bulldog)

    Also the Puma helicopter modified to look like Mi-24A was also a very nice add-on, later used in other movies; however, the fake front made the plane dificult to fly, so in Rambo this was deleted, leaving the original Puma’s nose.

    Anyway, the Soviet vehicles’ camo look beautiful 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It did look beautiful. Funny side note about the Puma/faux Hinds. The Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t clear them to be flown over people. Strange but true


  6. Well , if this referred to the cause of “Hind-As” as shown in the Red Dawn, then it is NOT strange – see how obscured is the view from ORIGINAL Puma’s cockpit AFTER being built over by all those flat plates – the pilot must really work hard to maintain control over the plane and in any case is he allowed to make sharp turns – so in any case of reaction requiring sharp turn (like avoiding a collision) this might cause a fatal accident.

    There would be no problem, if the whole front section of Puma was rebuild in shape of Hind-A, i.e. not “fake nose built over original” but rather “a new nose in the shape of Hind’s one”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whether they’re impostor Hinds or real Hinds, nobody wants to see them charging at you. Ask the Afghans. Scary machines


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