World War III Pop Culture: Red Dawn Part II


I was 8 years old when I saw Red Dawn for the first time. Back then I couldn’t fully appreciate the degree of realism the movie projected. Yet as I grew older, and my knowledge expanded, I came to appreciate that realism enormously. This holds true even today when the majority of movies seem to be slopped together with CGI, zero realism, and plotlines with more holes then a wheel of Swiss Cheese. Especially military-themed movies and novels. When it comes to the military genre, filmmakers and writers can create something that contains zero realism and most folks won’t even notice or care. Or they can create a film or book containing enough realism that the readers, and viewers immediately know the finished product in front of them is real world authentic even if their military knowledge is minimal.

Red Dawn falls into the later category. In just about every aspect, from the backstory, to the weapons and equipment used the movie looks and feels authentic. No doubt the realism is one of the primary factors responsible for Red Dawn’s longevity, and reputation. When the movie was remade in 2012, the newer version lacked authenticity, as well as nearly everything else of cinematic value. That half-baked abortion of a film will be discussed later in the series. As you can probably tell, I won’t have many nice things to say about it.

The weapons and equipment used in Red Dawn looked authentic even though they were built by the movie’s production crew, not Yakovlev or State Ironworks Factory #65. The types of combat vehicles used accurately mirrored those in Soviet service at the time. The BRDM-2, BMD-2, T-72, SA-9 Gaskin, and BTR-60/70 were seen throughout the movie and they looked the part. In fact, according to director John Milius, when two CIA officers saw the replica T-72 being transported through Los Angeles they followed it to the studio and demanded to know where it had come from. Whether this story is true or not has never been determined, but it’s an interesting side note to say the least.

Soviet bloc aircraft were also replicated, though not to the extent ground equipment and vehicles were. During the liberation of the prison camp, two Yak-38 Forgers were on the ground being prepared for flight. They certainly looked like Forgers in every respect, though for the life of me I still can’t figure out how a pair of fighters used exclusively by the Soviet Navy ended up in the middle of Colorado. But strange things happen in wartime so its not entirely outside the realm of possibility.

The Mi-24 Hind-A played an even bigger role in the movie. Unlike its fixed wing counterparts, the Hinds actually did inflict casualties on the Wolverines. I know the Hinds still get a lot of grief nowadays because most people do not think they look very real. That is not the case. Later model Hinds, which receive the lion’s share of publicity, have a different forward fuselage then the A model. They have two separate cockpits for the pilot and gunner, whereas the Hind-A has a single cockpit and the aircrew sits side-by-side. In any event, the Hinds were actually heavily modified French Puma helicopters but they played the role quite well.

On the US side, the realism level was generally high despite the fact that the Defense Department refused to cooperate in any way. The backstory leading up to the invasion was not greatly appreciated by the Pentagon. Still, Milius persevered. Through private contractors he was able to secure the use of UH-1 Hueys, which were still heavily used by US Army Reserve, and National Guard units in the late ‘80s. The helicopters are seen often in the first twenty minutes of the movie. The filming location contributed to the military realism. In the 1980s a wing of F-111s was stationed at Cannon AFB, three hours or so from the main filming site in Las Vegas, NM. Film crews were able to get some video of -111s flying low and use a couple in the opening minutes of the film. Later on during the scene where Colonel Tanner is getting ready to return to friendly lines, the camera shows F-111s and Air National Guard A-7 Corsairs flying in the distance. Milius used the video to project the US aircraft providing close air support, and even included a few lines of dialogue around it.

There is one last tidbit of realism from Red Dawn that I believe is worth mentioning. When Jed, Matt and Robert go into town they come across a number of burned out military vehicles, and shallow foxholes. The vehicles include an old M-151A2 jeep, and an M-42 Duster self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. Both of these were still in service with Army National Guard units in the late ‘80s. So how and why did they appear at this point? Well, earlier in the film, Colonel Bella is informed of ‘Yankee tanks approaching from the Great Plains.’ He instructs his 2IC to gather the men into hunter groups armed with RPGs, dig holes and when the Yankees approach Calumet to strike them. The vehicles encountered by Jed and others are undoubtedly the Yankee tanks Bella was told about. Looks like they didn’t make out too well.

Of course, all the authenticity in the world cannot prevent errors from happening. Red Dawn has its fair share. Some are noticeable to the larger audience, while others are more subtle, observed mainly by folks who either work in the defense field, are military buffs, or have been there and done that themselves, so to speak. There are also some mistakes tied to the backstory, however, I’ll discuss that more in the next post which will largely be about that particular topic. For now, I’ll lay out a few of the more tactical errors I’ve noticed in the film.

Calumet is attacked and occupied by Soviet paratroopers who were part of the first wave of the invasion. Their objective was to secure passes in the Rockies to cut off the Great Plains from the Western US. Quite believable but for some reason these crack Soviet airborne troops are commanded by a Cuban colonel. Even under the circumstances of attack, where Cuban and Nicaraguan forces play a major role in the invasion, I cannot buy the concept of elite Soviet soldiers being commanded by a Cuban.

Another mistake, this one more glaring and solid, took place in the scene where Colonel Bella issues orders to secure the gun records from the sporting goods store on the highway. A US Army Huey gunship is strafing the Soviet troops in town and the camera shifts for a second to a shot of a ZSU-23-4 rolling onto the street. Now, there’s no way airborne forces could’ve loaded a Zeus onto a cargo plane and air-dropped it on a pallet, and there is no way it drove up all the way from Mexico. It was cool to see the anti-aircraft gun there, but as I grew up and gained some knowledge, it became apparent the Zeus simply didn’t belong. For that matter, neither did the T-72, BRDM, or BTR. Soviet airborne forces didn’t have such heavy equipment and they couldn’t be airdropped. If an airport nearby had been secured, maybe, but I think Ivan would’ve brought in more than a handful of armored vehicles in that case. Maybe I’m nit-picking.

In any case, the next Red Dawn entry will focus on the backstory, events leading up to the invasion, and big picture events that take place in the background as the plot develops.

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

  1. Another great post, Mike. I’m really enjoying your Red Dawn series so far. I used to think many of the same things as you when I saw it, but I was always grateful for even the attempt at realism if that makes any sense? (like excusing the handful of armored vehicles for the fact that they actually had Soviet-looking vehicles and that those vehicles were completely believable as Soviet-made!). Another movie like this is “Courage Under Fire” which has completely vis-moded Abrams tanks but when you watch them all in an attack formation it looks damn good on the screen and for a single minute, you’re in the battle with these tired, American tankers and it’s the middle of Desert Storm.

    Anyways, keep up the good work, sir!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, sir! You’re totally on target about Courage of Fire too. I think they used Chieftains or Centurions and modified them to look like Abrams. Whatever they did, the tanks looked authentic and yeah, the attack formation and radio comms were all realistic. Underrated movie and one of my favorite Denzel Washington films.

      I hope you and your family enjoyed Thanksgiving!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A great post as usual, Mike. The Forgers being on the ground at Calumet is a bit of a puzzler; of course, the Soviets did use the YAK-38 in Afghanistan, experimentally, to no success. They had to use cold air injectors just to get the engines to operate, and in the high arid hot desert climate each one could carry two 100kg bombs. Not precisely rolling in hot with snake and nape…!

    I never noticed the discrepancy with the equipment, but I wonder if it hadn’t been pre-positioned by the Soviets for a rapid dash through the plains. Remember, Col. Tanner mentions divisions coming in through “Red Canada”, I think it’s entirely plausible in this scenario that with a nascent, Soviet-aligned Canada (Quebec seems most likely) they could’ve snuck a few divisions’ worth of armor in there. A terrifying prospect, no?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bill. Interesting point about the Forgers. I hadn’t realized they were tried out in Afghanistan. Makes sense though. Especially after the success the Brits had with the Harrier in the Falklands.
      Wow, the idea of sneaking a couple divisions worth of armor in is frightening and interesting at the same time LOL As far as the movie goes, I just think they wanted to show Soviet hardware and didn’t think too much about what would be available when and where. There certainly would be space in Canada to hide a few armored divisions but that much East bloc equipment would be hard to hide. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, if by the near-future time of Red Dawn NATO is dissolved, and Quebec did go “Red” then they might have had “Soviet visitors”, and certainly would’ve bought Soviet hardware in quantity…that was my thinking. And plus they would certainly have a polar air corridor open for transport. Hell, might even go surface over the Pole…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. The whole point of the Russians reinforcing with sixty divisions across the Bering Strait was always a bit far fetched. Sixty divisions is a lot and across that little ice bridge, I never bought it. Through northern Canada though, I can see that a little better.

          Liked by 1 person

      2. I figure up til that point it had been not an especially active sector. Gotta figure in any naval war the combloc baby carriers would have been prime targets and any air support is better than none. After the partizans proved to be a nuisance they may have made the sector a higher priority for the more effective hind gunships… yeah this may be painting a bullseye around the arrow after it already hit but its all fiction so its less of a big deal….

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I wish somebody would write a novel on the fictional war that took place around Red Dawn. It would be a great read, especially if done right


  3. Well, with “Mexico plunged into revolution” and all that stuff (NATO dissoved etc.) they could have shipped a lot of military hardware to Mexico and use its troops (together with Cbans and Ncaraguans) and all their hatred against “gringos” as a powerful fuel to empower the invasion (you know, “revenge the Chapultepec!” stuff etc.) I could easily see pretty much Soviet/WarPact divisions rolling from the south to link up with any troops heading from the north.

    BTW: in fact to cripple the US the Soviets did not have to capture a lot – just the Texas oil fields (“returned” to Mexico) and Alaskan pipeline (plus Canadian Athabaska oil sands). Coupled with the capture of Persian Gulf (say, by Iraq, which could win the war against Iran with the Soviet help) this would strip the US fromoil reserves necessary to wage war (and would also leave he Europe and China fuelless too…).

    Besides I suppose there are some air strips in the vicinity of the “Calumet” (and IMHO if the VDV land there, they must have at least some sort of air superiority – maybe there’s another air landing to capture ANG/USAF airbase too? and that would give the Soviets a perfect set of airstrips available to receive even the largest transports like An-124 and Il-76, that could send in some tanks and Zeuses). All other eqp like BMD or even BRDM is airdroppable.

    Peterson Buckley/Colorado Springs, Cheyenne Mountain… (especially the last one) are very precious targets indeed…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting point about another air landing. I don’t think there were any USAF or Air Guard bases around the foot of the Rockies back then except for Lowry AFB outside of Denver. And Denver is under siege apparently for most of the film.


  4. Oh, well, the US airbases could be attacked in rder to prevent their use by the US forces; however, for use by the VDV there were lots of non-military airfields in Colorado:

    I’m not sure, where the Calumet City would be located (had it existed in reality), yet we can check out, where would be the nearest airfield capable of receiving Soviet transport planes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was supposed to be right at the foot of the Rockies. So, mountains to its left, and the Great Plains to the right. Probably would’ve been an airfield somewhere nearby.


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