When it comes to geopolitics, Hollywood often has a striking ability to produce films that reflect and reinforce the prevailing foreign policy assumptions of the American political and military establishment, or which at least do nothing to challenge them.
So it’s not surprising that a film presenting Americans as innocent victims of Iranian fanaticism and the CIA as heroes should win an Oscar, or that Kathryn Bigelow should give an account of the Bin Laden hit that effectively backs up the Bush/Cheney ‘gloves are off’ justifications for torture.
Even so, the remaking of Red Dawn is a bizarre development. I remember this piece of Cold War drivel from when I was living in New York back in the 80s. It was scripted by John Milius, the uber-conservative, gun-loving ‘zen fascist’ who wrote the script for Apocalypse Now.
In the original version, Russian troops, aided by their Cuban and Nicaraguan allies, invade and occupy the United States and prompt armed resistance in the shape of a gun-toting bunch of all-American high school patriots calling themselves the ‘Wolverines.’
To call Red Dawn a gross distortion of international politics would be something of an understatement. The film came out during the largest American rearmament program since the early days of the Cold War, at a time when the Reagan administration was pouring money and weaponry into the death squad regimes of Central America and financing paramilitary groups to overthrow leftist governments as part of its policy of ‘rollback’.
I well remember reading in the New York Times that former members of the Nicaraguan National Guard were conducting military exercises in Florida in preparation for a military campaign against the Sandinistas – something that neither the NYT or any other media outlet seemed to think was problematic.
These groups became the nucleus of the Contras, which subjected rural Nicaragua to a reign of terror for more than five years, killing and mutilating doctors, nurses, peasants and teachers associated with the Sandinistas’ health and education programs in an attempt to make the regime ‘cry uncle’, as Reagan prosaically put it.
This was not how the majority of the US public saw things. Throughout those years, the Reagan administration praised these counter-revolutionary gangsters as ‘freedom fighters’ and insisted that Nicaragua – like Afghanistan in the same period – was a springboard for an eventual communist invasion of the United States.
The idea that a country of three million would invade the United States might seem objectively ludicrous, but many Americans accepted it, and the idea that ‘if we don’t stop the communists in Nicaragua we’ll have to fight them in Texas’ was common currency during this period.
This was the context in which Red Dawn came swaggering into the world. On the one hand it was pure Cold War propaganda, which drew heavily on what Richard Hofstadter called ‘the paranoid style in American politics’, in its depictions of an aggressive communist world conspiracy aimed at the subjugation and domination of the United States.
This worldview has a long cinematic tradition that includes films like Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, various James Bond films, and the British-made Battle Beneath the Earth, in which the Chinese army digs tunnels under the Pacific Ocean in order to ignite a nuclear bomb under the United States.
Red Dawn echoed these fantasies, and did so at a time when the Reagan administration was seeking to terrify the American public with the spectre of a global communist offensive. Milius has claimed that the Wolverines were inspired by the Afghan mujahideen, but like the first Rambo, the film also appealed to the macho survivalist, ‘let’s keep our guns’ types who went on to form the Patriot militia movement.
At its heart is the same vision of perfect rustic bliss that once attracted Timothy McVeigh and the author of the racist-fascist tract The Turner Diaries, in which red-blooded American males break with a corrupt and flaccid society and Washington’s ‘big government’ and retreat to the hills to be a good old fightin’ band of brothers, just like the original frontiersmen.
For that to happen, you need evil enemies to fight. In the 1990s, the Patriot movement found them in hallucinatory invasion scenarios about the New World Order, the ‘Zionist-Occupation Government’, and UN ‘black helicopters’. In recent years the Patriot movement has undergone a resurgence, galvanized by new potential invaders and threats that include terrorists, Iran, narcotraffickers, Latino immigrants, Hezbollah infiltrators at the US-Mexico border, and a black president who might come to ‘take our guns.’
All this has unfolded in an era in which fear and paranoia and an endlessly expanding array of threats has become the raison d’etre of a vast national security state. So perhaps the really surprising thing is that Red Dawn wasn’t made earlier. In 2002 the invaders could have been Iraq, Iran or other members of the ‘axis of evil.’
In the new version, the invaders were going to be Chinese, but were changed to North Koreans in order to avoid damaging the film’s commercial prospects. This probably wasn’t too difficult an adjustment to make, because the film’s target audience is unlikely to distinguish much between Koreans and Chinese – hell, those shifty Orientals all look pretty much the same, don’t they?
Nor is likely to ask why – or how – an impoverished dictatorship with a population of just over 24 million could invade the most powerful military nation in history. Because too many Americans have been told for too long that someone, somewhere is out to get them, and neither the political establishment or Hollywood appear to be in any hurry to change their minds.
As the trailer reminds viewers ‘Every day we go about our lives, unaware of the forces that threaten our freedom,’ and it clearly doesn’t matter too much whether these ‘forces’ come from North Korea, Iran or Nicaragua, so long as you can provide an opportunity for some patriotic recreational violence.
‘ For them, this is just some place, for us this is our home,’ declares one of Red Dawn‘s tough guy patriots as he promises to spread ‘chaos’ to undermine the North Korean occupation.
Many Iraqis could once have expressed very similar sentiments – and objectives – in response to the invasion of their country.
But I somehow doubt that Red Dawn‘s audience will make these connections.