1984’s Red Dawn is a hard-edged action drama centred on a sleepy small town in Colorado, which is turned upside down when Soviet forces invade the USA. In desperation, a small group of high schoolers flee to the mountains where they train to fight back, dubbing their band of freedom fighters The Wolverines.
Some viewers found it paranoid and laughable, others found it eerily plausible; either way, there aren’t too many movies which are as unmistakably a product of the 80s as this one. Here are some facts about Red Dawn which you might not have known.
20. Patrick Swayze was way too old to play the part
Red Dawn’s Jed Eckert, the big brother of Charlie Sheen’s Matt, who helps instruct the kids in outdoor survival and guerrilla warfare, was one of Patrick Swayze’s first major leading roles. After starting out with B-movie Skatetown USA and some TV bit parts, the Texas-born actor’s star had begun to rise in the early 80s with roles in The Outsiders and Uncommon Valour. However, despite his youthful looks, Swayze was actually a tad old to play a character meant to be a fairly recent high school graduate.
Jed’s age is never specified in Red Dawn, but it’s fair to assume he’s meant to be a bit younger than 32, which was Swayze’s real age at the time. The sadly missed actor would follow Red Dawn with 1986’s Youngblood (a strangely appropriate title), before making a certain other 80s classic which we’ll come back to…
19. The script was intended to be anti-war
Red Dawn was the brainchild of screenwriter Kevin Reynolds, who originally gave it the title Ten Soldiers. Reynolds envisaged it as a fairly small-scale drama in the vein of Lord of the Flies, with a staunchly anti-war sentiment. He also intended to direct it himself. However, while Reynolds would go on to direct the blockbusters Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, in 1984 he wasn’t established enough for studio MGM-UA.
After the Red Dawn project was declined by a number of other directors, it was ultimately accepted by John Milius, director of Conan the Barbarian and writer of Apocalypse Now. Known for his ultra-conservative political views and strong interest in military history, Milius set about rewriting the script, radically changing its tone and content until it became a gung-ho, rather than anti-war, movie.
18. The filmmakers were advised by the US military and a former Secretary of State
Former MGM-UA executive Peter Bart admits that once Milius was on board, it was decided to make Red Dawn “the ultimate jingoistic movie.” This was at least partly down to one man on MGM-UA’s board of directors: Alexander Haig. A former US Army General, Haig had previously been the White House Chief of Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford, and was later Secretary of State under Reagan, before resigning in 1982.
Haig reportedly took a liking to Milius, and advised the director via actual research on potential invasion tactics enemy forces might employ, according to conservative think tank the Hudson Institute. Milius drew heavily on the Hudson Institute data whilst rewriting the Red Dawn screenplay.
17. The Pentagon viewed the film as a way to recruit kids into the military
Alexander Haig may have been officially retired from politics, but his political links came into play on the film. When Milius’s first rewrites made it look likely that the film would get an R rating, he was instructed to tone things down for a less restrictive rating. Reportedly, this advice came direct from the Pentagon itself, who saw the film as a recruiting tool for the US armed forces.
There were concerns that releasing the film with an R would cut down on the teenage audience, to whom it was hoped the film would promote military ideals. For this reason, the script’s cursing was cut back, and – despite the high levels of violence – visible bloodshed was kept to a minimum.
16. The cast had military training and learned to handle real firearms
Much as the script had been informed by real military tacticians, the young cast were also drilled in warfare before production began. Before shooting Red Dawn, the film’s stars underwent eight weeks of intensive military training with real Green Berets. They were trained to handle real guns with live ammunition, to make them appear entirely natural for the film’s action scenes.
So serious was the approach, reportedly the cast would only be fed at the end of the day if their instructors felt they’d given all they could. Following this eight-week course, the cast then participated in exercises with the National Guard.
15. John Milius asked actresses whether they’d be willing to kill a rabbit to survive at the audition
In some respects, Red Dawn is a progressive film, in that it shows Lea Thompson’s Erica and Jennifer Grey’s Toni being every bit the equal of their male cohorts. Reportedly, Milius went to lengths to ensure the young women he cast in the film would have the requisite steel for it. According to casting director Jane Jenkins, the director would ask every actress at their audition, “What would happen if you were in the wilderness and you were starving? Could you kill a bunny?”
Those that were squeamish at the idea went straight to the ‘no’ pile, whilst those who said they would contemplate doing so in order to survive were considered further. So there you have it: Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey would both kill and eat a bunny rabbit if they had to.
14. The shooting location was so cold Patrick Swayze got frostbite
The vast majority of Red Dawn takes place out of doors on location, meaning the cast and crew were shooting in rural terrain during the winter. As a result, it was an extremely cold shoot, and often massively uncomfortable for cast and crew alike. Apparently the temperature on the set got as low as 0.14 Fahrenheit, or -17.7 degrees Celsius.
Even though the Red Dawn team were given Everest assault suits for warmth, it was still a struggle – among others, Swayze got frostbite. As such, in scenes when the cast appears to be shivering, that’s not simply acting – they’re genuinely having a terrible time.
13. Strelnikov actor William Smith was formerly a Russian linguist for the CIA
For the role of Soviet commander Strelnikov, Milius cast William Smith, both a seasoned character actor and a real military veteran. For viewers of Milius’s films, Smith is immediately recognisable for his brief but memorable appearance as Conan’s father at the start of 1982’s Conan the Barbarian.
However, prior to his acting career and role as one of Milius’ go-to guys, Smith served in the US Air Force during the Korean war. His career saw him fly secret missions over Russian airspace for the NSA, and work as a Russian linguist for the CIA. Small wonder that military enthusiast Milius would take a shine to him.
12. Several paratroopers were blown way off course shooting the opening invasion sequence
The eerie opening of Red Dawn sees scores of Soviet paratroopers soar down into the streets of Calumet, Colorado. This sequence was realised using real paratroopers jumping from overhead aircraft. While the Red Dawn crew got some very powerful footage, nature intervened in the case of some unfortunate paratroopers.
According to reports, the wind blew several of them way off course, and one of them wound up stuck in a tree far from the Red Dawn set. On being discovered by alarmed locals, the man in question had to explain that he was not, in fact, an invading enemy soldier.
11. The CIA investigated the set because one Russian tank replica was so convincing
Under the instruction of military enthusiast Milius, the crew went to lengths to ensure the weapons and vehicles used in Red Dawn were as accurate as possible. While the film ultimately benefited, this adherence to accuracy also resulted in the film being briefly investigated by the CIA.
Reports reached the agency about a T-72 Soviet battle tank being seen in Nevada, where the film was being shot. CIA agents were sent out to investigate, demanding to know where the vehicle had come from. In fact, the ‘tank’ was only a replica, but apparently a very convincing one.
10. Lea Thompson and Powers Boothe originally had a love scene
In a largely teen-dominated movie, the late Powers Boothe presents one of the few adult authority figures as Lt. Col Tanner, an experienced US Air Force officer. When Tanner arrives midway through the movie and joins forces with the Wolverines, a bond builds between his character and Lea Thompson’s Erica. In the first cut of Red Dawn, this relationship was more explicitly romantic, and included a love scene between the 36-year old Boothe and the 23-year old Thompson.
However, after some test screenings, this scene was deleted, as audiences were found to be uncomfortable with the age difference between the characters (remember, Thompson was playing a high schooler). This cut displeased Thompson, who says the scene was “terrific” and “the main reason I took the movie.”
9. Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey didn’t get along at all during filming
Red Dawn was the first collaboration between Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, who would become one of the most iconic screen couples of the decade on their next movie, 1987’s Dirty Dancing. However, while the duo have long since been legendary for their chemistry in the latter film, a big part of that legend is the fact that they could barely stand one another in real life. It was their experience filming Red Dawn together which gave birth to Swayze and Grey’s infamous tension.
This was at least in part because Grey did not appreciate being constantly bossed around by Swayze, who went method on Red Dawn, staying in character as the leader of the Wolverines both on and off-camera. Years later, once it became clear they would be working together again on Dirty Dancing, a reportedly tearful Grey allegedly begged the filmmakers to cast anyone but Swayze as her co-star.
8. It was the first movie ever released with a PG-13 rating
The plan to get Red Dawn to younger audiences paid off, as it was the first film released under the new certificate aimed specifically toward viewers in their early teens. US ratings board the MPAA introduced the PG-13 at the suggestion of Steven Spielberg, after concerns about the violent content in two of that year’s biggest PG-rated movies: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins. Red Dawn was not the first film to actually be given a PG-13 rating: that would be The Flamingo Kid, which was classified in the summer but not released until December 1984.
However, Red Dawn was the very first film to debut in cinemas with the PG-13 certificate attached, on August 10th 1984. Other films to be rated PG-13 in the certificate’s earliest days include The Woman in Red and Dreamscape.
7. It contained ‘the most acts of violence’ in film history at the time
While Red Dawn may have deemed mild enough to avoid the more restrictive R-rating, it was by no means entirely family-friendly. Not long after its release, Red Dawn was declared to be the most violent film of all time. It may not have been particularly gory, but the film made the Guinness Book of Records for containing the highest number of violent acts in a single feature film.
Guinness calculated that Red Dawn averaged out at 134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute, more than any other movie made at that time. An early DVD edition of the film played up this angle, with the option of an on-screen body count tracker included as a special feature.
6. The studio was forced to apologise to Alaska because of an inaccurate poster tagline
Both Red Dawn, and its marketing, played on fears about America’s safety from invasion. As such, the poster art for Red Dawn proclaimed that ‘no foreign army has ever occupied American soil – until now.’ This, however, did not take into account the Aleutian Islands campaign of World War II.
During this campaign, the Aleutian Islands of Alaska were invaded and then occupied by Japan between June 1942 and August 1943. Because of this oversight, studio MGM-UA issued a public apology to Alaska and its war veterans.
5. It was widely condemned for promoting warfare to a young audience
While Milius insisted he did not intend Red Dawn to be a pro-war film, many critics not unreasonably felt otherwise. The film and its makers faced widespread criticism for promoting right-wing attitudes and glamorising gun violence to young audiences. On release, The New York Times called the film “rabidly inflammatory,” whilst The Hollywood Reporter declared it to be “full of grand heroic flourishes that border on the self-parodic.”
Famed critic Roger Ebert was more damning, blasting the film as “corrupt from beginning to end… it’s a total fantasy pandering to teenagers.” Red Dawn is one of a number of 80s movies mocked in the Dead Kennedys song Rambozo the Clown: “War is sexy! War is fun! Iron Eagle! Red Dawn!”
4. The cast distanced themselves from the film’s politics – all except for Charlie Sheen
On release, most of the young stars of Red Dawn had mixed feelings about the film’s militant jingoism. A 1984 press junket reportedly saw Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey express anxiety about the film’s leanings, with the two actors keen to distance themselves from its right-wing associations. Patrick Swayze, meanwhile, argued that the film was more about the will to survive and the power of the human spirit, rather than politics.
Charlie Sheen, however, bluntly declared, “I am fed up with the Soviets. If they ever walked in, I’d be armed and ready.” He also mocked his liberal father Martin Sheen, jeering, “My father’s such a goddamn activist, he thinks he’s f***ing Gandhi.”
3. John Milius claims he was blacklisted by Hollywood because of the film’s political overtones
Regardless of whether John Milius had intended Red Dawn to be as jingoistic as it ultimately was, this perception of the director took its toll professionally – at least according to the director himself. Afterwards, Milius faced difficulty getting work: he directed only two more films, 1989’s Farewell to the King and 1991’s Flight of the Intruder, both of which flopped. By the early 90s, he had mostly reverted to working as a screenwriter on such films as The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger.
Milius would claim afterwards that he had been blacklisted by left-leaning Hollywood because of his political ideals. The director lamented in 1992, “If you don’t share the politically correct vision, then you are an outlaw, you are hunted and there is a price on your head.”
2. The real military operation to capture Saddam Hussein was inspired by the movie
We may not yet have seen a third world war play out as Red Dawn envisioned, but the film has nonetheless had a significant impact on military history. The 2003 military operation to locate and capture Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was named Operation Red Dawn, in homage to the movie. The primary target – Saddam himself – was even code-named ‘Wolverine 1.’
The operation proved successful, and Saddam was taken into military custody on 13 December 2003. Asked about the operation being named after his film, John Milius remarked, “I was deeply flattered and honoured. It’s nice to have a lasting legacy.”
1. The 2012 remake stoked tensions between the US and China
With its Cold War paranoia and Reaganite bravado, Red Dawn always seemed like one of those films that could only have worked in the 80s. Alas, studio MGM-UA found out the hard way that this was entirely true when they produced a Red Dawn remake in 2009. With a cast headed up by a then-unknown Chris Hemsworth, this new take on the 1984 film showed the US being invaded not by Russia, but China.
The film was unreleased for three years, in part due to MGM-UA’s financial difficulties, but also because its production had prompted a furious reaction from the state-run Chinese media, and releasing the film as shot would likely have threatened international relations. Once the Red Dawn remake was finally released to low box office returns in November 2012, the film had been re-edited and digitally augmented to turn the Chinese villains into North Koreans.