Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"Red Dawn" and Cold War Culture

The release of the remake of “Red Dawn” (1984) takes us back to the Reagan era when the Cold War still dominated American culture.  Amazingly, an entire generation of Americans has come of age with no memory of this period when the battle with Soviet communism animated American life and politics.  Indeed, the original “Red Dawn” remains an artifact of a time of heightened tensions when war—either conventional or nuclear--between the United States and the Soviet Union seemed a real possibility.

Once the Cold War began in the late 1940s, its themes quickly worked their way into popular culture.  Horror films such as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) were also metaphors for a communist takeover of the country.  “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) famously showed how the Russians might use our own anti-communist demagogues to sow division and gain a foothold in the country.  Fears of nuclear war appeared frequently in movies, especially in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when films such as “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) and “Fail-Safe” (1964) premiered in theaters.

Science fiction also got into the act as the original “Star Trek”(1966-69) featured an UN-like Federation of Planets facing off against the warlike Klingon Empire, who represented the Soviet Union.  At the end of “Planet of the Apes,” (1968) Charlton Heston discovers that a nuclear conflict has ravaged the planet, displacing humanity from its place atop the evolutionary pyramid.  Though they did not disappear, such themes appeared less often during the 1970s when the Cold War moderated under the détente policies of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

Following the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, superpower tensions rose to levels not seen since the 1950s and early 1960s.  Reagan rejected the more compromising policies of his Democratic and Republican predecessors and promised a tougher stance against Soviet aggression around the world.  Not mincing any words, Reagan referred to the USSR as the “evil empire” and “the focus of evil in the modern world.”  His administration significantly increased defense spending and arms control negotiations between the two countries broke down as Reagan and our NATO allies placed Pershing II missiles in Western Europe to counter Soviet missiles in the Warsaw Pact.  Fears of the possibility of nuclear confrontation returned and were exacerbated by the fact that it was often unclear who was running the Kremlin as leadership passed quickly from one aging and ill leader to another between 1981 and 1985.

As with the early days of the Cold War, movies and television again reflected the anxieties of the time.  “War Games” (1983) and “Terminator” (1984) suggested that computers might precipitate a nuclear conflict between the two superpowers that could virtually destroy humanity.  Absent from the first two films, the Klingons returned to the Star Trek universe in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” (1984) as they fought to gain control of the Genesis Device, a nuclear allegory that could either bring new life to dead planets or destroy existing life on already-habitable worlds.  ABC aired “The Day After” in 1983, a television film that tried to realistically depict the aftermath of a nuclear war on the people of Kansas.  It became the most-watched television movie of all-time, provoking national discussion about the dangers of the arms race.

Some films were far campier as Sylvester Stallone, then at the peak of his star power, starred in two films with Cold War themes.  In “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985), Stallone’s John Rambo returns to Vietnam to free American POWs that have been held since the end of the war, defeating both Vietnamese and Russian troops in the process.  In “Rocky IV,” Rocky Balboa fights the steroid-enhanced Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in Moscow, eventually defeating the much larger Russian while winning the enemy crowd over in the process.

The original “Red Dawn” fell firmly into the campy category.  After Soviet troops attack Colorado with help from their Cuban allies, a group of young fighters led by Patrick Swayze retreat into the mountains and start a resistance group called “The Wolverines.”  An extremely violent movie, it was one of the first to feature a PG-13 rating.  I’ll spare readers the rest of the plot details, but “Red Dawn’s” plot did tap into the anxieties of the era, albeit in cartoonish fashion.

It is for this reason that I believe the remake will fail as a commercial venture.  No foreign nation today causes even remotely the anxiety that the USSR did during the first Reagan term.  Nothing better reveals this than the fact that the remake’s initial cut featured a Chinese invasion of the United States, but the studio vetoed this plotline because they did want to lose the potential profits from the burgeoning Chinese market.  While fears of China pervaded the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama and Romney competed to show who could be tougher in protecting American jobs from low-wage labor, not American lives from Chinese military aggression. In the final version, the studio altered the villain’s uniforms from Chinese to North Korean, but they also don’t pose the threat the Soviet Union once did. 

A classic scene from the original “Red Dawn” shows Russian troops outside that preeminent symbol of American capitalism, McDonald's. Of course, this scene did become reality because Russian troops eventually ate at McDonald's a few years later—in Moscow!  After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the USSR in 1985, he implemented policies supporting glasnost (political openness) and perestroika (economic liberalization).  As a result of the latter, foreign investment slowly entered the country. Unable to control the impact of his reforms, Gorbachev and the Soviet Union fell because of the economic stagnation of 75 years of Communist rule as well as four decades of American containment policies.  America won the Cold War and the original “Red Dawn” became a relic of a bygone era.  Still, the remake’s debut reminds us that a generation ago two nuclear-armed superpowers stood toe-to-toe with the potential to destroy humanity.

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