Tomorrow, When the War Began, based on the 1993 book by John Marsden, is about an imagined invasion of an un-named country that bears more than a passing resemblance to Australia. The plot is about a bunch of kids, who, on discovering that their country is over-run by a foreign power, take to the hills and form a guerrilla unit.
Red Dawn (pictured), originally released in 1984, is about an imagined invasion of the USA. The plot has a bunch of kids taking to the hills to form a guerrilla unit so they can fight the invaders.
These two pictures might sound like they have a lot in common, but they’re both very much zeitgeist movies; caught up in their political moment. One is cautious (and full of paranoia), while the other is bold, extreme and full of loathing for an enemy seen as tangible, and absolutely genuine.
Directed by John Milius (Conan the Barbarian) and written by Milius and Kevin Reynolds, Red Dawn was an unabashed rhapsody to revolutionary romanticism that just happened to catch the USA in just the right… wing mood. Beginning with a quote from American president Teddy Roosevelt (one of Milius’ heroes) – “Far better it is to dare mighty things, than to take rank with those poor, timid spirits who know neither victory nor defeat” – it’s a movie that bleeds with Milius’ very personal take on ‘rugged American individualism’. “I like the savagery of Americans,” he once told an interviewer. “We have tremendous energy and vitality… to disguise this or to be ashamed of it is despicable.”
There’s a scene in Red Dawn that illustrates he took this ideal on faith; when one of the boys in the revolutionary band, the Wolverines, betrays his comrades out of fear (and because he’s not yet matured into a killer), the group kill him with little hesitation, even though he’s just a scared and weak kid.
Made on a relatively low budget for an action film of around $4million, Red Dawn grossed over $40million in the USA, despite horrendously bad reviews that condemned the movie’s acting, script and direction, as well as its politics. (In fact its greatest controversy surrounded not its politics but its enormous body count; the National Coalition on TV Violence condemned it as the most violent movie ever made and calculated that there 134 acts of violence an hour!) Still, whatever its faults as cinema (and its knuckle scrapping view of politics), Red Dawn is a fascinating piece that says a lot about how much the world has changed (and how much it hasn’t). At the time of its release Reagan was in the White House and he was talking about ‘Star Wars’ – not the movie, but a weapons defence system plan to knock out Soviet missiles from outer space.
Stuart Beattie doesn’t exactly have a reputation for any overt politics. Better known as a screenwriter on pics like Collateral and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, he has directed Tomorrow as a scary but essentially upbeat tale of heroic endeavour. According to those close to the production, the filmmakers went to great pains to not identify the invaders. This could be read as a sure sign of political sensitivity, commercial savvy or an attempt to buttress a plot that begs an awareness of where Australia may actually sit amongst the globe’s major power brokers. Even the Asiatic language the film’s ‘enemy’ use is a construct of sound editors.
Milius, who wrote Apocalypse Now and was once heard to complain that Hollywood studios were never known for their political courage, stays true to his well-known right-wing convictions in his movie. He makes it certain from the beginning of Red Dawn who the enemy is; the invasion force is made up of Cuban and Russian troops. They’re a pretty ugly and stupid bunch and it doesn’t take much time for Milius’ heroes, a rag tag bunch of high school kids led by Patrick Swayze, to get the upper hand... at least in this small part of Colorado where the movie is set. Though, it would be a mistake to claim Red Dawn as some kind of sophisticated sop to a certain kind of politics. In a way, Red Dawn is very much a personal film for its maker. The films weird mystique, part-battle-ballad, part B movie, part political fantasy, part satire has its roots in Milius beginnings.
Milius, born in 1944, was a pal of the ‘New Hollywood’ brats of the ‘70s like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. After graduating from the University of Southern California in the late ‘60s he was considered a major talent and, with his taste for outrageous statements and love for guns, a bit of a crazy. (Apparently, John Goodman’s crazed Vietnam Veteran in the Coen’s film The Big Lebowski is by all accounts an accurate parody of Milius). He worked on Evel Knievel, Dirty Harry, and Magnum Force and two of his original scripts were made into major films by important directors: Jeremiah Johnson (Sydney Pollack, 1972) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (John Huston, 1972).
Meanwhile, his personal eccentricities, like his affection for guns, seem to take on a special significance. (Perhaps it didn’t help that he insisted, at one time, to have a contract honoured by ensuring he got an exotic firearm). “The codes I live by and the cultural institutions I admire,” he said in an recent interview, “were probably dead before I was born… Red Dawn really rang the critics’ bell… it was to be suppressed, and made fun of, and belittled…”
For those that remained earthbound, Milius’ surprising BO hit had its signs. Indeed Red Dawn was the first of a series of Reagan ‘Cold War’ pics that followed where the ‘Commies’ copped it; Rocky IV (1985), White Nights (1985) and Target (1985). The scary part wasn’t the paranoia – it was in the thought that war is worth it as long as you win it. That is, as opposed to winning the peace.