Tag Archives: John Milius

The Summer of ’84: Red Dawn

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer moviegoing with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.

Red Dawn

Red Dawn Movie Poster

Release Date: August 10, 1984

Starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Powers Booth, Harry Dean Stanton, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage, Doug Toby

Directed by John Milius; Screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius

John Milius’ 1984 action/war drama Red Dawn is a movie that I’ve enjoyed on many occasions since I first saw it on cable TV back in the mid-80’s.  I was too young to see it during its theatrical release, and I was probably more interested in the non-action films like Gremlins, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that wonderful summer.  Despite missing it in theaters back in 1984, Red Dawn is one of those films that I stop and watch every time I come across it on TV regardless of how far into the movie it is.  Each screening leads to a new discovery for me, whether it’s the impact from a line of dialogue, a nuance of a performance or a hidden gag by director John Milius.  Many scenes in Red Dawn still stand out for me as some of my cinematic favorites, and the film ranks very high on my personal list of favorite war films.

It’s an peaceful small town morning in Calumet, Colorado.  Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) drops off his brother Matt (Charlie Sheen in his first film role) and friend Arturo (Doug Toby) at the local high school before heading off to his job at the town gas station.  History teacher Mr. Teasdale (Frank MacRae) gives a lecture on Genghis Khan (complete with a drawing of the Mongol overlord that is actually a caricature of director John Milius – a nod to his passion project to produce and direct a film on Genghis Khan), but his lesson is interrupted when paratroopers mysteriously drop in behind the school.  No sooner than he steps out of the building to find out what is going on, he is shot by a Russian soldier and it’s clear to everyone that Calumet is under attack.  Bullets rain on the school and RPGs blow up a school bus as the students try to escape.  Jed’s truck roars into the school parking lot and grabs Matt, Arturo and three other students Robert (C. Thomas Howell), Danny (Brad Savage) and Daryl (Darren Dalton) as the Soviet and Cuban armies take over the town.  They drive to Robert’s father’s sporting goods store and stock up on food, guns and supplies before hiding out in the mountains.

Their plan is to hold out in the mountains until it’s safe to return to Calumet.  After a month, the boys are low on food and have to take the risk of going back into town.  They walk through the aftermath of an American defeat and realize how desperate the situation has become.  Soviet tanks roam the streets, martial law has been imposed, books are burned, and Alexander Nevsky plays in the local cinema (with free admission).  They learn that Jed’s father and many other men of Calumet have been deemed too dangerous and have been sent to a re-education camp located at the town drive in where they are beaten and bombarded with Soviet propaganda.

On their way back to the mountains they stop at the home of Mr. Mason (played by Ben Johnson) and learn that Calumet is now part of Occupied Territory and that Robert’s father was killed for aiding them.  He gives them a radio and asks Jed to take his granddaughters Erika (Lea Thompson) and Toni (Jennifer Grey) with them.  But their mountain hideout is soon exposed when they kill three soldiers that found them by accident.  Cuban Colonel Bella (Ron O’Neal) steps up activity in the mountains and orders retaliation.  The sight of their fathers death by firing squad forces the teenagers to take the offensive and use the invaders own weapons against them.  They start a guerrilla war against the Soviet and Cuban occupiers, and with each small victory they let their enemy know who they are: the Wolverines.  Downed Air Forced Lieutenant Colonel Tanner (in a great performance by Powers Booth) joins them and gets them up to speed on the state of the war:

Red Dawn shouldn’t be categorized as simply an action film.  I’ve always seen it as a war drama with a solid script and carried by a strong cast.  The action scenes are just as hard hitting today as they were 30 years ago, and the dramatic scenes are more emotionally powerful than I remembered from previous screenings, with Patrick Swayze’s performance standing out the most.  Milius and Reynolds crafted a story that stresses the importance of family bonds, members of a community sticking together in challenging times, and fighting to persevere.  Ric Waite’s cinematography captures the beauty of the heartland and the home the Wolverines are fighting for, and Basil Poledouris’ strong, emotionally uplifting score sets the tone throughout the film.

Over the last three decades, every screening of this film was always met with enthusiasm among me and my friends.  But  a recent screening of the fantastic documentary Milius opened my eyes to some of the harsh criticisms of  Red Dawn upon its release, and the effect it subsequently had on director John Milius’ career.  If anything, I have an even greater appreciation of Red Dawn and John Milius for bringing it to the screen.  Sure some of his messages might be a little less than subtle and the viewer needs a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that a group of teenagers can take on the Soviet and Cuban armies.  But at the end of the day, Red Dawn is a fun ride and a great “What If?” story of a dystopian America at the dawn of World War III.

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The Summer of ’82: Conan the Barbarian

Fante’s Inferno is revisiting the summer of 1982, considered to be the greatest movie summer for fantasy and sci-fi fans.

Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian
Copyright 1982 – Universal Pictures

Release date: 5/14/82

Directed by John Milius; Screenplay by John Milius and Oliver Stone (Based on the works of Robert E. Howard)

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger (Conan), James Earl Jones (Thulsa Doom), Sandahl Bergman (Valeria)

Famous quote:  When asked “What is best in life?”  Conan responds: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women.”

The film begins with a blacksmith forging a sword…

I always loved that opening sequence.  The art of creating the weapon got me hooked on the story at age 10, and watching it this week at age 40 reminded me why.  At that point in my young life I was feeding myself a steady diet of fantasy books, Dungeons & Dragons, and Frank Frazetta’s artwork.

This isn’t a review, per se.  One thing I can’t bring myself to do with this film, or most others I enjoyed in my youth, is look at them with the jaded snarkiness that most other people would approach the film with in 2012.  I won’t judge the film by the primitive effects by today’s standards, the acting ability of Arnold at that point in his career, or whether or not I outgrew the film/genre as I got older.  For me, it comes down to these points:

1. Does watching it now remind me of why I enjoyed it back then?
2. Does the story still hold up for me?
3. Does the film reinforce what I like about the genre?

And so, how did it hold up for me when I watched it 30 years later?  Much better than I thought.  Although the special effects (or lack of special effects) would come across as dated by today’s standards, I actually enjoyed it more for that reason.  I prefer the old school approach on 35mm over today’s CGI overload.  If done today, the number of Thulsa Doom’s attackers in the opening raid of Conan’s village might ave been multiplied by 100 and the “real” actors might have been filmed against a green screen.  While I appreciate the progress that has been made with CGI (I’m not a luddite), and a filmmaker’s desire to create a landscape with these tools, regardless of how well it’s done it’s still a distraction to me as a viewer (although one CGI film that I thoroughly enjoyed was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow).  I will always have an appreciation for the lost art of the matte painting.

If there was anything I would criticize about Conan the Barbarian, it would be the slow pace of the film.  Clocking in at 2 hours and 7 minutes, a half an hour could have been cut just by picking up the pace in many of the scenes.

One thing I didn’t realize was how little dialogue Arnold had throughout the film, unless you count the 87 times he said AAAGHaaghAAAGHaaAGH!!!! when tortured or beaten.

Seeing the final shot of an older, wiser, King Conan on his throne at the end of the film and reading the final lines on the screen reminded me of how I couldn’t wait for the sequel back then.  Two years later my childhood friend Kevin and I saw Conan the Destroyer in the theater.  Even at age 12, the fantasy/D&D fan in me didn’t take the story as seriously as Conan the Barbarian.

This film was like an old Dungeons & Dragons campaign on celluloid.  Two swords up.

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