The war to liberate the Mickey D's begins...At Dawn.
"Soviet Union suffers worst wheat harvest in 55 years... Labor and food riots in Poland. Soviet troops invade... Cuba and Nicaragua reach troop strength goals of 500,000. El Salvador and Honduras fall... Greens Party gains control of West German Parliament. Demands withdrawal of nuclear weapons from European soil... Mexico plunged into revolution... NATO dissolves. United States stands alone."
The classic Red Scare film, released in the darkness immediately preceding glasnost.After the opening narration, we cut to a classroom of teenagers in scenic Colorado. Their little piece of America gets invaded by Soviet and Cuban paratroopers. Six students manage to get away in Jed Eckert's truck and escape to the mountains, where they become guerillas against the new communist regime. They're joined by two girls, Toni and Erica, and later downed pilot Colonel Andy Tanner, who teaches them some basic military tactics. Oh, and they have guns.Also noted for being the first onscreen pairing of Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze (who later costarred in the classic Dirty Dancing to the delight of fangirls everywhere), the first film to be released with the PG-13 rating, and (for fans of film music in general and Basil Poledouris in particular) the first soundtrack album released by Intrada.For the 2012 remake, see Red Dawn (2012).
Adult Fear: The film's entire concept is built around this, especially for Americans whom the idea of being invaded by a foreign power seems distant. Summary executions of family members, neighbors turning into The Quisling for the occupation forces, being forced into fighting against an overwhelmingly powerful hostile military by hiding out in the woods, hunted like animals.
Analogy Backfire: Only if one assumes this was analogous to the USSR invading Afghanistan. Many Taliban fighters gained experience repelling the Soviets, and would later use those skills attacking civilians. And, ironically, Americans.
Then there's this:
Colonel Ernesto Bella:[in the now-occupied Calumet, Colorado] It would seem necessary to win the support of the people. As our opponents used to say in Vietnam: "Win their hearts and minds."
General Bratchenko: And they lost, Ernesto.
Anti-Villain: Colonel Bella, who is an officer in the Cuban army, but finds himself sympathizing with the Wolverines.
Battle Cry: "Wolverines!" The Wolverines are the school football team. The protagonists leave the spray-painted symbol of their mascot at the site of ambushes.
Big Bad Ensemble: Colonel Ernesto Bella, General Bratchenko, and Colonel Strelnikov. General Bratchenko seems to be the one in charge, Colonel Bella is perhaps The Dragon (and the most sympathetic), and Colonel Strelnikov is the most dangerous.
Bilingual Dialogue: Cuban and Soviet troops speak Spanish and Russian respectively, with subtitles. Played for laughs in one scene when a Russian officer playing tourist pretends to translate a forestry sign, saying it commemorates a bloody Indian revolt. What he says is actually a history of the Colorado War. Apparently he really Did The Research.
Black Dude Dies First: The History teacher at the beginning of the movie is the very first person killed onscreen when he walks up to some heavily armed paratroopers thinking they're American soldiers in training who landed in the wrong place and goes out to greet them.
Creator Killer: John Milius' carer never was quite the same after Red Dawn.
Curbstomp Cushion: During the initial Soviet assault, an American chopper appears twice to attack and harass the enemy (including a rare example of The Cavalry saving the heroes at the beginning of the film). Throughout the rest of the film, the American military is repeatedly referenced to still be in the fight, if not near enough to help the Wolverines.
Dangerously Genre Savvy: Colonel Strelnikov "The Hunter", who not only thinks of ways to track (and later trap) the Wolverines, but also orders the reprisals against civilians to stop as it only creates support for them.
Day of the Jackboot: The USA has been taken over by the communists. Who will save us, if not teenagers?
Death from Above: Early in the movie, a lone American helicopter shows up a couple of times to strafe or fire rockets at Soviet positions, serving as The Cavalry in a Gunship Rescue at one point. Gets an Ironic Echo towards the end when a pair of Soviet Hind gunships slaughter half the group. Also, towards the last act of the film, we see American jets doing bombing runs in "No Man's Land".
Defiant to the End: The first group of civilians executed by way of reprisal for the Wolverines' attacks dies singing America the Beautiful in the face of the Soviet firing squad.
Also Robert, facing down a Mi-24 HIND helicopter with just his AK.
Dirty Communists: Averted; though the movie doesn't stint in depicting communist atrocities, some of the enemy soldiers are portrayed as human beings rather than evil faceless mooks.
Elite Mooks: Soviet Spetsnaz are brought in to track down the Wolverines. They're as effective as all the other mooks. They may however have been the ones responsible for the ambush that got Robert and Toni killed. Colonel Strelnikov is also the one who kills Jed and Matt, although Jed kills him too.
Et Tu, Brute?: The revelation that one of their own has betrayed them signifies a turn for the worst for the Wolverines fortunes.
Executive Meddling: Writer-director John Milius wanted to focus on the war is hell aspect, while the studio pressed for a more idealized presentation. The most obvious result of this is the tacked-on epilogue, which explicitly states that Americans won the war due to bravery of fighters like the Wolverines. Without it, the movie would have left it open if the efforts of the Wolverines changed anything in the end. The darker approach shows through in several places, such as how many of the heroes meet their ends in meaningless deaths.
Expanded Universe: A thread on Alternate History.com, which got to 335 pages (!) as of April 2011 before moving to its current location, is a so-called "double-blind what-if" in which posters role-play veterans of the war depicted in the movie. Much discussion on weapons and campaigns of the war, as well as on the fates of surviving movie characters; for example, Colonel Bella ended up defecting to the Allied side shortly after the events of the movie, became a U.S. citizen and helped U.S. authorities track down war criminals after the end of the war.
The Great Politics Mess-Up: Peace broke out with the Russians what, a year after this was made? And it's not like it was the height of the Cold War either, despite military overspending... But then again, the movie takes place in an Alternate History anyway.
Gunship Rescue: The movie would have been about 30 minutes long if not for an Army helicopter gunship arriving just in time to clear a path for the heroes to escape into the woods.
The Hero Dies: Which contributes to several more tropes being played straight.
Improperly Placed Firearms / Rare Vehicles / Just Plane Wrong: Generally averted with mock-ups ranging from machine guns to AP Cs and helicopters, though a sharp-eyed weapons buff can still tell the difference. Elite Mooks use the AK-47 rifle (or at least an effective facsimile, mocked up from the same Egyptian AK copies used by the other "Soviet" extras), rarely seen in movies made before the collapse of the Iron Curtain. A mock-up of a T72 tank was so accurate it reportedly caught the attention of two CIA men who wanted to know where it had come from.
I Need a Freaking Drink: Tanner needs one after the kids express their ignorance of common military tactical terms.
Insert Grenade Here: When the group is pinned down by a tank (which doesn't see them) one of the main characters attempts this but gets hurt pretty badly and is unable to complete the task. Instead he sets off a smoke grenade so that an American tank can spot the camouflaged Soviet tank and blow it (and him) up.
To be fair that soldier had no right to complain about Geneva Convention violations considering that his squad was tracking a man whom his side had tortured and forced to swallow a tracking device. Not to mention all the civilians his side had been murdering until recently. And the Wolverines are not soldiers either, so the Geneva Conventions don't apply.
Minion with an F in Evil: Colonel Ernesto Bella is initially introduced in a way that suggests he's the movie's Big Bad. However, not only is he not in charge of the local occupying force, but is shown to be far more reasonable than his Soviet counterparts (he criticizes them for the stupid tactic of shooting civilians after every Wolverine attack, saying that they're only gaining support because of it, which he knows from having been an insurgent in the past). He eventually becomes increasingly disillusioned with the war to the point where after the Eckert Brothers' last stand, he momentarily holds them at gun point before letting them go and dropping his gun in disgust. In other circumstances, Bella could well have been a classic Worthy Opponent.
In the scene where civilian prisoners/hostages are executed after the Wolverines make their first kills of Soviet soldiers, Bella is clearly far more disgusted by the town mayor's horrified reaction than by the defiance of the executed hostages.
Missing Backblast: Averted: In the final battle two of the American guerillas fire their RPG-7's at the command trailer used by a Soviet general. An enemy soldier who comes round the corner behind them at that precise moment falls to the ground screaming as he's been scorched by the backblast.
Subverted in at least one scene, where one of the Wolverines loses his hat while firing an RPG-7.
Monochrome Casting: Aardvark is the only Hispanic amongst the otherwise all-white Wolverines. For that matter, the history teacher is the only black man in the movie. He lasts all of three minutes. Possibly justified due to the rural setting, where minorities are rare.
Mood Whiplash: The movie keeps shifting between pure Narm (often with lines about patriotism and fighting spirit) and genuinely dark moments.
Never Trust a Trailer: One trailer shows Erica getting harassed by several Soviet soldiers, and when she tries to run away, they run after her - the implication being that they wanted to rape her - before being mowed down by her fellow Wolverines. In the actual film, those soldiers were just messing with her. Then Erica surrendered a lunch basket to them with a bomb in it, which promptly blew up their tank - only then did the soldiers give chase to her before being killed by the Wolverines.
California Doubling: The movie was filmed in Las Vegas. New Mexico. A small town where the plains and mountains meet about 100 miles south of the Colorado line. With the exception of a few mentions that they're in Calumet, Colorado no effort is made at all to hide it's actual location. New Mexico license plates are even visible everywhere. Likely a case of unfortuate implications as moving the setting to Colorado likely justified the monochrome casting. In fairness it might also have to do with Geographic ignorance where many believe New Mexico is not part of the United States. New Mexico magazine even has a humorous section titled "One of our Fifty is Missing" to show examples of this ignorance.
The Soviet soldiers in general. When they're not getting shot or blown up, they talk about their families, goof around, invent hilarious translations for English signage, and otherwise act a little like tourists.
One of the Wolverines asks this when Jed is about to execute both a captured soldier and the mayor's completely unwilling turncoat of a son.
Matt: What's the difference, Jed? Tell me, what's the difference between us and them?
Colonel Bella gets his moment as well when the aftermath of a Wolverines raid reminds him of his own guerrilla fighter past:
Bella: I have seen this before. But these are my men!
Nuke 'em: Precision nuclear strikes wipe out silos in the Dakotas, plus key communications points like Omaha, Washington, and Kansas City. Further strikes are averted by the Soviets' need to take the United States intact. Other countries though...
Jed Eckert: Well, who *is* on our side?
Col. Tanner: Six hundred million screaming Chinamen.
Darryl Bates: Last I heard, there were a billion screaming Chinamen.
Col. Tanner: There were. (tosses his booze on the fire, so it gives out a great burst of flame)
Still doesn't explain what happened to the other two-thirds of the nuclear triad. You know, the dozen or so Ohio Class Ballsitic Missle Submarines just waiting for the order to fire to come down, or Strategic Air Command, which had the distinct tendency to keep Bombers in the air at all times, just in case SOMETHING EXACTLY LIKE THIS HAPPENED.
One Sided Battle: The Wolverines regularly wipe out larger forces, even though guerilla doctrine advises using a large number of guerillas to attack much smaller army units. There is some thought given to tactics however, such as making an ambushed force take cover in an area covered by claymore mines, or using the girls to plant bombs. Also by the end of the movie all except two of the Wolverines have been killed.
Pragmatic Villainy: As stated above, Bella opposes killing civilians not because it is morally wrong but because it increases support for the Wolverines.
The Soviets using the gun store records to round up civilian weapons is a pretty obvious Take That from John Milius to gun control pushers and their gun registry laws, but making sure nobody in the occupied territory can shoot back is indeed a very effective strategy for an invading force, regardless of politics.
Precocious Crush: Erica falls in love with older and married Colonel Tanner, though there's nothing physical between them except a bit of tussling.
The Quisling: Mayor Bates. Unusually for this trope, he's clearly following the enemy out of fear alone, and justifies his actions with the belief that his cooperation will make things easier on his people. He is obviously terrified and disgusted by his town's new occupiers. It's an impressively realistic portrayal of a collaborator under an occupation.
Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The Wolverines at peak strength are two high school brothers, a cowardly friend, a bloodthirsty friend, a younger friend, a set of sisters they pick up, and a downed airman.
Shmuck Bait: The Wolverines see a Soviet truck drop some supplies on the road so clumsily that it screams too easy, yet they get them without suspicion and pay the price as a Soviet helicopter attacks.
Jed is clearly extremely suspicious... but he's also so tired of having to crush the others' hopes and dreams of being able to enjoy themselves that he gives in to temptation and lets them have some "normal" food (and thus pays the price).
They were also probably starving by that point.
Shout-Out: An evil Russian soldier named Strelnikov, for one. His introduction also resembles that of Colonel Matthieu in The Battle of Algiers: first seen in a military parade, then lecturing his staff on counterinsurgency tactics.
The code phrases broadcast by Radio Free America are a nod to those used to alert resistance groups during World War II. "John has a long mustache" was also one of the code phrases depicted in The Longest Day.
Took a Level in Badass: The Wolverines. They start out as fairly normal high-school kids, and end up causing the invaders all sorts of grief.
Truth in Television: When the film was released, NPR had a former member of the Dutch Resistance give a review of it. He said the movie exactly portrayed the life of a partisan force, including the desperation, mistrust, and "cannibalism" (ie, "swallowed a bug" scene) that occurs.
Villain Ball: The Soviets invade, and the first (on-screen) thing they do is shoot up a school?
War Memorial: The Wolverines carve the names of their fallen allies into Resistance Rock. The epilogue reveals it was turned into a formal memorial after the war.
Warrior Poet: When Col. Bella writes home to his sweetheart, it's nothing if not beautiful.
Weapons Understudies: SA 330 Pumas stand in for Mi-24 Hind-A gunships since the actual chopper wasn't the sort of thing you could borrow back in the day. The mockup ended up in several other 80s films as well.
World War III: And that's why you see Soviet soldiers in front of an American fast food joint up there. The sides are apparently the US, UK, and China against the USSR, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
Yanks with Tanks: A single M1 Abrams appears briefly, curiously unsupported by other armor or infantry.
In the same scene, two Russian tanks are also unsupported by infantry. In fact, their only anti-infantry defense is a single man on the mounted machine gun on one of the tanks.