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Terrible Movies for Troubled Times: John Milius’s Red Dawn

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It’s the end of America as we know it in this 1980’s combat extravaganza.

John Milius—writer, director, hardcore gun enthusiast. The man behind Red Dawn (1984) in many ways embodied the persona of America in the 1980’s—a Commie hatin’ son-of-a-gun who was a big fan of violence. When Milius made Red Dawn, a tale of high schoolers fighting back against a Soviet invasion, he created what Variety once called a “tribute to unbridled Reagan-era jingoism.”

Unsurprisingly, Milius served as part of the inspiration for the character of Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998). The Coen brothers said of Milius, “He was never actually in the military, although he wears a lot of military paraphernalia...Whenever we saw him, he’d invite us out to his house to look at his guns — although we never took him up on it.”

Instead of serving in the armed forces, Milius attended USC Film School. He began his career in Hollywood as a screenwriter, famously writing the script for Apocalypse Now (1979), along with two of the Dirty Harry movies. He later directed his own projects, and was at the helm of Conan the Barbarian (1982). A lover of martial arts, from a young age Milius was fascinated by all things Japanese, and studied judo and kendo.

While Milius has definitely contributed to some cinematic masterpieces, Red Dawn became the movie that summed up all of his campiest instincts. If the chant of “USA! USA!” was a person, it would be John Milius. He is a man with campy instincts to spare. But Red Dawn isn’t just camp, it is also ridiculously violent.

Screenwriter John Milius in a portrait in his Burbank office, Monday, July 23, 2001.
Screenwriter John Milius in a portrait in his Burbank office, Monday, July 23, 2001.
Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Originally, Red Dawn was called Ten Soldiers. A script written by Kevin Reynolds, the basic premise was the same, but Ten Soldiers was a small, gritty story that functioned as an anti-war piece. MGM bought it, but evidently didn’t really like it, as they hire John Milius, a dude who thoroughly loves war, to rewrite and direct it.

By the time Milius was done with it, the anti-war movie was awarded the title of most violent movie ever by The Guinness Book of Records. According to Guinness, the movie offers one hundred thirty-four acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute.

Red Dawn is also notable for its extensive and accurate-as-possible use of firearms. The Internet Movie Firearms Database had its work cut out for it as it detailed the weaponry used in Red Dawn. While some Soviet weapons were not available, Milius made careful choices in his substitutions. The actors trained with real guns so they wouldn’t make mistakes with the props. Actress Lea Thompson said, “We went to a firing range and there was every kind of gun you could imagine.” Milius carried a loaded pistol at all times on set.

The movie features Charlie Sheen’s debut, and prior to the final edit an extensive love story between Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey—much of which wound up on cutting room floor. A love scene between Lea Thompson and Powers Boothe was also cut when test audiences found their age difference creepy. Thompson was 23 in 1984, Boothe 36.

Red Dawn was made the hard way, with nothing but practical effects. All explosions and stunts are as they appear, no effects or miniatures were used. The shoot was made doubly hard by the extremely cold temperatures. It is one of the coldest film productions on record, with the temps regularly hitting -30F.

While the movie is beloved by many who grew up in the 80’s, it is also apparently a favorite of the US military. To Milius’s delight, the mission to capture Saddam Hussein was named Red Dawn, with key locations labeled Wolverine I and Wolverine II. “Wolverines” being the high school mascot of the teen soldiers, who then call their guerilla fighting unit the same name. If you’re wondering if they triumphantly shout Wolverines when they kill some commie bastards, of course they do.