If you were the average, red-blooded, teenaged American boy in the late ’80s, you weren’t sure of too many things, if anything at all, but on one issue there was no tentativeness and no serious debate. The Russians sucked. The Russkies were definitely and unequivocally the bad guys.
Rambo told us so in Rocky IV (1985). Rocky told us so in Rambo III (1988). Tom Cruise said so in Top Gun (1986). And well before Sylvester Stallone and Cruise told us so, Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell in the 1983 film The Outsiders, starring alongside yet to be famous[yet-to-be-famous] Cruise and Platoon cherry Charlie Sheen), Texas boy Patrick Swayze (also in The Outsiders, and Dirty Dancing in 1987, Road House in 1989, and more), and older Texas boy Powers Boothe — and Charlie Sheen — all told us so in the surprise blockbuster of 1984.
One reviewer described Red Dawn as “a self-congratulatory little B-picture, the sort America does so well.” Set in the build-up to WWIII, it is “a loving chronicle of juvenile heroism in Russian-occupied Colorado” — which, yes, sounds absolutely preposterous. But bear with me.
One thing this pre-“woke” action flick gets right is letting schoolboys and schoolgirls take up arms — both Lea Thompson, who later played Marty McFly’s mom and girlfriend in the 1985 mega-blockbuster Back to the Future, and Jennifer Grey, Swayze’s yet-to-be-famous tango partner Baby in the mega-mega-blockbuster Dirty Dancing, perform feisty female combatant roles. All the children “caught behind enemy lines become crack guerillas overnight,” the critic goes on, and “slaughter nobly” and “die even more so.” At the time Red Dawn was released, it was considered one of the most violent films ever made by the Guinness Book of World Records and the National Coalition on Television Violence, because it featured 134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 acts per minute. As Todd Snider, my old college rugby teammate-turned-folk singer likes to say, “In America, we like our bad guys dead. … It’s called box office, baby.”
That kind of box office revenue (though it made Stallone and Cruise untold millions), however, contributes to a boxed-in or tunnel-visioned view of the world. Red Dawn stretched our red, white, and blue underwear into rabidly patriotic salutes, and this staunch patriotism fortified our political views and remained surprisingly potent in our minds, even as we became less potent in our bedrooms.
Then, Trumpism walked by in a red, white, and blue — but mostly white — bikini, and suddenly (and somewhat insanely) legions of Gen X men and seemingly all of their elders were reminded of those unchallenged, seemingly unassailable red, white, and blue underwear tents of yesteryear. Which was good or bad, depending on your susceptibility or naivete in general.
But now, a real Red Dawn is happening in Ukraine, and the voters, pundits, and politicians who offered standing salutes to Herr Trump’s friendship and admiration for Comrade Putin are soberly decrying the dictator’s actions but remaining silent on their complicity in the entire debacle. Their Orange Messiah is commending Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but his conservative and Republican supporters are simply compartmentalizing his comments, already separating the myth from the man and thereby self-censoring Critical Russia Theory to avoid contemplating their own culpability or face serious self-examination.
The same folks who had boners for the original Red Dawn and its gratuitously violent plotline — which followed them into their 50s — have gone conveniently limp in terms of memory, responsibility, and existential honesty, because it calls into question their votes, their worldview, and their fearless leader’s shit-stained, red silk boxers. Back then, these ’Muricans screamed, “Wolverines!” every time they orgasmed (with or without their girlfriends), but now that the Russians are really invading and slaughtering real Outsiders, real Rambos, real Ponyboys, and real dirty dancing Babys indiscriminately, American conservatives are grudgingly but quietly admitting their mistake or ignoring the whole thing.
How does that feel?
Is the worst thing about being an American conservative or Republican these days having a conscience or being forced to pretend you don’t have one?
Or having to forget you were young once?
The headlines out of Ukraine are straight from the Red Dawn plotline, and we’re seeing the movie again, except for real this time — but, instead of aligning himself with the Ukrainian freedom fighters, the MAGA faithful’s Orange Messiah was and is aligned with the bad guys from the ’80s. And now a vast majority of reTrumplicans can’t admit they were wrong.
Red wrong. — E.R. Bills
Fort Worth native E.R. Bills is the author of Texas Oblivion: Mysterious Disappearances, Escapes and Cover-Ups (History Press 2021) and Fear and Loathing in the Lone Star State (2021).
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. Columns will be gently edited for factuality and clarity.