Red Dawn, a movie about gun control

Note: This column appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Shooting Sports Retailer magazine. I chose to post it now because the NRA is looking for New Orleans residents who had their guns confiscated by the authorities after Hurricane Katrina. Also, about the time the magazine was published, a new Collector’s Edition DVD of Red Dawn was released by MGM.

Red Dawn: Scarier than you think?

Mention the 1984 film Red Dawn and you’re likely to get some extreme reactions. Some will tell you that it’s a pathetic piece of jingoistic Reagan-era patriotic propaganda while others will revere the, well, the film’s jingoistic Regan-era patriotic propaganda. While the story of a group of teenage freedom fighters fighting the good fight against evil Commie invaders was a great action flick for its time, many are surprised to learn that it’s not quite as simple, and maybe not as far-fetched, as it first appeared.

Medium ImageYou see, the film is a metaphor. And the Soviet invaders are playing the part of…get this…the United States government.

John Milius, Red Dawn’s director and final writer, made the film as an allegory for the unease many have about the growing power of the government and the growing militarization of police forces and intelligence organizations. He knew that Big Brother (recall that this film was released in 1984) was watching, and he knew that a lot of folks were more than a bit concerned.

An early scene in the movie, shortly after Soviet paratroopers drop into a rural Colorado community and begin shooting up the place, shows the ever popular “They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers” bumper sticker on a pick-up truck. Lying near the truck is a handgun grasped in the cold fingers of a dead gun owner. A Soviet soldier pries the weapon loose and claims it as his own. A subtle message this is not.

Milius, who wrote the screenplays for Jeremiah Johnson, Dirty Harry, and Apocalypse Now, among many others, is a well-known pro-gun personality, the sort of guy you normally wouldn’t associate with Hollywood unless he’s named Charlton Heston. Not coincidentally, Milius is a member of the NRA’s board of directors. The lead photo in a Creative Screenwriting magazine 2000 interview I dug up shows him with a cigar in one hand and a shotgun in the other. He wrote Captain Quint’s “USS Indianapolis monologue” in Jaws, and he contributed to Saving Private Ryan. This Hollywood-type is definitely no Hollywood-type. In the interview, Milius says, “People ask, ‘What’s that movie about?’ And I say that movie’s not about the Russians; it’s about the federal government.”

The film had to deal with gun control sensitivity in its own day, as well. The preview trailer for the movie shows a Soviet tank rolling up to a McDonald’s restaurant and Russian troops enjoying American fast food. This scene was cut from the film, apparently in response to the killing of 21 McDonald’s patrons by James Oliver Huberty in San Diego just weeks before the film’s release.

Cold, dead fingers aside, the scene in the movie that should send shivers down the spines of American gun owners and dealers is the one where the Cuban leader of the enemy forces orders his men to go to local sporting goods stores. He instructs them to take all the Form 4473s so that they can confiscate all legally purchased firearms from citizens. We later learn that one store’s inventory came up short (it had been given to the teenagers as they ran for the hills) and that the Soviets executed the storeowners because of the missing weapons.

Let’s jump from Red Dawn to Hurricane Katrina for just a moment. A couple of columns back (Setting the Stage, Battleground, March/April 2007 issue), I noted that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Superintendent Warren Riley were refusing to meet court-appointed deadlines in a lawsuit brought by the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation over firearms seized from legal gun owners after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, Nagin has been held in contempt of court and his lawyer has been ordered to pay some of the NRA’s legal fees due to his “wholly unprofessional” behavior. However, the mayor is still not providing the required information and the guns still have not been returned.

This particular issue is one that should concern all of us who own, sell, and shoot guns. The Russians in Red Dawn had to go out to each store to dig through paperwork. Today, someone trying to do the same thing merely needs to log into the database and pull everyone’s record. It wouldn’t take long to put together a comprehensive list. In the movie, one of the teenage freedom fighters betrays his comrades at the insistence of his father. Who is the traitor’s father? None other than the local mayor, who is cooperating with the invaders. The mayor.

When the film was first released, a reviewer wrote “…it is not so much pro-war as it is anti-State” and “In a neat touch, gun control has made it easy for the Commie occupiers to round up all the registered guns in the area.” I think it’s safe to say that all responsible gun owners favor reasonable measures to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, but how much is too much?

Twenty-three years ago, John Milius treated us to an action movie built on a subtext of government invasiveness and the dark potential for gun control. In the early days of the 21st century, that invasiveness and dark potential are more threatening than ever. Keep that in mind the next time you come across a re-run of Red Dawn on television. Neat touch.

–Republished from Shooting Sports Retailer. Do not use without permission.