The Jingo Ate My Parable: How the ‘Red Dawn’ Remake Has Its Cake and Eats It Too

By  · Published on November 25th, 2012

When I first heard there was going to be a Red Dawn remake, I didn’t see the need. Even in a post-9/11 world, in which we have experienced a foreign attack on U.S. soil – unlike when the 1984 original could tout its related tagline of “In our time, no foreign army has ever occupied American soil. Until now.” – we don’t have the sort of Cold War worries of being taken over by an enemy superpower, regardless of the plausibility. We’ve entered a different kind of era of fear, of terrorists striking rather than foreign armies invading. In the last 20 years it has made more sense to see alien invasion films like Independence Day and War of the Worlds, because extraterrestrials seemed the more likely foreigners to conquer America if any.

And to an extent – especially given a certain ID4-ish plan involving defeating the invaders via their own communications system – the producers could have just changed the enemy in the Red Dawn remake from Chinese to aliens rather than to North Koreans. For one thing, it would remove any claims of racism or direct xenophobia on the part of the film. For another thing, we once saw aliens often employed as stand-ins for our “red” enemies and could just reference that as logic for how it could still be “Red Dawn” but now be science fiction (actually, the original Red Dawn is a kind of sci-fi). More than anything, though, it just doesn’t matter who the invaders are, because they’re not the real bad guys in the film anyway. The Americans are.

Of course, they’re also the good guys. But in the new movie, Jed (Chris Hemworth) points out, “Now we’re the bad guys. We create chaos.” The opposite, he says, is the good guys, who enforce order. This is something the character witnessed serving in Iraq with the Americans going in to build a new infrastructure while insurgents constantly fought back with discordant violence. He sees his gang of young rebels as similar to if not the same as the Iraqis, and so the Koreans as equivalent to the Americans – only as far as I recall, we don’t ever hear about their intention of liberating us or initially attacking because we’re manufacturing WMDs. Jed seems like the sort of smart soldier who gets that good guys and bad guys are interchangeable labels depending on where you’re personally standing. Both the Koreans and “The Wolverines” have their own order to enforce and their own chaos to inflict on their enemy.

To that effect, the Red Dawn remake could have been a fairly insightful film, albeit simply so, and it’s still an interesting take on the original in its consideration of the same premise now, during wartime. In the Reagan era the original was a jingoistic fantasy, like many action movies of the period produced to make up for the fading nationalism of the Vietnam/Watergate years, and while the onscreen plot ended on an ambiguous note the forced tacked-on epilogue indicated that the U.S. ultimately came out the winners of “World War III.” With the remake, the ending is somewhat hopeful but not conclusive in the same way, further relating the “Wolverines” to the perpetual resistance of insurgents and similar rebel groups.

The wartime context figures into an extra level for the premise, an idea that perhaps we couldn’t defend our borders because so much of our military is overseas enforcing order in other parts of the world. You could see a number of different points being made here on top of those made by the original movie. We need to increase our armed forces for domestic as well as foreign threats. We need to, as citizens, organize militias akin to what the Wolverines turn out to be in order to defend ourselves. We need to have greater intelligence in order to be prepared and warned about invaders as much as terrorist attacks. Your usual militaristic messages and any combination thereof. But nothing of the sort is blatantly spelled out, so it’s all on the viewer to see what he wants to see.

We can’t ultimately see the film as a parable about our invasion of Iraq and why the insurgents were justified, however. In spite of that clear connection made by Jed, his greater message is more about Americans being best in offense or defense. Whether we’re occupying or being occupied it’s all in the name of our own liberty and how synonymous that is with the U.S. When he says, “Fighting in your backyard, it makes sense,” he sounds like he’s still equating the Wolverines to Iraqi insurgents, but after all his talk about his teenage compatriots having to finally fight for a freedom they’d previously taken for granted, as it was “inherited,” the statement is really about the younger generation learning what it is to earn their liberty and see what our military is fighting for far away from our home.

There’s no flag waving or weapon festishizing on the level of Peter Berg or Michael Bay movies, but thematically the jingoism is there in the Red Dawn remake as much as it was in the original. Only now this film wants to also seem sensitive to our “enemies” in the real world (if not the one within the film, at all) and show an understanding of their motives. Really it’s conclusively stating the usual American belief that “it’s okay when we do it, because we represent the better ideals.” Perhaps Red Dawn needs to be remade once more, this time by a foreign filmmaker and set in a country that has actually experienced occupation before – — maybe even Iraq. It would be less of a “sci-fi” concept, but it’d make a necessary point.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.