THE PROBLEM WITH RED DAWN
Among sophisticates, Red Dawn is not artistically (read: politically) acceptable. It is artistically acceptable to show Americans dying in World War III, so long as the cause of their dying is the fated outcome of the arms race or a U.S.-inspired nuclear holocaust. It is not artistically permissible to show Americans fighting WW III. This is insensitive and unconscionable. It is tacky-particularly when WW III seems to have been started by an aggressive, militarily superior Soviet empire, and when nuclear weapons seem not to end the war or the world.
Red Dawn invites Americans, particularly young ones, vicariously to feel indignant that their friends and families are being murdered and brutalized in “reeducation” camps; it invites them to experience the fear and travail of being forced to rely on their own meager resources, and the pride of succeeding; it invites them to hate the brutal invader who has done this to them and their loved ones; and it invites them to take large satisfaction in killing this enemy.
Sensitive people know that this is not proper entertainment for American “children.” It makes susceptible young minds think that there may be enemies out there, instead of caring, sharing folks like themselves. It makes them think wars sometimes can’t be avoided and have to be fought. Worst of all, it teaches them that wars are won and lost, that there are victors and vanquished-an unspeakable thought.
Why is it that sophisticated critics become incensed at Red Dawn but delight in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic Alexander Nevsky, a tale of a thirteenth-century Russian defense of the Motherland? (Nevsky, incidentally, is the feature film playing in Red Dawn’s Communist-held town.) Such double standards reveal more about the critics’ political convictions (or lack of them) than about the films themselves.
Yet for all this, the film overlooks what is at the heart of America. The guerillas’ question to the veteran Air Force pilot who aids them-“Are we doing right?”-receives no answer. Previously, the pilot had explained that the war was simply a struggle between the “two toughest kids on the block.” What is the difference between “them” and “us” that could justify brutal actions, including their execution of a fellow guerilla? “We live here,” their leader explains. This is a necessary reason-and in the context of the invasion, doubtless a sufficient one-but it has never satisfied Americans, whether as moviegoers or as citizens. Regarding the international situation America faces today, the film’s healthy teaching is necessary but insufficient.
In both films and political life, Americans make the justness of their cause of paramount consideration. (See, for example, any WW II movie.) Epitomizing the silence on principle is Red Dawn’s final scene, in which the guerillas are memorialized by a statue and a placard honoring them for fighting “so that this nation might endure.” Omitted are Lincoln’s words, “or any other nation so conceived and dedicated.” But American nationalism has always been profounder than the simple extension of high school football the film implies.
Also distressing is the film’s comparison of the Soviet-Cuban invasion of the U.S. with the U.S. defense of Vietnam. The romance of the Cuban Revolution shrivels in the cold of Colorado, just as Vietnam destroyed American innocence. The subliminal message is: Each nation should mind its own business. In this regard the film is simply the flip side of the anti-war movies of the Seventies. This is foolishness at best, flag-dipping to the anti-Vietnam War crowd at worst. The principal flaw of Red Dawn is by no means the jingoism effete critics mutter about, but rather that it is soft on
Communism and even softer on democracy.
Call to Glory
Combine the Robert Duvall of Tender Mercies with the men of Right Stuff and a Sixties’ music soundtrack, and you get Colonel Raynor Sarnac of television’s Call to Glory.(Location: Edwards Air Force Base, two hours north of Claremont.) Responsible to his family, responsible, above all, to his country, U-2 spy plane pilot Sarnac has a major (albeit unsung) role in aiding President Kennedy to face down the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. Yet in mentioning the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the series only hints that Kennedy’s early weakness made the Soviet introduction of offensive missiles into Cuba a safe bet. Such weakness abided in the Kennedy-Johnson administration’s vacillating Vietnam policy, which resulted in the senseless deaths of thousands of real-life Sarnacs and, even worse, a demoralization of America which will never be completely overcome. (Red Dawn, see above, is a spasmodic reaction to this demoralization.)
The political intent of this series becomes evident with the episode in which President Kennedy inexplicably sends Sarnac to observe the effectiveness of the U.S. presence in South Vietnam. What follows is the same perspective television news gave us in the Sixties: South Vietnam is a corrupt, brutal society not worth fighting to defend, either for its own sake or as part of an overall strategic purpose. “What the hell is going on here!” a confused Sarnac mutters to himself. Unfortunately, it is quite clear.
The series wants to re-create the Sixties, and all they implied, in its viewers (to the Big Chill from the Big Thrill). In this regard, it is appropriate that John F. Kennedy dominates the action: Despite the “vigor” and patriotic rhetoric, the substance of healthy political leadership is absent. Sarnac, and the nation, is let down by his commander-in-chief.
The Karate Kid
Here is a rare film that matures its viewers. A strange Oriental apartment superintendent, whom we first encounter trying to catch flies with chopsticks, teaches a teenage boy how to control his life. Uprooted and fatherless, in search of love, Daniel reflects the aimlessness of contemporary society. But his love for a girl he wants to win over and his fear of local hoodlums skilled in karate compel him to become serious, and he turns to Miyagi for guidance. The seemingly utterly foreign Miyagi (whose name sounds like the Japanese word for prince or gift) teaches him karate by disciplining his life. This instruction itself seems to give Miyagi a purpose he too had lacked. His wife, we discover, died in a World War II relocation camp for ethnic Japanese, while he was winning medals in the American army. What had appeared foreign and exotic is in fact American, a quality not essentially of ethnicity or race but rather of one’s character.