Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon. The podcast about Hollywood and History.
I’m Lia Paradis
And I’m Brian Crim.
We’ve been talking about some pretty heavy stuff for the past few episodes. So today, instead of returning once again to the Cold War realities of twisted politics, threats of Mutually Assured Destruction, trauma on the home front, or McCarthyism, we’re going to focus on teenagers. This episode and the next are going to look at a number of films that came out in the 1980s, a decade when Hollywood seemed to cater to teenage audiences like never before. So it makes sense that the geo-political structure that shaped and influenced so much of global political action – the Cold War – would show up in movies targeting teen audiences.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere this season the Cold War was getting pretty hot in the 80s. Popular culture was preoccupied with the fear of increased belligerence between the US and the USSR, still smarting from the embarrassment of the Iran hostage crisis, and increasingly concerned (again) about nuclear war. So what would happen if Reagan’s rhetoric proved to be true? What if the Evil Empire really was an existential threat and America had to defend itself.
Well, this is where the teenagers come in. In the broader media landscape, the question was being asked: Could these post-Vietnam teenagers hack the reality of conflict like their dads and granddads had to? So, today we’ll be looking at two films about teenagers as soldiers – Taps, released in 1981, and Red Dawn, released in 1984. In both cases, what we see is a conversation about American military culture, whether it can still be counted on when times get tough. And if it can’t, if America’s youth reject it, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
The first lie is that the US in the 1980s had put the shame and disappointment of Vietnam, Watergate, the oil embargo, a recession, etc, etc. behind them and Americans were brimming with confidence and arrogance. Basically, what we want to stress is that events have a long half-life. Their legacies live on much longer than we might think.
The second lie is that an era – any era – is defined by a single dominant cultural framework: the zeitgeist is militaristic or it’s anti-war, the people are either self-sacrificing or conspicuously consuming. There are so many books about Hollywood’s muscular masculinity in the 80s, Reganism on steroids evidenced by Stallone, Schwarzeneggar, the usual suspects. It wasn’t that simple. We hope that through the movies we choose, we’re showing our listeners how popular culture is precisely where conflicting and opposing camps hash out competing ideas about what a society should value.
Let’s provide some high politics context for the teen culture movies we’re going to be focused on for these episodes. In the early 1980s, the USSR was hemorrhaging money on the ill-fated war in Afghanistan. The Solidarity movement in Poland was (embarrassingly) pitting union workers against a regime that was supposedly all about the welfare of the proletariat. Shortages across eastern Europe were common knowledge. Things were not looking good for the USSR.
In the West, on the other hand, the severe economic downturn of the 1970s – when the term ‘stagflation’ was coined – was coming to an end, but it took time. In the summer of 1980, inflation in the US was at 14.5 percent, and unemployment was at 7.5 percent. The combined inflation and stagnation numbers came to be known as the ‘misery index’ and it was at its highest point – 20.5 – in 1980. But in the 1980 presidential campaign Ronald Reagan promised he could turn all that around. It took years to get inflation under control, and the US fell into another steep recession in 1980-81. But Reagan implemented a combination of radical tax cuts and increased government spending in his first term. So Americans felt that the crisis was lifting even though the new found sense of affluence was really just being paid for by adding to the deficit.
Reagan also had the good fortune to benefit from the intentional timing of the release of the US Embassy hostages in Tehran on the first day of his first term. So there was a sense that a dark era of crisis and failure was now ending. And the US was safe, strong, and affluent, once again. And self-righteous. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US and allies boycotted the Olympics in Moscow in 1980. After the obvious international crime of storming and occupying the US embassy in Tehran, the US and allies made the new Islamic Republic of Iran a global pariah. Similarly, the Falklands War, in 1982, was sold by Margaret Thatcher as a clear cut case of unprovoked invasion by an anti-democratic junta which warranted a morally justified response by the still great British navy. All of which could be covered on the newly created 24-hour news channel, CNN.
All in all, the first half of the 1980s was an era of big rhetoric and righteous indignation in the West, amplified by the new reach of cable tv. But the sabre-rattling of Reagan and Thatcher was also criticized, as we’ve discussed at length. So were teenagers supposed to be ra-ra Amuricans, ready to go to war like their fathers and grandfathers did? Were we supposed to be worried that the youth these days were just too soft? And wouldn’t be able to defend the nation if called upon to do it? OR, were we supposed to be continuing the 60s anti-war movement’s rejection of the trappings and traditions of militarism? And continuing our questioning of morally questionable actions taken in the name of security? The Cold War was alive and well, and in its 4th decade. So what should the next generation of almost-adults be taught was their rightful role as citizen? Today we’re going to talk about 2 movies that answer that last question very differently.
It’s recap time. Taps, released in 1981, starred Timothy Hutton as the young Master Cadet Moreland, and George C. Scott as General Bache, the headmaster of Bunker Hill Academy, a private military academy steeped in the rituals and traditions of Christian military idealism. It also stars Sean Penn ( in his first movie role) as Moreland’s best friend, Alex Dwyer, who’s intellectual curiosity makes him less suited to the unquestioning idealism and obedience of the Bunker Hill culture. It also featured Ronnie Cox, Tom Cruise, Giancarlo Esposito and Evan Handler.The film was directed by Howard Becker, who directed The Onion Field in 1979 and later directed Malice, Sea of Love, and even a couple of Madonna videos. How very 1980s!
The story is based on a 1979 novel by Devery Freeman. An interesting character, Freeman was a minor screenwriter but was instrumental in the formation of the Writers’ Guild of America; he actively and successfully engaged in union work in defiance of HUAC and the 1950s red scare.
So we can gather from Freeman’s background that the movie was intended as a critique of mindless obedience, and militaristic masculinity. But for the first hour or so, the viewer is not quite sure how to feel about the bombastic but beloved General Bache, who leads a community of boys and men, ranging from the age of about 12 to 18. The plot is simple. General Bache is told by the trustees of the academy that it will be sold in one year and the land turned into a condominium development. This already has the cadets in crisis mode, particularly the totally devoted new Master Cadet (the highest rank below the general), played by Hutton. But then an altercation with a bunch of townies ends in tragedy as the general accidentally shoots one of them. At that point, it’s decided the academy will close immediately.
Moreland, Dwyer, and the even more gung ho Cadet Captain Shawn, played by Cruise, and other leader cadets played by Esposito and Handler, decide to refuse, take over the academy, and appropriate the massive arsenal that’s been stored there for years, apparently, in the name of civil defense. General Bache has had a massive heart attack and is in critical condition. But Moreland imagines that the general would be proud and supportive of the military operation he sets in motion, with children on sentry duty carrying loaded rifles and snipers on the roof keeping first the police and then the state national guard in their sights.
The rhetoric that Moreland is guided by is unequivocal. The general made it very clear that these boys were soldiers, and that the fight to keep the academy open was an honorable one.
Eventually, Ronny Cox arrives with the national guard and surrounds the academy campus. When a meeting between Moreland and some parents, including his own military father, fails to get results, the National Guard begins a psychological campaign, broadcasting parents voices pleading with their sons to give up. This continues through the night and, eventually, one of the young boys on guard duty decides he wants out. But he trips and falls running towards the gate, and his rifle accidentally discharges. The national guard open fire and another young boy is killed.
Moreland and Shawn (Hutton and Cruise) remain dedicated to the cause – Moreland because of his twisted notion of honor and duty at any cost, and Shawn because he’s a gun crazy psychopath – and the movie increasingly is suggesting those are 2 sides of the same coin. Dwyer (Sean Penn) and others,though, are starting to doubt. Pressured by Cox to give permission to the boys to leave if they want to, half the students step forward and leave. This, and his best friend’s criticism, along with news that the general has died, finally shakes Moreland’s certainty. This is further challenged by Ronny Cox, who makes it very clear that the General’s world view is not shared by him.
Moreland finally agrees to surrender and is leading the other boys to the front gates, when Shawn (the gun crazy psychopath) opens fire from an upper window. He and Moreland are killed as the national guard open fire. The final scene has Dwyer crying over the bloody bodies of both young men.
The commentary is clear – it is no longer right and good to mindlessly follow a code that devalues life in the name of honor. Taps is a clear rejection of that but also of the trappings that suck people into that. A lot of time is spent in this movie on prayers and quasi-religious ceremonies, and the fetish of uniforms, decorations, parades, salutes, tassels, berets, shiny boots and even shinier guns. The message is clear that these things have, for centuries, lured idealistic boys into a love of militarism but, like the candy cigarettes that were outlawed around this time because they acculturated children to smoking, boys should no longer be indoctrinated into the culture of Christian militarism to make them more willing adult cannon fodder.
In this moment, in 1981, America’s attention had also just been riveted, for 444 days, to another version of radicalized youth, fired by religious fervor, taking possession of a compound, certain that their cause is righteous – The Iran Hostage Crisis. The Muslim Students’ Following of the Imam’s Line (that was their official name) was the radical student group who stormed the US Embassy in Tehran on November 1979. The hostages would only be released on January 20th, 1981, Reagan’s first day in office.
Here’s an excerpt from a British Thames Television special on the crisis, filmed in its early days, when the focus was very much on the students. After the turmoil of the 60s and early 70s, the West were used to students being radically progressive. Here were students radically conservative and that paradox (it was certainly seen as a paradox in the West) stymied the West’s ability to grasp what was going on.
As the reporter says, the media was obsessed with trying to figure out who these students were and what motivated them. And so in Taps, which would have been optioned and filmed while the crisis was going on, when Timothy Hutton is confronted first by parents and then by the head of the National Guard to prove that none of the students are being held hostage, that they are all there of their own free will and shared his zealotry, we can image that movie goers would have drawn the parallel with Tehran pretty easily.
Our next film is Red Dawn. It has a very different message. And the US is a very different place in 1984 than it was in 1981. The shame of the hostage crisis, the national malaise that Carter truthfully named in the late 70s had been replaced by this point with Reagan’s morning in America. The effects of those tax cuts and deficit spending had taken hold. Let’s listen to that ad, and we’ll include it on the website, because it’s important to note that the America depicted in this ad is the same America we find ourselves in in Red Dawn. Other than in the first couple of shots, it’s a suburban and rural America. And other than a brief glimpse of a couple of kids, it’s a very white America.
Why would we want to return to where we were four years ago? This isn’t just a question about inflation or interest rates. The implication is also that we’d be returning to a feeling of failure and of vulnerability.
Red Dawn takes that question of threat, and the question of whether America’s youth had gotten soft in an era with no war, head on. It was directed and co-written by John Milius, who has the craziest resume: he was nominated for writing Apocalypse Now, and wrote one of my favorite movies of the era, starring Candice Bergen and Sean Connery, The Wind and the Lion. But then he really shifted gears and made not only Red Dawn, but another film that can be read as an interesting Reagan Cold War text – Conan the Barbarian. Milius’s production company is called Valkyrie Films – obviously a harkening back to his Apocalypse Now cred. He claimed he was blacklisted by Hollywood for being right-wing. And another interesting fact, Red Dawn was the first PG 13 movie.
The cast is almost the entire roster of the teen stars of the day. Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, and Jennifer Grey. The few grown ups include Harry Dean Stanton and Powers Boothe. We’re going to talk at greater length in the next episode about what was unofficially called the Brat Pack, the cohort of young actors who starred in the veritable tsunami of movies catering to teens that came out during the 80s. So we won’t get into it much here, except to point out that both Taps and Red Dawn are perfect examples of the darker, earlier, teen ensemble movies that include Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and Foxes. They were later replaced by something much more affluent, bubbly and shiny, even when they were ostensibly serious.
Red Dawn is set up with opening screen cards that provide a dire scenario that is completely implausible but would most definitely have seemed totally reasonable in the paranoid fever dreams of 80s hawks:
NATO disbands. The Green Party takes over in West Germany and demands all nukes be removed. Cuba and Nicaragua have 1 million soldiers activated. There’s a communist revolution in Mexico. “America Stands Alone.”
The invasion is supposedly plausible because it’s the Commies from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico who have invaded, not the Russians. And the resistance that emerges is supposedly plausible because this is Calumet, Colorado, where young men play football and were taught how to shoot guns and go camping in the winter by their dads.
Once again, the plot is fairly simple. One day, out the window of their high school class room, students and their teacher see Soviet paratroopers landing in a field. They open fire, indiscriminately killing people. From that point, the occupation of the town by a combination of Nicaraguan, Mexican, Cuban and Russian forces happens pretty quick. In a great nod to the NRA crowd, we see a bumper sticker that reads “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands.” Just then, a Russian paratrooper does just that from the pick up truck owner’s corpse. A small group of boys grab supplies and head for the hills in their pick up truck, led by brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt (Charlie Sheen), and including C. Thomas Howell who had recently starred in Coppola’s The Outsiders. In that, Howell was Swayze’s younger brother.
Jed and Matt were raised severely by their father, Harry Dean Stanton, so they know survival and hunting skills. But the crew includes boys who don’t. They had all been football players (the Wolverines – which is what they now call their unit), but not soldiers. And it’s also a mix of boys who immediately accept that they must now become soldiers, and those who can’t quite grasp the reality of the situation. But as time goes on, and civilians are put into re-education camps, the boys find out that people are being executed for resisting, including some of their own parents, and they realize they all must become guerilla fighters. They’re also asked to bring two teenage girls to join them, grandaughters of the gun shop owner who has been supplying them with weapons.
Lea Thompson, who had just made All the Right Moves with Tom Cruise the year earlier, is one of the girls and she becomes a hardened soldier traumatized by the death of her family. She has one of the greatest stupid lines in the movie after listening to “Radio Free America” mimic BBC radio during World War II, sending out coded messages to the resistance. “Things are different now.” You think? The other girl is played by Jennifer Grey, who will go on to star with Swayze in Dirty Dancing a few years later.
An air force pilot, Tanner, played by Powers Booth, is shot down and rescued by the Wolverines. He fills them in on what is going on out in the world. DC has been destroyed by nukes, which have also fallen on China. The film is Reaganites’ paranoid fantasy. Just the way the invasion happened is a racist, almost Turner Diaries scenario. Let’s listen to Powers Boothe describe it:
Illegals, Mexican border, weak Europeans. I guess the wild card is China on our side, but that’s Nixon-era thinking vindicated. Remember, China was opening up in the 80s to some capitalist thinking.
Under Tanner’s leadership, they get even better at making life difficult for the occupying forces. There’s disagreement among the Russian and Latin American leadership, with the Soviet general advocating for a brutal suppression of the insurgency, and the Latin American general advocating that they try to ‘win hearts and minds’ like the Americans did in Vietnam. The Russian general laconically points out that the Americans lost that war.
By the end of the film, there is no resolution of the conflict. The ‘victory’ is simply that 2 of the kids make it to the Free America frontier. Swayze, Sheen, Grey, Howell, and Powers Booth have all died for the cause.
In 1984, I can tell you that, at least in Canada, to love this film was a guilty pleasure, or something that had to be done ‘ironically’ because it was seen as quintessentially ra-ra Reaganite Amurica. So I think I’ve only ever watched it once before watching it for this podcast.
There’s actually a fairly high body count in this movie on the US side. Not just the usual token couple of deaths. And the desperation is also really interesting. The film starts out pretty light weight. The viewer is lulled into thinking this is going to be another Brat Pack movie of teenaged angst but it gets more and more serious as it goes on.
What’s interesting is that the script started out as a small art-house film, intended to be a taut allegory about the tenacity of indigenous fighters against an invading force, and about war corrodes the psyche of young people, and leaves no one in a community untraumatized. But Reagan’s ex-secretary of State, Alexander Haig, who was a hawk to say the least, was on the board at MGM when this script was optioned. He had been a general prior to his short stint in Reagan’s White House; in fact, he’d led NATO. He also famously claimed that he was in charge after Reagan was shot, and suggested that a “nuclear warning shot” in Europe might be useful to deter the Russians.
And so it can’t be too surprising that Haig saw a different potential in the script and insisted that a new director, Milius, be brought on. Haig also insisted that Milius work with the Hudson Institute to find a ‘plausible’ scenario for an invasion of the US. That’s the Hudson Institute founded by Herman Kahn, who we talked about in our MAD, MAD World episode. In the end, the anti-war allegory turned into a big budget film that Milius claimed was an anti-war film, but no one else seems to have had that in mind.
The National Review ranks it as the 15th best Conservative movie ever (whatever that’s supposed to mean). And the New York Times review stated that, “To any sniveling lily-livers who suppose that John Milius … has already reached the pinnacle of movie-making machismo, a warning: Mr. Milius’s Red Dawn is more rip-roaring than anything he has done before. Here is Mr. Milius at his most alarming, delivering a rootin’-tootin’ scenario for World War III.” This is a testament to the box office power of Conan a year earlier, and the Dirty Harry movies that Milius helped write in the 1970s. Because on average, Milius didn’t have a particularly reactionary or bellicose filmography.
We said at the beginning that the basic premise was laughable. But why didn’t it seem so to all those people eating it up in the theater? One reason was the cast and the other reason was that the threat from communist central America was a theme Reagan had been focused on. He even called a special session of Congress in 1983 – the year before Red Dawn came out – to give a speech about it. Here’s how he got Americans to seriously fear commies from the South.
So I guess Managua was also as close to Calumet, Colorado as it was to Washington, DC. And Cuban paratroopers could land in the school yard. It could happen…
So let’s return to our 2 lies for this episode. The first was that the optimism and arrogance of the 80s started right at the beginning of the decade. And that a curtain was firmly drawn on all of the trauma and pessimism of the previous 15 years or so. In Taps, we see the tragedy of young boys who are sold a bill of goods, not only by the general they revered but also by the parents who sent them to a military academy to begin with. It’s a commentary on the past and a warning about the future. But there’s a sense that little is offered as an alternative ideal to believe in. After all, the school isn’t being closed so that it can become a cultural center, or a Motessori. It’s going to be condos.
And Red Dawn may be arrogant and bellicose but it sure isn’t optimistic. It’s every fever dream Steve Bannon and Alex Jones have ever had. And I’m sure preppers everywhere have the DVD nearby for regular viewing (not streaming – they’re off the grid.)
We should probably talk about the significance of the Wolverines. After all, we titled our episode Wolverines! Why? Because Red Dawn is strangely relevant today because of the invasion of Ukraine. Days after it began and Russian armor was being destroyed at a dizzying rate, news casts started showing burned out tanks with Wolverines graffiti scrawled all over them. Facebook started selling Wolverines t-shirts in blue and gold, and Western volunteer units fighting in Ukraine called themselves Wolverines. This film has a long after life, obviously.
And our second lie was that an era is all one thing or another. These two films show us that the early 80s was an era where questions about militarism and what we want our youth to know, value and be able to do, was totally up for debate. If the popularity of the movies is anything to go by, attitudes were fairly evenly split in the country. Taps did 36 million in domestic box office; Red Dawn did 38 million. Virtually a wash.
We’ll see in our next episode a variety of ways that Hollywood tried to insert itself into the debate about irresponsible teenagers above and beyond the question of military readiness. We’ll take a walk down memory lane with MTV and video games. So dig out your leg warmers and your Atari cartridges.