[W]hat stands out about the movie…is how much it celebrates both war’s glory and war’s cost.

To many who saw John Milius’s movie Red Dawn when it premiered in August 1984, it’s an example of ‘80s action at its most extreme. It’s unapologetically pro-gun in its story about high schoolers in Calumet, Colorado, who use guerilla warfare to fight Soviet invaders who put their parents in POW camps. It’s unapologetically American, from its Teddy Roosevelt statue in Calumet’s town square to the anthemic score playing as the kids unload automatic weapons on Russian soldiers. It’s unapologetically cartoonish, particularly in a scene where the only adult protagonist, an Air Force colonel who parachuted in to help the kids, giggles while dropping a grenade into a tank’s hatch.

Yes, it would be easy to dismiss it as brainless—and, in today’s debates about the “Jesus and John Wayne” approach to masculinity, poorly aged. Yet what stands out about the movie—and perhaps one reason the lackluster 2012 Chris Hemsworth remake didn’t surpass it—is how much it celebrates both war’s glory and war’s cost. In fact, that tension pervades Milius’s life and work, making him an important storyteller in our interesting times.

The Futility of War

Milius is probably the most colorful member of New Hollywood—the first American generation to attend film school, who redefined Hollywood in the 1960s-1970s. The 2013 documentary Milius describes how he befriended George Lucas at the University of Southern California, becoming one of the so-called “USC Mafia.” Many in this group (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom co-writer Willard Huyck, for example) made their fortunes telling stories about adventure—either on Earth or in galaxies far, far away. Milius’s contributions included his Oscar-nominated script for Apocalypse Now, script contributions to movies like Dirty Harry and Saving Private Ryan, and directing Conan the Barbarian.

The obsession with war, by a man who never went to war, may explain why Red Dawn initially seems to give a schoolboy’s view of war as an exciting opportunity.

Initially, the record makes Milius look like New Hollywood’s only conservative. While many USC students reacted against their World War II veteran fathers and protested Vietnam, Milius was the son of a World War I veteran and craved military service. In a 2003 IGN interview, he called it “totally demoralizing” when asthma disqualified him from Vietnam: “I missed going to my war. It probably caused me to be obsessed with war ever since.” Apocalypse Now was molded by many conversations with soldiers who went to the war he missed. The obsession with war, by a man who never went to war, may explain why Red Dawn initially seems to give a schoolboy’s view of war as an exciting opportunity.

Just when Milius sounds like a proto-Mel Gibson, his attitude to the counterculture complicates that image. In a conversation with Francis Ford Coppola on the 2010 Apocalypse Now Blu-Ray, Milius talks about liking the Beatniks he met in his East Coast surfing days, not the hippies who followed. Yet the 2013 documentary includes USC Mafia member Walter Murch recalling Milius once said, “You know, I’m really a hippie. People think that I’m rightwing, but I’m really a hippie. It’s just that the hippies wouldn’t elect me king—and I want to be king!”

Rather than being a clearcut conservative or liberal, Milius has enjoyed defying labels. The ultimate Baby Boomer rebel—too radical for the establishment or the flower people—an attitude that shows up clearly in Red Dawn, where he plays war hater and war lover.

Halfway through the movie—after that Air Force colonel dies in battle—the high schoolers face a Lord of the Flies situation. One of them, Daryl, is exposed as a spy for the Russians. The kids’ leader, Jed, decides to execute Daryl and a captured Russian soldier. Jed’s brother Matt refuses to join the firing squad and questions their right to execute the Soviets: “What’s the difference between us and them?” Jed responds, “Because…. We live here!” and unloads his pistol into the Russian. His friend Robert finishes off Daryl. Not a particularly heroic answer.

Alfio Leotta observes in The Cinema of John Milius that the movie also shows surprising sympathy for the villains. Ernesto Bulla, the Cuban colonel helping lead the Soviet force, becomes disillusioned with fighting. Near the movie’s end, Bulla writes to his wife that he will resign after this campaign. When Jed and Matt launch their last guerilla attack on Bulla’s camp, he has them in his rifle sights but chooses not to fire.

In the end, only two high schoolers survive. Jed and Matt succumb to their wounds while sitting on Calumet’s park swings, an on-the-nose metaphor for childhood innocence lost. Their friends Danny and Erica escape Soviet-controlled territory. “We’re free,” Danny says. “Free?” Erica asks. To do what? The next scene shows a plaque commemorating their sacrifices. An anthemic score plays as an ending narration reads the plaque’s words about how Erica, Danny, Jed and their friends fought “so this great nation will not disappear from the earth.” It sounds so solidly pro-war. Reagan-era machismo at its finest. 

Yet given Erica’s words, one wonders. Nat Segaloff reports in Big Bad John: The John Milius Interviews that Milius saw Red Dawn as showing “the utter futility, the desperate futility of war. At the end of the movie, in spite of all the heroism and valor shown and the reasons and revenges on both sides, all that’s left is a lonely plaque on some desolate battlefield that nobody goes to.”

Christian Chivalry and Pagan Brutality

If Red Dawn shows war as both exciting and horrifying, it’s not unusual for a Milius story. Outside of writing Apocalypse Now, he’s probably most famous for directing Conan the Barbarian. Possibly the only 1980s live-action fantasy movie to (successfully) play the material straight, it paved the way for “grimdark” fantasy projects like Game of Thrones.

C.S. Lewis points out that pagan warriors celebrated toughness, but medieval Christianity… invented chivalry, which claimed “the brave should also be the modest and the merciful.”

Yet while Game of Thrones emulates the Wagnerian paganism of Conan, Milius doesn’t uncritically celebrate violence. The movie ends, at least in Milius’s director’s cut, with Conan pondering how revenge has eliminated his life’s mission and how he must find something else. Much like Erica and Danny in Red Dawn, it ends with, “Free for what?” Conan’s pagan warrior code, violence for vengeance or survival’s sake, doesn’t provide a sustaining lifelong vision.

In fact, pagan is precisely the right word here. In his essay “The Necessity of Chivalry,” C.S. Lewis points out that pagan warriors celebrated toughness, but medieval Christianity brought a new standard. It invented chivalry, which claimed “the brave should also be the modest and the merciful.” The combination is counterintuitive, but without it, “humanity falls into two sections—those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be ‘meek in hall’, and those who are ‘meek in hall’ but useless in battle.” Humanity wants brutality or passivity. Christian chivalry says that violence may be necessary, but there is more to life than violence. Its honor code enables warriors to be meek—which, in Jesus’ words on the Sermon on the Mount, meant powerful yet under control.

Most of Milius’s movies, whether it’s ones he directed or wrote, ride this brutality vs. honor tension. They follow warriors who want to celebrate violence. A young Conan declares that crushing your enemies and hearing their women lament is what is best in life. These warriors also find that violence has a cost. As Christ & Pop Culture contributor Cole Burgette observes, Dirty Harry is a conflicted cop who grapples with his worldview’s consequences. By the end of Red Dawn, even the survivors Erica and Danny are like Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now: too battle-scarred for polite society. Milius’s adventure drama The Wind and the Lion features a memorable scene where Teddy Roosevelt says America is like a grizzly bear: fierce, but that fierceness drives others away.

In fact, Teddy Roosevelt is key to understanding Milius’s Christian-cum-pagan worldview. He appears as the town statue in Red Dawn and as a protagonist in both The Wind and the Lion and the TNT miniseries The Rough Riders. Milius even contributed a foreword to R.L. Wilson’s biography Theodore Roosevelt: Hunter-Conservationist. As Benjamin J. Wetzel shows in Theodore Roosevelt: Preaching from the Bully Pulpit, Roosevelt had a vibrant childhood faith before loss made him skeptical. The skeptic fled loss to become an adventurer who boasted about “the strenuous life,” while his religious education provided the King James language he used efficiently in speeches. That is, Roosevelt lived his life between Christianity and Social Darwinism. Kristin Kobes Du Mez argues in Jesus and John Wayne that the second part, the mythology that Roosevelt created about turning himself from an asthmatic New York City boy into a Rough Riding bear hunter, helped invent the macho American image we often mistake for Christian masculinity.

Talking about Chivalry and Paganism Today

Milius can’t decide which side he prefers—the way of the pagan or the Christian warrior. As Kobes Du Mez and others observe, too many Christian nationalists today have that very problem…

The struggle to differentiate between pagan and Christian attitudes to violence recurs throughout history, from the Spanish-American War to our modern American culture wars. Some find the conflict especially hard to reconcile. Segaloff reports that Milius once called himself born Jewish but a “practicing pagan”: “I actually think the most sense of any religion is the Apache religion.” Yet Milius complains to Segaloff that hipness has replaced “the virtue of steadiness of honor or loyalty or honesty” in American culture. Quite chivalric values for a man who directed a movie where, after executing his friend in a firing squad, Robert screams battle cries as Russian helicopters mow him down.

The Christian-pagan tension makes Milius a curious but always interesting filmmaker to explore. The craving for honor sets him apart from directors like Michael Bay, who depict violence with no sense of its cost. The craving for glory sets him apart from friends like Steven Spielberg, who recognize honor requires a Judeo-Christian worldview. Spielberg returned to Judaism in the 1990s—the same decade he hired Milius to work on the script for Saving Private Ryan, which balances heroism’s call and war’s harshness more evenly than Red Dawn.

The Christian-pagan tension makes Red Dawn ambiguous, but relevant. It probably sums up America far better today than when it appeared in the Reagan era. It wants to talk about honor and vengeance. Battle glory and battle grieving. Nationalism and how warriors across nations (Colonel Bulla and Jed, for example) find that war brutalizes them. Milius can’t decide which side he prefers—the way of the pagan or the Christian warrior. As Kobes Du Mez and others observe, too many Christian nationalists today have that very problem, which makes Red Dawn maybe not a classic but an important movie 40 years on. At its worst and best, it challenges us to think about how we see war, masculinity, and honor.

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