The new Red Dawn movie is really just a throwback to the ‘80s ... the 1880s.
- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
This week, audiences will line up to see the new remake of Red Dawn, a cult classic of chest-thumping Reagan-era bombast in which a group of all-American teenagers — including the bulk of the future cast of Dirty Dancing — transform themselves into Colorado mujahedeen to fight off the invading Soviet and Cuban forces.
The remake — which features Thor star Chris Hemsworth in the Patrick Swayze role — has been mocked by critics and journalists for months before its opening, thanks in large part to the filmmakers’ decision to re-edit the movie to turn the invading Chinese army into far less plausible North Koreans. Yes, the idea of a country incapable of successfully launching a single rocket invading the United States is pretty far-fetched. But many of those laughing dismissively at the premise of Red Dawn were probably more than happy to plop down their $12 to watch a plutocrat in a bat suit fight crime from his private hovercraft or a suave British spy grapple a bad guy on top of a speeding train without wrinkling his immaculate Saville Row tailoring.
The reason why we find Red Dawn so much more ridiculous than Batman or Bond (well, apart from inferior writing, directing, and acting) may have less to do with the plausibility of the premise than the fact that images of invading armies fanning out across the American homeland are rare in contemporary pop culture — compared to terrorist cells, shadowy crime syndicates, or even aliens. But this wasn’t always the case. From the last decades of the 19th century until World War I, invasion scenarios and tales of future wars were a staple of popular fiction in both the United States and Europe. In many ways, the new Red Dawn is less a throwback to the 1980s than the 1880s.
In 1871, shortly after the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the unification of Germany, a British Army engineer and India veteran named George Tomkyns Chesney published a short story in Blackwood‘s magazine titled The Battle of Dorking. Told from the perspective of a former gentleman volunteer speaking years later in occupied Britain, it tells a tale of how disciplined and technologically superior forces (Germany is never mentioned by name, but it’s pretty clear who he has in mind) overwhelmed British defense at the decisive Battle of Dorking — putting an end to British freedom forever.
Alarmed by growing German militarism, Chesney’s scenario was a not-so-subtle call for the reorganization of the British military to defend an increasingly vulnerable empire:
I need hardly tell you how the crash came about. First, the rising in India drew away a part of our small army; then came the difficulty with America, which had been threatening for years, and we sent off ten thousand men to defend Canada — a handful which did not go far to strengthen the real defences of that country, but formed an irresistible temptation to the Americans to try to take them prisoners, especially as the contingent included three battalions of the Guards. Thus the regular army at home was even smaller than usual, and nearly half of it was in Ireland to check the talked-of Fenian invasion fitting out in the West. Worse still — though I do not know it would really have mattered as things turned out — the fleet was scattered abroad; some ships to guard the West Indies, others to check privateering in the China seas, and a large part to try to protect our colonies on the Northern Pacific shore of America, where, with incredible folly, we continued to retain possessions which we could not possibly defend.
As British intelligence officer turned literature professor I.F. Clarke recounts in his entertaining history of the genre, Voices Prophesying War, The Battle of Dorking wasn’t the first tale of future war, but the inventiveness of Chesney’s scenario and the timing of its publication — amid growing fears of German militarism and the quality of Otto Von Bismarck’s army — combined to make the story a sensation. (In its depictions of how the technological advances of the invaders would change the global balance of power, The Battle of Dorking is also considered to be a precursor to modern science fiction.) Blackwood’s quickly sold out its initial print run and proceeded to sell 800,000 copies of the story as a stand-alone pamphlet. Editions of the story were reprinted in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States and translated into French and German. Rebuttals to Chesney in the form of unauthorized sequels to his story like After the Battle of Dorking and The Other Side at the Battle of Dorking packed the popular press. The story was even adapted into a popular dancehall tune. Decades later, it would take on a second life as a Nazi propaganda pamphlet.
Prime Minister William Gladstone even felt compelled to address the Battle of Dorking sensation in a speech decrying the dangers of alarmism. "I should not mind this Battle of Dorking, if we could keep it to ourselves," he said in a speech to the Working Men’s Liberal Association on Sept. 2, 1871. "But unfortunately these things go abroad and they make us ridiculous in the eyes of the world."
Indeed, the phenomenon had already crossed the Channel. As Clarke writes, "From 1871 onwards, Chesney’s story showed Europe how to manipulate the new literature of anxiety and belligerent nationalism. Between 1871 and 1914 it was unusual to find a single year without some tale of future warfare appearing in some European country. Italy had La Guerra del 190 — a story of future naval defeat. In the story Vulnerable by Sea in 1900, a German author told of a future war against the combined forces of Russia, France, and Italy. The pseudonymous French author Capitaine Danrit churned out a series of jingoistic stories of 20th century warfare between 1889 and 1893 in a series titled The War of Tomorrow.
And back in England, writers continued to pump out anti-German, anti-French, and even anti-American diatribes in the form of invasion stories. (French and English authors often traded volleys across the Channel by writing similarly themed stories with different outcomes.) The master of the form was the famed yellow journalist and propagandist William Le Queux — Queen Alexandra’s favorite writer — who enthralled readers of the Daily Mail in the 1890s and 1890s with serialized titles like The Great War in England in 1897, The Invasion of 1910, and England’s Peril, the last of which infuriated the French government with the suggestion that its embassy in London was a nest of spies. Well-known authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, A.A. Milne, and H.G. Wells also penned future war stories. (The War of the Worlds was in many ways just an update of The Battle of Dorking with Martians substituted for Germans.) And P.G. Wodehouse of Jeeves fame parodied the genre in his novel The Swoop!
Naturally, it was only a matter of time before the genre crossed the Atlantic. Invasion stories were a staple of the American popular press from the 1880s on. As Clarke notes, the fact that — as opposed to European countries — the United States didn’t face any major external threats at the time meant that "American writers were free to declare war upon any nations they considered to be a threat to the future of the United States — British, Canadians, Chinese, Mexicans, Spanish, or Japanese." The Chinese threat was a particularly popular topic during the "Yellow Peril" craze of the late 19th century. And the British — often with their evil Canadian compadres — were popular villains, at least until Germany emerged as a clear adversary in the years leading up to World War I.
One notable example was H. Irving Hancock’s 1916 popular young adult novel Uncle Sam’s Boys at the Battle of Boston. Like Chesney, Hancock’s tale, set in the year 1920, was making the case that the United States was insufficiently prepared for the possible future defense of the homeland:
"Mr. Prescott, if the Americans are headed toward complete disaster at last, be sure that they fully deserve it. For years the Americans have been told, daily, that they were not prepared for just such an invasion as is now coming upon us. The military experts of this country have begged Congress to authorize a larger and more efficient fleet, and to provide an army large enough for handling capably anything that an enemy might try to do to us. But Congress and the people have gone on laughing — and now, over night, we find ourselves at war, and an enemy at our gates in numbers that assure the capture of every really valuable part of this country of ours!"
In Hancock’s story, one can see the ancestors of Swayze and the Wolverines in Bert Howard and the volunteer cadets of Gridley High School, who heroically defend New England from German invaders:
"My, those boys are tireless, and there’s some fine soldier stuff in them," murmured Lieutenant Greg Holmes, an hour later, as he watched the drill. "There ought to be good stuff in them," returned Prescott. "Back in 1916 there was a wave of preparedness excitement swept this country, and a lot of high school boys everywhere were drilled enthusiastically. Then, bit by bit, the interest began to die out, and to-day we have comparatively few high schools were real soldiering is taught. But in Gridley the enthusiasm never died out."
Uncle Sam’s Boys at the Battle of Boston was just the first part of Hancock’s series depicting a war with German invaders rampaging across the United States; later stories included In the Battle for New York and At the Defense of Pittsburgh. On the eve of World War I, this didn’t seem like a particularly far-fetched scenario. After all, it was a telegram suggesting a German-Mexican plan to invade the United States from the south that helped push American into the war.
The very real carnage of World War I, however, largely put an end to the fanciful genre, according to Clarke. Invasion stories never really recovered in popularity in the post-World War I period. In the interwar period, future-war fiction took a darker turn, with totalitarian dystopias and tales of poisonous gas clouds seeming to anticipate the rise of fascism and the carnage of Hiroshima, though there were still occasional invasion tales being produced, such as the dark 1929 novel Red Napoleon, which depicts a communist takeover of the United States. During the Cold War, books and films depicting a Soviet military invasion of the West were far less common than books and films like On the Beach and Dr. Strangelove depicting the threat of nuclear war, or The Manchurian Candidate, telling of undercover Communist subversion. When fighting did take place in America, the culprits were more likely to be extraterrestrials than real-world adversaries.
It’s fair to say that the development of the atom bomb sounded the death knell for invasion literature. Fulda Gap aside, it has been clear that World War III would likely end in nuclear disaster rather than armies streaming across the borders of industrialized nations. And since the end of the Cold War, movies like The Siege and television series like 24 and Homeland have reflected anxieties over the potential of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil — but there’s little fear, in either military planning or popular fiction, of battle lines being drawn on U.S. soil.
Which brings us back to Red Dawn. Even at the time the original film was released, the scenario was pretty far-fetched. "Those who consider the events set forth in ‘Red Dawn’ to be probable are no more apt to find the movie credible than those who regard them as ludicrous," Janet Maslin wrote in her review for the New York Times. Books and movies from the same era, such as John Hackett’s The Third World War: The Untold Story and Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October warned of catastrophic nuclear military confrontation with the Soviet Union, but they stopped well short of depicting fighting on U.S. soil. Red Dawn feels like such a bizarre outlier because, for the past 70 years or so, Americans have felt fairly confident that whatever threats they face, an enemy occupation is pretty low on the list. (Notable exceptions to the rule are video games like the Call of Duty series, which have allowed players to battle Russian baddies on the American homeland.)
Of course, as Clarke points out, the alarmist authors of the late 19th and early 20th century were strikingly bad at imagining what "future war" would look like. Rather than decisive Battle of Dorking-style routs, the modern military technology that was just over the horizon resulted in the grueling, brutal stalemate of trench warfare. He ends his history by noting that "This fiction has an almost unbroken record of failing to forecast the true course of future wars. The Germans never invaded the British Isles; and the French did not conquer Germany. When the long-expected war came in 1914, it turned out to be very different from the swift campaigns and decisive naval actions described in the tales of the ‘The Next Great War.’"
In other words, it’s easy to laugh at Red Dawn. But just because Hollywood has, for the most part, decided that terrorists, hackers, spies, and nukes are the real threats we should be worried about doesn’t mean we have any real idea of what the next war will bring.