Growing up and developing my own sense of identity through the products of popular culture in the Reagan era, I must admit that Red Dawn (1984) played an important role not only in defining the imaginative landscape of my six year old self, but also, I should think, in helping define and in producing my sense of the world and my place within it. While my Midwestern parents tried to forbid the violent and PG-13-rated product of the Cold War, I eagerly watched at friends and other relatives houses as a band of Midwestern high school students took on the invading communists shouting their high school motto “Wolverines!”
The film was formative in my early understanding not only of communism and the Cold War, but also my developing sense of masculine identity. The scene in which Soviet paratroopers descend upon and subsequently shoot up a rural American high school fostered a sense not only that these communist forces were evil but also that they could strike at any time and in any place. I needed to be prepared. So I would imagine myself, B-B gun in hand running around the Midwestern woods imagining myself ambushing and engaging in firefights with Soviet, Nicaraguan, and Cuban forces. Modeling my play after the Jed Eckerts and John Rambos of eighties popular culture, I unwittingly imbibed, performed and replicated pop culture’s understanding not only of foreign policy but also of what it means to be a “man.”
Years later when designing and teaching a course called “I Love the 80s(?): Pop Culture in the Reagan Era” at the University of Virginia, I considered including Red Dawn on my syllabus but ended up opting for another popular 80s action film, Rambo: First Blood Part II. As my course was primarily a writing course for first year students, I thought the less complicated and more exaggerated Stallone film an easier way to get students to recognize how politics and cultural beliefs and practices shape and are shaped by popular culture. To be honest, I think I kept Red Dawn from the syllabus primarily to maintain the special nostalgic place it still had in my heart.
Needless to say, when I heard that a remake was being made for a 2010 release, I both groaned and smiled. Personally, I was excited to nostalgically re-experience the joy, fear, and fascination that had created such an impression that it sent me to the woods of my parents’ half-wooded ten acre home to train against the immanent communist invasion for years afterwards. Academically, I wondered how they would translate the conflicts of the Cold War into a post-Cold War world, and thought that the very things I loved about the film from the ages of six to thirteen would anger me now.
My first thought was that the producers would translate the ridiculous idea of a Soviet and Cuban land invasion into something involving a terrorist organization. I was only moderately surprised upon discovery that the enemy was going to be Chinese rather than Al Qaeda. With the delayed release until 2012, I was more surprised when it was reported that in the delay the producers backed off from making its original invading force Chinese and opting instead for the North Koreans. According to some sources, the studios feared that making the Chinese the enemies within the film would mean that they would lose a large Chinese audience market. The confrontation between late capitalism and communism could never be so poignant in its contradiction. For fear of losing revenue from audiences in communist China, the capitalist producers went to great lengths to CGI Chinese icons and images from every scene and replaced them with North Korean ones. Communism must be feared and battled only insofar as that engagement does not mean financial losses.
The change to the remake’s script additionally had the unintentional consequence of implying the interchangeability of Asian peoples as many of the same actors and actresses of the original cut magically metamorphosed nationalities and different peoples with a little CGI magic that swapped Chinese stars and flags with North Korean ones. Since this aspect of the remake made the most waves, I will not reiterate those arguments here, and one can find some excellent discussions and posts on this subject HERE and about the anti-Asian Tweets the film expired HERE.
Instead, I would like to focus this post on an aspect that to my knowledge has not been addressed about the 2012 remake’s relationship to the 1984 original by exploring the shifting representation of masculinity from the Reagan era to today through the lens of the two films. By focusing on the characteristics of the traditional cinematic father as it changes and morphs from the 1984 to 2012, I argue that the father as represented in the original becomes split between Tom Eckert and his eldest son Jed Eckert in the remake. By focusing on the changes made to the character of Tom Eckert, we can see how conservative beliefs about parenting and masculinity inform conservative understandings of the threat of communism and the dangers offered by “liberal” parenting to American identity and masculinity. In both films, the Eckert family contrasts with the family of the local Mayor. While differing in the extent of their vilification of Mayor Barnes in the 1984 and Mayor Jenkins in the 2012, we can see how conservative notions of liberal and conservative fathers play into ideas of both American masculinity and parenthood. When we view the way in which the remake shapes its sense of masculinity and fatherhood, we can also see how the 2012 film perpetuates a conservative understanding of masculinity and uses that understanding to criticize what Glenn Beck and other popular conservatives represent as the dangers inherent in liberal parenting as they relate to the perceived fears about the Obama administration.
Perhaps partially informed by my own nostalgic relationship with the original, when I watched the remake film for the first time the other night, I was struck in particular by the way the two films offer very different Eckert fathers. In the 1984 version, the two main characters’ father, Mr. Eckert, played by the incomparable Harry Dean Stanton, does not get much screen time but casts a much larger shadow than his few minutes of screen time should produce. He represents a type of father typical of 80s popular culture. Stoic, intractable, and with hints that he might have been emotionally and physically abusive, Tom Eckert represents a complicated representation of masculinity and fatherhood. Unlike the 2012 remake, we do not really see the 1984 Tom Eckert much before the invasion, and, instead, only really see his character later when the Eckert boys find him interred in a local reeducation camp.
When the boys find Tom at the camp, they have the following exchange with their interred father:
Matt: Daddy. Dad.
Tom: Don’t talk. Don’t say anything. Let me look at ya. I knew I was right. I knew it. I knew you were alive. I was tough on both of you, and I did things that made you hate me sometimes. You understand now, don’t you?
Jed: Why are you here, dad? What’d you do?
Tom: Doesn’t matter. One way or another, for one reason or another, we’re all gone. It’s all gone. Remember. Remember when you used to go in the park and play, and I used to put you two on the swings? Both of you were so damn little.
Jed: I remember. I remember all of it.
Tom: Well, I won’t be there to pick you up when you fall now. Both of you have to take care of each other now.
The cryptic “did things that made you hate me sometimes,” while not an outright admission of abuse, does represent a type of fatherhood common in the films of the eighties. Tom’s statement here reveals the supposed value in a “tough” parenting style that prepares children (or most typically boys) for the hard truths of life and reality. In Red Dawn, Tom frames his tough model of fatherhood as preparing his two sons to face the threats of communism. As I will discuss below, nostalgia for this “outdated” and “traditional” model of fatherhood survives in contemporary conservative discourses on the “weakening” of American ideals and American power.
The film reiterates this type of stoic fatherhood several moments later when Jed and Matt learn their mother has been killed. This type of fatherhood often comes fused with beliefs about proscriptions against men crying, and such is the case for the Eckerts of the 1984 Red Dawn. When Jed asks about his mother and Tom silently acknowledges that she has been killed, Jed begins to weep, to which Mr. Eckert responds, “You can’t afford to be crying now. I don’t want either one of you to cry for me again. Don’t ever do it. Not as long as you live.” The Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) of the 1984 film does show emotion and here and elsewhere he does break into tears, but those tears are continually questioned as the film polarizes the emotions of sadness and anger, emphasizing the transferability of the two. Jed takes his father’s advice on tears seriously and Tom’s prohibition on crying becomes a key plot point in the Wolverines’ decision to increase the frequency and ferocity of their attacks.
In the aftermath of Tom Eckert’s later execution by firing squad, Jed shows that he has taken his father’s advice to heart as he beseeches his fellow Wolverines to convert their sorrow into anger.[ref]Don’t cry! Hold it back! Let it turn to something else. Just let it turn to something else. Okay? Listen to me. Listen! Don’t cry. Don’t you ever cry again as long as you live. As long as you live, never do it! You hear me![/ref]
While the scene makes me cringe looking back on the way in which Jed’s speech reinforced my six-year-olds belief that “boys don’t cry,” Jed, like my six-year-old self, takes Tom Eckert’s words to heart. The “something else” Jed wants his fellow Wolverines to turn their sorrow into, of course, is retaliatory violence. The same dynamic turning from sadness to anger surfaces in the reeducation camp scene in another way as Tom turns from love to aggression. Such proposed transitions are commonplace amongst pop psychology and pop culture which shape gender norms. Especially during the Reagan era, to be a “man,” these films tell us, must perform a stoic masculinity.
In addition to the prohibition against tears and crying, the scene at the reeducation camp includes the following exchange:
Jed: Dad, I love you.
Tom: I know you do, son. I love you too.
The moment is given greater emphasis and power precisely because one gleans from Tom’s character and from Harry Dean Stanton’s delivery the rarity of this sort of exchange in the Eckert household; a moment of tenderness that stands out because of its infrequency. But this moment only lasts very briefly and turns towards anger and aggression as the Wolverines make their way from the camp when Tom famously screams out “Boys! Avenge me! Avenge me!” Tom turns from a brief expression of love to the something else of vengeance, and, as we see in the “turn it to something else” scene, this fatherly instruction becomes key to Jed’s transformation from boy to revolutionary and communist fighting man.
Understandable enough given the context within the film, it should still be recognized that this product of popular culture also codes its gender types in situations far different from its own. This model of emotionless and borderline abusive form of masculinity dominated the popular culture of the Reagan era. The codes about the necessity of turning sorrow into violent anger, while suitable in the context of Red Dawn’s “World War III,” becomes problematic when audience members, like myself at six years old, begin to equate crying with weakness and are prompted to “turn it into something else,” to respond to sorrow with anger. These issues become more pronounced when one compares the 1984 Tom Eckert to the Tom Eckert of 2012. We encounter, in the 2012 remake, a very different Tom Eckert and a different model of fatherhood.
In the remake, the Eckert father transforms from a seemingly distant, stoic, and angry man to a loving and supportive small-town cop. While part of the change might depend on the fact that we do not see the 1984 Tom until after his arrest, the two stand out as very different models of fatherhood. From the very first scene, Eckert watches as his “cowboy” younger son, Matt Eckert (Josh Peck), loses a football game for his refusal to take instruction and guidance from his football coach. The visibly upset father Tom Eckert (Brett Cullen) storms away from the field and we half expect this scene to develop later into a scene where Tom confronts Matt about his inability to take orders, but that is not what the writers give us. Instead, as Tom leaves for work after a mysterious power outage that we later learn was the first wave of the North Korean invasion, we get a decidedly tender moment.
When Matt asks Tom if he saw the game, Tom responds with a surprising,
Yes, sir. I saw it all. I’m proud of you. You played your hardest. That’s what matters. They’re lucky to have you.
On the surface, this Tom Eckert stands out starkly in contrast with Stanton’s Tom. Whereas the 1984 Tom promoted a sense of stoic manliness and alludes to his history as a demanding and potentially abusive parent, this Tom is encouraging. We do not get the sense, at least from the way he interacts with his younger son, Matt, that this Tom would never need to apologize for being “tough” or for “doing things that made [Matt] hate [Tom] sometimes.” But this scene and the 2012 remakes’ version of fatherhood is not quite as different as it might initially appear. The scene is complicated by the double framework offered through its camera work, as the focus is dominated, not by Tom and Matt Eckert, but by the older of the Eckert boys, Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth).
Jed’s character undergoes an important change from 1984 to 2012. No longer the blue-collar gas-station worker of the 1984 Swayze character, the 2012 Jed is a trained and experienced United States Marine. Most likely changed to provide some plausibility to the idea that untrained high-school students could take on an invading army, the change also has the unintended consequence of shifting the emphasis away from a father-sons dynamic to one of a sibling rivalry that resembles the dynamics of a traditional father-son relationship. Jed, the older brother, takes on some of the aspects assigned to Harry Dean Stanton’s Tom. Whereas Swayze’s Jed has his own father-son dynamic to work through, Hemsworth’s Jed is already the film’s paragon of masculinity, stoic, and trained and prepared for combat.
It is through the double framing of Tom’s words to Matt about the football game, that the 2012 Red Dawn manifests a layer of complication I can only read as related to contemporary conservative thoughts about ideas of what it means to be a father and of proper parenting techniques. The film makes it clear, however, through its attention to Jed’s quizzical and disapproving face, that Tom’s encouragement is not the proper reaction to Matt’s antics on the field. The camera work centers the focus not on the exchange between Tom and Matt but upon Jed’s reaction to it, and we are led to believe that something about this style of parenting is doing a disservice to the reckless Matty.
This scene navigates some pretty complicated waters. I imagine the creators struggled with how to create a father who did not conform to the “tough” stereotypical father of 1980s film while simultaneously retaining some of the dynamics of that conventional treatment. What we see here is a type of tempered father figure whose liberal parenting style is not outright criticized but which we see framed through the eyes of an older brother who more closely resembles an older model of fatherhood.
To me, this exchange and the splitting of these two different father figures embodies the types of conservative critiques of liberal parenting offered by such conservative figures as Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. For them, the cultural shift away from the competitive spirit that distinguishes winners and losers to one that recognizes the value of participation. For Beck, liberals oppose the competition that makes late capitalism so grand and wonderful. And while having absolutely no direct relationship with Red Dawn, Beck’s self-described rant offers a similar convergence of parenting and governance that I’m tracing in the differences between the different father types of the two Red Dawns. While this has been a persistent theme in Beck’s radio shows, television shows, and webcasts, look at the way similar issues converge in Beck’s reaction to an Obama speech on December 7, 2011 (the relevant part starts at the 2 minute 18 second mark).
How many of our kids—do we look at our kids and say, “Oh, hello. Hello little orphan kid. I love you so much. I just want you to strive to be kind of mediocre. Kind of strive to be just kind of in the center. You know what you should really do? You should—you should practice really hard and you should run your heart out and work so hard and maybe end up at the finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. That’s what you should do. You know what you should do? Work really hard and someday—someday—if you work really hard, you’ll be able to achieve in school maybe a C, and you can get Cs from here to shining C. That’s what America is all about, little Billy.” No! You know who says that to their kids? Anyone who is still giving their kids one of these. [Holds up participation trophy] Participation. Oh, you’re participating. I hate these. I hate them. Here’s what I’d like you to do right now. This is the great thing about GBTV, because you can pause it. I want you to go into your room—the kids’ room—especially if they’re there, and, if not, wait until they come home, because I want your kids to go, “Mom, dad, what are you doing? What are you doing?” I want you to say this, “Where are your participation ribbons? There they are!” Partcpation. Participation. Then, go in and—participation, yeah. “These participation trophies, little Billy?” [Billy’s fake sobbing] “Yeah, yeah, yeah. They don’t mean anything. You know participation? That means you showed up. You gotta do more than that. And your little participation trophy? “Come on, little Billy, come on.” “But daddy, you’re scaring me.” “I know. Daddy’s getting really scary now, isn’t he? Come on. Come on, little Billy, we’re going to go into the garage and here’s your little participation trophy, and were going to put it right here. See? And this is what happens to participation trophies. This is what we do. We don’t believe in participation trophies. We don’t do that. I mean. Unless you want to grow up to be a Marxist. Because that would be great—if you want to be a Marxist.
Ignoring the bizarre dynamics that shift from the “little orphan boy” to “little Billy” whose father goes into Billy’s room to collect and subsequently destroy his ribbons and trophies in the family garage, Beck links fatherhood, the cultural (and, in his eyes, liberal) recognition of participation rather than winning and losing, and Marxist ideologies. For Beck, fatherhood plays an important role in making a “good” American citizen, and, while that may to some extent be true, he also bizarrely proposes that liberal parenting methods plot the country on a course headed for communism. For Beck (at least since 2008), the real danger of “Progressivism” shows itself in the election of Barack Obama, who, to the conspiracy-theorist mind, embodies a “Marxist” mentality. To close his half-comedic bit, Beck turns from the dangers of participation trophies to the dangers he thinks Obama comedically embodies, pointing to Obama’s head photoshopped onto Chairman Mao’s body.
Beck’s constitutes an interesting shift in focus from the representations of Soviets the American public acquired from the popular culture of the Reagan era. While not foregrounded in Red Dawn, other Cold War films taught us that the Soviets were often stoic to the point of sociopathic. Look, for example at the sociopathic Lieutenant Colonel Podovsky (Steven Berkoff) and mindless Sergeant Yushin (Voyo Goric) of Rambo: First Blood Pt II or Drago, the unemotional boxing machine, of Rocky IV, whose implacable emotional callousness stands in contradistinction to the heroes who embody an American emotional individualism promoted as the benefits of freedom that give America its competitive edge against machine-like Soviets. In Beck’s imagining of a communist threat to American values, the “Marxists” no longer retain their monolithic, sociopathic strength, but, instead, constitute a type of weak masculinity which he identifies and attacks as a hallmark of modern American liberalism.
Part of the difference is the change in “enemy” since the conclusion of the Cold War. Asian communists in pop culture have long played second fiddle to their Soviet counterparts at least since the Reagan era. The Soviets were often represented as hardened and sociopathic soldiers, Asians, however, were represented as, at best, “softer” enemies, and, at worst, as animal-like beasts of burden for the USSR. Look, for example, at Rambo: First Blood Part II, where the Vietnamese soldiers become the lackies using primitive methods of torture before the arrival of the coolly-rational and calculating machine-like Soviet supervisor, Podovsky. The same dynamic can be seen today in conservative responses to communism. Whereas the Soviets were represented as a powerful monolithic force that needed to be strongly confronted in order to be defeated, Asian communist countries were and still are represented as more of a dangerous nuisance (especially odd given the American defeat in Vietnam). This legacy continues today where conservative commentators like Beck, no longer having the Soviets to oppose, now see countries like North Korea as a source of derisive mockery rather than as a real threat to America and to an American way of life. In the clip posted above, both China and Obama paradoxically become both threat and source of humor in their juxtaposition. The real threat, in this Beck bit, is the decay of a strong competitive American spirit that he thinks has been weakened by liberal parenting and weak fathers.
In the remake of Red Dawn, Tom does not wholly embody the type of weak father Beck envisions, but his character is informed by a liberal sensibility. Despite the changes to Tom’s character, one can still detect a vein of conservative notions of fatherhood beneath the surface of Red Dawn (2012). The remake goes to some lengths to imply that Tom’s parenting style changed between the raising of his older son, Jed, and his younger son, Matt. The mother of the 1984 original which is mentioned several times and disappears without much fanfare, has disappeared entirely from the 2012 remake. As we learn later, Jed left for the service as a response to their mother’s death six years prior, leaving Matt, in Jed’s words, “right when [Matt] needed [Jed] the most.” The implication is that the Tom that raised the tougher and responsible Jed changed his approach to parenting Matt after the death of his mother. While somewhat speculative, reading the exchange and camera work about the football game makes much more sense in this context. It protects Tom from accusations that he might be the type of “soft” parent of the order Glenn Beck disparages.
From this point of view, although Tom Eckert stands as a figure of social authority (he is a cop!), and, from what we see in the remainder of the film, as a good father, his interaction with Matt concerning the football game represents a parenting type that conservatives like Beck not only associate with progressives and Marxism but that also reveal the weakening of America and constitutes a threat to American values and an American way of life. As Beck implies in his participation trophies rant, Tom’s type of encouragement weakens America, and, somehow, embodies the threat of “Marxist” takeover. Even if Tom’s parenting style is complicated by the fact of his dead wife, Tom’s relationship with Matt is tainted by his lack of emphasis on “winning.” Tom’s talk about the football game constitutes a type of participation trophy for which figures like Beck have such ire.
At the same time, the 2012 remake does not fully represent Tom as a “weak liberal” father despite his exchange with Matty. Instead, Red Dawn (2012) reserves that role for the local Mayor. While the character of the Mayor appears in the 1984 version of the film, the 2012 remake shifts the emphasis to reflect conservative ideology of another order. If his eldest son Jed constitutes an opposing father figure to the young Matt in the course of the film, Mayor Jenkins critiques a more exaggerated form of “Progressive” fatherhood that opposes both Tom and Jed.
Brought to the family cabin in the Pacific Northwestern wilderness along with Mayor Jenkins (Michael Beach), father to one of the other boys camped out in the mountains, Daryl (Connor Cruise), to convince the youths to surrender. Both Tom Eckert and Mayor Jenkins embody two different types of fatherhood as well as competing forms of American domestic authority. Tom Eckert, the cop, and Mayor Jenkins, the local politician, offer polarized and competing responses to their foreign attackers. While both stand as figures of authority, where Tom encourages resistance, Jenkins encourages submission. This becomes apparent when both offer speeches to the “boys” hiding from the search parties of the North Korean prefect, Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee).
Mayor Jenkins constitutes a radical reworking of the character of Mayor Bates (Lane Smith) from the 1984 original. As opposed to the ineffectual and passively traitorous Mayor Jenkins, Mayor Bates plays a much more active role in the 1984 film and in the subjugation of American citizens to the foreign oppressors within it. The earlier Red Dawn Mayor actively aids the communist forces both in smoothing the regime change as well as actively engages in ferreting out dissenters and the radical violent oppositional forces like the Eckert family.
We do not see a similar collaborative spirit in the 2012 version and, although he does work to support the occupying government, he does so in a much more limited way. The remake makes it clear that neither Eckert nor Jenkins gave away the location of the mountain cabin, but the suit-wearing Jenkins contrasts starkly to the police-uniformed Eckert as Cho leads them from a Hummer to convince their children to surrender. Eckert is visibly injured whereas Jenkins appears unharmed and more confused and shaken than injured.
Mayor Jenkins is given the bullhorn first, and he calls to the concealed youths,
Boys! It’s Mayor Jenkins. Captain Cho here is the acting prefect of this district. Now he says you seriously injured some of his men and he’s given me his word. If you turn yourselves in, no one’s gonna be hurt. Okay? …Boys? …Daryl? …Son? I’d like you to come home.
The linguistic space of the new government’s declaration that Cho is the “prefect” of this “district” already informs and shapes Jenkins’ speech as he treats the hidden “boys” as criminals to this new system of governance. For him, “home” remains a place that still exists and that one can return to. While not the smarmy and obsequious Mayor Bates of the 1984 Red Dawn, Mayor Jenkins’ speech is enough for Matt Eckert to declare “he can’t help us. He’s helping them.”
Compare this speech to Tom Eckert’s speech that follows once it becomes clear that Jenkins’ has not had the desired effect. Eckert takes the bullhorn.
Boys! If you’re out there and you can hear me, listen up! A tough situation all the way around. A lot of tough choices. I love you both. I hope you know that. What I’m going to ask you to do will be very difficult, but I want you boys to do what I would do. I want you to go to war and stop this piece of shit. Or die tryin’.
Despite the “softened” image of the father from the 1984 to the 2012 versions, Tom Eckert, like his predecessor, encourages, if not demands, a fight. While not quite as powerful as Harry Dean Stanton shouting “AVENGE ME,” Brett Cullen’s final speech to his sons promotes insurgency against the foreign oppressors. Denied the powerful exchange of Harry Dean Stanton’s Tom and his sons, Brett Cullen’s Tom only speaks to them through a bullhorn.
For Mr. Eckert of the original, the end does not come immediately after his demand to be avenged. Instead, as a result of the Wolverines’ continued attacks on Soviet troops, Mr. Eckert becomes one of the townspeople executed by firing squad in retaliation for those attacks. Eckert leads an evocative rendition of “America the Beautiful” just before the Soviet machine guns tear through the bodies of the crowd. His final act of defiance comes through a form of patriotism that might not work as effectively in Hollywood today as it did in the Reagan era. In this version, Mayor Bates looks like a co-conspirator in the war crime. Instead, Tom Eckert’s final speech and his execution come in the same scene, but Mayor Jenkins is not blamed for Tom’s death. Tom’s final moment occurs not on a firing line and singing “America the Beautiful” as the collaborator and responsible Mayor Bates looks on finally disgusted by his own actions, but occurs as a direct message to his sons hidden in the surrounding brush after Mayor Jenkins delivers a much more ineffectual request. It is the weak collaboration that defines Mayor Jenkins and distinguishes his character from his 1984 counterpart. It is also this weak collaboration that links the remake’s Mayor Jenkins to the conservative fringe’s paranoid fears and conspiracy theories about President Obama.
The remake shies away from the retaliatory violence of the original, or, rather, avoids the issue by presenting a single scene where the Wolverines interrupt the execution of a single townsperson who has helped them directly. Unlike the firing squads which serve as retaliatory punishment for the Wolverine attacks of the 1984 version, the 2012 Red Dawn stifles the messy complications of the first. The 1984 Red Dawn contains a telling scene where several members of the Wolverines question whether their own actions as makeshift revolutionaries (Oedipally?) result in their father’s deaths. For the 2012 remake, those complications are squelched entirely as the occupying force and their collaborating Mayor never quite achieves the same level of villainy as their 1984 counterparts. Even Tom Eckert’s execution comes from his direct defiance of and opposition to Cho rather tha in retaliation for the actions led by his sons.
Both films represent retaliatory violence not only as a patriotic duty, but also as the proper duty of a son, but with a major and, from a certain angle, baffling shift in emphasis. In the 2012 version, unlike the 80s version where the Wolverines are already engaged in attacks against the foreign invaders by the time the boys encounter Tom, the 2012 version makes its Tom’s final speech integral to the group’s decision to fight back. Such a shift in emphasis would not be as important had the remake version not metamorphosed the leader of the rag-tag band of blue-collar and high-school boys from the gas-station employee of Swayze’s Jed to the battle-hardened and ready Jed of Chris Hemsworth.
I cannot help but think the contrast between the white Tom Eckert and the black Mayor Jenkins is informed by conservative ideologies and politics where conservative anxieties about the supposed appeasement of China by liberals and President Barack Obama emerge in contrast to some sort of white conservative mythology of standing against the communist menace and threat. Whereas Jenkins encourages his child and his friends to surrender as a way to survive, Eckert uses this moment to demand resistance, and this moment of resistance results in his immediate execution. Similar to the Hollywood disaster movies rampant even prior to Obama’s election, it seems like only a black leader can preside during a time of crisis. As local mayor, of course, the responsibility for the attack is not laid at Jenkins’ feet, but the conservative concerns over the Obama administration’s supposed submission to Chinese authority bleeds though nonetheless.
In contrast to Mayor Bates, who idly stands by to witness the mass execution of Americans for the assaults launched by the Wolverines and who offers his own personal assistance to help ferret out the Eckert boys, Mayor Jenkins does little onscreen to suggest his willful collaboration. While he does appease his new foreign oppressors, Jenkins does so more for the love of his son Daryl and out of confusion and fear.
While his son, Daryl, and another African American Wolverine, Danny mitigate the racism of Jenkins’ submissiveness to foreign authority, the implication is that Obama and his administration willingly kowtows to Chinese influence and domination. Even as it includes the two black youths in the Wolverines, making their group much more diverse than that of its 80s collective of white Midwesterners, the film still establishes white masculinity as its model of American masculinity. While Daryl willingly concedes to go ahead with a terrorist bombing of a propaganda rally despite the fact that his father is unexpectedly in attendance, it is still the self-sacrificing, military trained, emotionally stoic Jed Eckert who stands out as the prototype of American masculinity within the world of the film.
Jed Eckert takes on some aspects of the original’s father figure. Somewhat distant and jaded by his experiences as a Marine during his tour in Iraq, Jed absorbs some of the aspects given to Harry Dean Stanton’s Mr. Eckert. It is Jed how criticizes his younger brother for his “cowboy” mentality and play during the opening scene’s football game. It is Jed who appears emotionally detached and aloof. It is Jed who encourages the Wolverines to form and fight against the foreign invaders. It is Jed for whom eliciting an “I’m proud of you” becomes a major turning point in the plot of the film, and can only occur just before his death.
Mr. Eckert’s character contrasts starkly with Tom Eckert’s. Whereas Tom immediately tells Matt that he is proud of and supports him, Jed calls out his brother for his selfish play and arrogance. This becomes a major dynamic between Jed and Matt through the remainder of the film, as Matt learns the value of working as a team and working together as a group. While we do not get a similar scene in the 1984 original, we can see more parallels between the 2012 Jed and the 1984 Mr. Eckert than between the two films’ Tom Eckerts.[ref]This brings me back to one last point about Jed Eckert’s character that relates back to the controversies surrounding the producer’s decisions to swap the nationalities of the invading forces. Instead of the more boyish Patrick Swayze of the original, Jed is played by Chris Hemsworth. The figure who seems to represent the film’s paradigm of American masculinity, who reiterates throughout that he is a United States marine, and who takes on part of the traditional role as the distant and demanding father, is played not by some American actor but by an Australian. While not of the same order and magnitude as the interchangeable Asian swap, I find it interesting that no one comments on the peculiarity of this less publicized and apparent nationality swap. Instead of the Houston-born Swayze, we get the Australian-born Hemsworth. Now I do not want to go Glenn Beck goofy in reversing and equating the racist paradigms used against “others” and reapplying them to how whiteness or “Americanness” suffers the same fate, but, in a film so steeped in issues of American identity and masculinity, I find the casting choice almost as interesting as the way in which its dynamics are ignored. The unacknowledged problem is that this choice does resemble the swapping of national identities found in that other switch, even if it has less racist undertones.[/ref]
The remake’s Jed offers a nod to Swayze’s “let it turn to something else” speech when Hemsworth tells his brother Matt to “rub some dirt on it” after he is responsible for the death of fellow Wolverine, Greg (Julian Alcaraz). In this version, however, we have no corollary offered by Jed’s father. Whereas Swayze’s Jed launches into a critique of crying that reiterates his father’s earlier prohibition against it, Hemsworth’s Jed offers this advice based on his own experience of warfare in Iraq. Whereas Swayze’s Jed turns crying into “something else” per his father’s instruction, Hemsworth’s Jed is already stoic, trained, and prepared.
The differences in the two Jeds and their relationships to crying speak to important cultural changes embodied in the changes to Jed’s character and as his new role as a competing father figure for the younger brother Matt. Whereas we see the 1984 Jed Eckert breaking down into tears both in the exchange with his father, Tom Eckert at the reeducation camp and again much later (snot bubble!), we do not get the same from the Hemsworth Jed. The closest Hemsworth’s character comes to expressing any emotions whatsoever is when he tears up upon witnessing his father’s execution. It is Jed whose telling Matt that he is “proud” of him towards the film’s conclusion that becomes a major emotional turning point signifying Matt’s assumption of manhood. It is Jed’s words that Matt repeats at the end of the film when leading troops on an assault against the local internment camp after Jed’s eventual death.
At the same time, however, the fate of the Jenkins family within the 2012 remake relates to its critique of American liberalism and of the Obama administration. Not only does Mayor Jenkins become the collaborating agent of political authority, but his son, despite his separation from his father’s stance throughout the film, seems to suffer for his relationship. In the original, Mayor Bates’s son, Daryl, is knowingly forced to ingest a tracking device that allows joint Cuban and Russian troops to locate the Wolverine encampment. In the remake, Daryl is stabbed by a Soviet Spetsnaz and unknowingly gives away their position that leads to Jed’s death.
The rewriting of Daryl’s tracking and fate has at least two interesting consequences for the 2012 Red Dawn. The first is that it results in an incredibly bizarre moment in which Jed’s potential yet underdeveloped love interest, Toni Walsh (Adrianne Palicki), grieving for Jed’s death, charges Daryl with her AK, shouting “You killed Jed!” While Daryl does not suffer the same fate as his 1984 counterpart, who Jed executes for being a forced yet knowing traitor to the group, Toni’s threat, even if only briefly, contains the suggestion that the unwitting bearer of a tracking device deserves the same fate.
Instead of being summarily executed, the remake Daryl chooses to be left behind in a heroic, if suicidal, act. Asking for his friend Robert’s SAW, Daryl redeems himself for his unintentional role in their ambush, but he also seems to be punished for his role as his father’s son. Whereas the relationship between Mayor Bates and Daryl Bates appear more related in their familial ability to sell out their friends and fellow Americans, the defining logic, once rewritten in the 2012 version, appears to create an unusual scenario with a potential political message and agenda. Just as Mayor Jenkins does not directly aid the occupying government (at least not onscreen) as Mayor Bates does, Daryl Jenkins does not directly and knowingly assist the invading troops in the way Daryl Bates does.
If we can read Mayor Jenkins as an embodiment of conservative fears of the Obama administration’s complicity with China, Daryl, too, becomes linked to this motif through his familial ties. Daryl, unwittingly tagged with a subversive device becomes the agent through which the communists track and attack, killing the film’s paragon of American masculinity, Jed Eckert. Daryl, like the paranoid fantasies of Glenn Beck, is infected with an odd blend of liberalism and “Marxism” both by blood and by the injected tracking device. Rather than becoming a traitor to the group, Daryl redeems himself yet again by offering himself rather than his previously offered father as a sacrifice for the group, but, like Daryl Bates, the punishment for his allegiances and actions result in his expulsion from the group and, presumably, his death. From a certain angle, Daryl can be seen as what Glenn Beck likes to describe as the “useful idiots” of progressivism and ‘Marxism,’ which Beck uses as a blanket term for what he sees as the unfortunate victims of liberal ideals who are really unwitting agents for a “Marxist” takeover of America.
If such conservative ideology does lie behind the 2012 remake, it tempers its critique of liberalism by making their agents not actively complicit in the communist takeover. The Jenkinses become less and un-willing traitors to a capitalistic American order unlike the Bateses which actively participate in the subjugation of America and Americans to foreign powers. At the same time, the fringe conservatism of those like Glenn Beck emerge from this revamped product of the Reagan era by reshaping Tom Eckert and his relationship with the Mayors Bates and Jenkins. Whereas the 80s Mayor Bates presents an overt suspicion of politicians and bureaucrats, the 2012 Mayor Jenkins presents a weaker ineffectual leader who is all too ready to submit to communist authority.
Unlike the Red Dawn of 1984, 2012 gave us another model of fully-formed American masculinity in its Jed Eckert. Not a story of his maturation and development, the newer Red Dawn gives us a grown military hero who is represented as the film’s paragon of masculinity and he plays, to a much greater extent, the father’s role within the film. Matt becomes much more directly a product of Jed’s instruction than his father’s. From the opening scene through Jed’s reaction to Tom’s encouragement to Jed’s training the Wolverines to go to war, the camera fetishizes the brooding, stoic, and hulking Hemsworth. At the same time, Jed must die as one of the film’s sacrifices to the American patriotism it tries to construct.
At the same time, Tom’s long-concealed gun saves Jed during the Wolverine led assault on the North Korean headquarters. As Jed shoots a befuddled Cho in the head he proclaims, “You fucked with the wrong family.” Whereas the 1984 Red Dawn also underscores the importance of family and, through the Bates family, the dangers inherent in families with bad fathers, the 2012 version seems to want to retain that senses that certain types of American family will protect and defend the country even as other types threaten its security and stability. It is here that conservative masculinity, conservative notions of fatherhood, and fringe conservative paranoia about “progressives” and the Obama administration converge and are given voice. Like Glenn Beck who sees a communist threat in participation trophies and in the “useful idiots” that enabled the election of Barack Obama, the remake of Red Dawn offers a similar view of American liberalism and the supposedly “weak” masculinity it entails. Yet the film double codes its understanding of conservative masculinity by setting up Tom and Jed Eckert as dual and somewhat competing types of father figure. The one, infected by the less “tough” parenting style, Tom, can produce a Jed, but it is the Jeds that we need to save an American way of life. Whereas Glenn Beck sees a dangerous Progressive/ “Marxist” threat embodied in participation trophies, I see a dangerous conservative threat embodied in Red Dawn (2012). I suppose it is time to take that DVD out to the garage.