What do Conan the Barbarian, Red Dawn (1984), and Walter Sobchak of The Big Lebowski have in common? The answer is John Milius, a renowned Hollywood screenwriter, director, and real-life model for everyone’s favorite Vietnam War veteran-turned-bowler (he wrote and directed the first two films and inspired the third). A firearms and military enthusiast, he has also served as a consultant to a military think tank and on the board of directors of the NRA.
Milius’ love of war and weapons stands at the forefront of this year’s upcoming remake of Red Dawn, director Dan Bradley’s reinterpretation of Milius’ cult classic. In Red Dawn, a city in Washington state is the initial target of a foreign invasion of the United States. Undeterred, a group of young patriots flee to a cabin in the woods, where they have conveniently stockpiled enough guns and ammunition for a small army. From there, they mount a resistance movement and use guerilla tactics to liberate their town and regain their freedom.
In addition to a love for gun porn, this movie seems to be inspired by our country’s heightened national security panic, distrust of government, and even somewhat extreme libertarianism. After watching the trailer, I found myself surprised that “liberal” Hollywood would have any interest in producing a film about what essentially boils down to the second amendment’s “well regulated militia.” However, according to Will Noah, a writer for Double Exposure, Columbia’s undergraduate film journal, this is a bit of an oversimplification. “Hollywood is a capitalist institution that generates a lot of revenue, and money-making is always going to be the number one priority,” Noah says. Although all films are inflected with the political concerns of the time, “Hollywood is trying to appeal to as many people as possible and doesn’t want to offend anyone,” says David Beal, one of the editors in chief and co-founder of Double Exposure.
For example, in a global marketplace, the movie industry can’t afford to alienate viewers abroad. In the Red Dawn remake, the belligerent power is no longer Russia (as it was in the original) or China (as was planned in preproduction), but rather North Korea, possibly the only country where the film won’t be opening this week. Richard Pena, a professor of film studies at Columbia, explains that he doesn’t
buy the idea that Hollywood is really that liberal an institution, as it “usually hops onto the bandwagon long after any real controversy is over, so whatever libertarian message is in the film is diluted by this simple and frequently observed tendency that seems to transcend ideology.”
According to Max Nelson, the other editor in chief and co-founder of Double Exposure, every Hollywood film has a political point of view, but there are very few Hollywood films with a coherent political point of view. “It’s not so much that Hollywood is paying lip service to a particular idea, but rather that filmmakers are invoking certain political sentiments as symbols to create associations in the mind of the audience, in order to have a calculated effect on their emotional attitude towards the film,” he says. The association of Red Dawn with libertarianism is not explicit, but is rather based on the way in which the fiction of the film (citizen militias, armed resistance) relates to the real world (the second amendment, gun rights). The purpose of this symbolism is not to convince viewers to purchase a rifle on their way home from the theater, but instead to entertain audiences and relate the film to contemporary issues.
“Today, the majority of politically loaded Hollywood films are preaching to the choir,” Nelson says. “It’s not so much that Hollywood films are pushing a specific position on a certain issue, but rather that they take the temperature of the state of the world today and appeal to that sentiment.” Those who interpret films like Red Dawn as a call for an armed citizenry probably already have a membership at their local shooting range and an assault rifle tucked under their bed. I, for one, have never had my worldview flipped after watching a big-budget Hollywood production. If anything, Red Dawn will strengthen my support for gun control, simply because I don’t trust a high-school jock with a rocket launcher (watch the trailer). Instead, Red Dawn reflects a broader trend in American politics, as well as contemporary frustrations and anxieties in American society.
When I asked if there is any truth to the portrayal of Hollywood as a liberal institution, Noah answered that it’s more about the people than about the movies. “I think the idea that Hollywood leans left comes from its celebrity fundraisers, which are often directed towards Democratic candidates and interest groups,” he says. Furthermore, Hollywood liberals are high income earners, and thus are particularly visible on the national stage. Finally, people like John Milius do tend to stand out among stars such as George Clooney and Sean Penn, who are well-publicized supporters of liberal causes. According to Noah, when film enthusiasts talk about Milius, he’s often referred to as “that one conservative Hollywood guy.”
Like Walter Sobchak or that crazy Republican uncle of mine, Milius certainly leaves a lasting impression. It remains to be seen if the legacy of Red Dawn will do the same.