‘Red Dawn’: Shooting it the McVeigh way

THOSE PEOPLE WHO’VE had the dubious privilege of interviewing Timothy McVeigh in recent weeks tell us that one of his principal sources of “inspiration” was a 12-year-old Hollywood movie called “Red Dawn.”

Now it’s disturbing enough that any movie would have helped propel McVeigh into his monstrous deeds: The fact that it was “Red Dawn” is even more daunting, for this was a movie that was made for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, “Red Dawn” stands as a vivid reminder of the need for Hollywood to consider the moral and political consequences of the material that it so efficiently injects into our global pop culture.

The official line of the studios is that ideology doesn’t figure in the filmmaking process. That makes “Red Dawn” an infamous exception. The people who made the movie cynically distorted its original anti-war theme. Mid-’80s America , to their thinking, was shifting sharply to the right, and “Red Dawn” was intended to capitalize on this movement. Indeed, the then-CEO of MGM/UA, which financed the picture, actually recruited Alexander Haig, Ronald Reagan’s “I-am-in-control” top aide, to consult with the film’s director and inculcate the appropriate ideological tint.

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THE BOTTOM LINE: “Red Dawn” was essentially designed to appeal to the Tim McVeighs of the world; from the perspective of recent history, that becomes downright reprehensible.

How do I know all this? I was there, serving at the time as senior vice president for production in the administration of Frank Yablans, then-CEO of the company, when Yablans declared in no uncertain terms that he wanted to make the ultimate jingoistic movie and that Al Haig would take him there. “It will be a sure-fire international blockbuster,” Yablans enthused.

It was the basic premise of “Red Dawn” that originally stirred the juices of Yablans and Haig: The Russians and Cubans invade the U.S. A group of teenage boys in a small town in New Mexico take to the hills and organize themselves as a guerrilla force, striking at the invaders — the ultimate Tim McVeigh fantasy.

I, too, liked the premise of “Red Dawn.” That’s why I’d led the charge to acquire the original material, written by a young Texan named Kevin Reynolds. The son of a one-time president of Baylor University, Reynolds is one of those brilliant but ill-starred filmmakers whose “great ideas” occasionally go astray — witness not only “Red Dawn,” but his most recent effort, “Waterworld.”

THE REYNOLDS SCRIPT that I acquired, however, was more akin to “Lord of the Flies” than to the movie that ultimately emerged. Reynolds had conceived of a small movie focusing on the horror confronted by several young kids as their parents were imprisoned by the marauders. Ultimately, the once-benign band is taken over by tougher, mean-spirited kids who turn it into an awkward, but determined guerrilla force. Hence, the script was clearly about the brutalization of the innocent.

By the time Yablans got hold of the script, however, he demanded to know why MGM, then starved for hits, should try to remake “Lord of the Flies” when it could instead try for “Rambo.” With this in mind, he rejected Reynolds’ plea to direct, and offered the job to John Milius, a voluble, off-the-wall character renowned for his fascination with weaponry and advocacy of right-wing causes.

Milius, the man who gave us “Conan the Barbarian,” loved war movies. He could describe a new gun with the same good-natured smile of a man talking about his golden retriever. Indeed, as part of his deal to rewrite and direct the film, the studio guaranteed to acquire for him an exotic new weapon of his choosing.

In anointing Milius to take on the project, Yablans officially changed its name from “Ten Soldiers” to “Red Dawn,” which he deemed more menacing. As they shook hands to close the deal, Yablans told Milius he wanted him to create a war movie to end all war movies.

“I am a feudal person,” Milius replied. “I see myself as a knight who vows to serve the wishes of his king.”

Yablans beamed. “Then you have come to the right place, squire,” he replied.

Milius didn’t realize what he was letting himself in for. Gen. Haig had recently resigned from the government and had become a member of the MGM/UA board of directors. A stiff, unapproachable man with a total disinterest in show business, Haig nonetheless was responsive to Yablans’ suggestion that he take Milius under his wing.

SUDDENLY MILIUS found himself welcomed into right-wing think tanks and inundated with Defense Dept. analyses of tactical invasion routes. Haig envisioned “the enemy” not only as consisting of Russians and Cubans, but also a soft, left-leaning Mexican regime that would permit an invasion force designed to split the U.S. in half, invading at Veracruz and pressing northward.

Slowly, every facet of the project began to change. A back story was added about America’s political bankruptcy and the pervasiveness of its enemies. The central characters, who were in their early teens in Reynolds’ script, suddenly were high school seniors and older. The movie was becoming more about killing and treachery than about character.

Even Milius, a stoic, good-natured individual who is more about bluster than action, became alarmed. Wandering into my office one day, he confided his concern that he was being railroaded into what he described as “a flag-waving, jingoistic movie.” Milius said his intent was to make a movie about the “futility of war,” adding, “I have a nervous feeling that Yablans and Haig are jabbering away on their hot line about a different movie.”

And the movie that emerged fulfilled his worst fears. It was a big, expensive macho movie that Al Haig and his friends liked a lot more than did Milius and his. It did respectable business — $ 40 million in the U.S. — but it left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. There was something nasty about it, a movie deliberately engineered to induce paranoia rather than honest emotion.

There’s an old cliche in Hollywood that “no one ever sets out to make a bad movie.” In the case of “Red Dawn,” a studio set out not only to make a bad movie , but also a manipulative one.

If you don’t believe me, ask Tim McVeigh.

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