Red Dawn is best known today as the answer to a trivia question: When it opened, on Aug. 10, 1984, it was the first film to bear the new PG-13 rating. A less commonly known bit of sub–trivia is that it was also the first film to get a PG-13 rating when it should have gotten an R. In other words, the inconsistent application of the PG-13 rating that is so prevalent today has been a hallmark since the very beginning.
The Motion Picture Association of America devised its rating system in 1968, made several adjustments over the next few years, and then left things alone from 1972 until 1983. The four ratings were G, PG, R, and X; by the end of the 1970s, G was applied almost exclusively to cartoons, and PG was for "family films." But a lot of films with slightly more adult content were being rated PG, too, on the grounds that they simply weren't harsh enough to warrant an R. What's remarkable is that it took as long as it did for the MPAA to come up with something between PG and R. It seems like a no-brainer now.
By the summer of 1984, parents had been complaining for years that too many PG-rated films were inappropriate for kids. Then along came the double whammy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, on May 23, and Gremlins, on June 8, both PG movies that appealed to young people but that featured some fairly gruesome violence. This was the last straw. Complaints increased. The films' huge box-office success gave the controversy a higher profile.
Steven Spielberg, who directed Temple of Doom and produced Gremlins, suggested a PG-14 rating to Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA and founder of the original system in 1968. Valenti conferred with parents and theater owners and concluded that 13 was a more logical cutoff, and the PG-13 rating was born. It had been a quick birth, too: Red Dawn hit cinemas on Aug. 10, barely two months after Gremlins.
The irony is that Red Dawn is an absurdly violent movie. The first scene has a young schoolboy shot in the head by invading Communists, the bullet wound clearly visible. The mayhem continues almost nonstop from there. In September 1984, the National Coalition on Television Violence called Red Dawn the most violent movie ever made, with 2.23 acts of violence per minute. In its defense, most of the violence is not terribly graphic. People are shot, but the wounds are not generally depicted realistically. The MPAA has a tendency to give such films a pass. Shoot everyone you want; just don't let them bleed.
It also helps that while Red Dawn is wall-to-wall violence, it has no sex or nudity or F-words. Meanwhile, dozens of films with no violence, sex, or nudity, but which happen to use the F-word a few times, get rated R. The MPAA has consistently sent the message that films can be dirty, raunchy, violent, and vulgar and still be rated PG-13 as long as they limit themselves to two or three F-bombs. Any more than that and the movie gets an R rating, regardless of how tame it is otherwise. (The relentlessly filthy Austin Powers movies: all PG-13. The mild -- except for a half-dozen F-words -- Waiting for Guffman: R. I'd be glad to offer several hundred more examples of this hypocrisy if you're interested.)
While Red Dawn was a box-office success -- its $38.3 million would be $82 million at today's ticket prices -- it is mostly remembered now only for being the first PG-13 film. Its actual content is largely ignored -- possibly because it's not very good. In case you have forgotten, it's about a group of seven untrained teenagers, an adult man, and a military pilot who use their apparently unlimited supply of weapons and ammunition to take out an entire unit of invading Soviet forces, who were able to take over America unobstructed because they'd had their cohorts, the Cubans and Nicaraguans, infiltrate beforehand as illegal aliens and act as sleeper-cell terrorists. It's a Cold War right-wing paranoid fantasy that taps into the fears that had made Ronald Reagan a hugely popular president and led to a resurgence in political conservatism in America. Its might-makes-right morality, distrust of immigrants, and pro-gun-ownership ideals were right in line with how much of the country was feeling at the time, particularly given our testy relationship with the Soviet Union.
Much has changed in the intervening quarter-century. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War marked the death of many of those old fears. Then the 9/11 terrorist attacks inspired new, different fears, as the enemy became more nebulous, no longer a specific nation but an ideology. Yet despite this, MGM is planning a remake of Red Dawn, to be released in the fall of 2010. Given how out-of-touch the original film is with the current political climate, remaking it seems like a tone-deaf decision. In 2009, the only enemy that could plausibly pull off a full-scale invasion of the U.S. would be the Chinese -- who, one hastens to point out, aren't actually our enemies (though they do happen to be communists, which makes them useful as movie boogeymen). The original film had Patrick Swayze sneering about potential violations of the Geneva Convention as he's about to execute a prisoner of war, an attitude that modern audiences might not find as laudable as they once did. Maybe the new Red Dawn will inaugurate another new rating: BI, Bad Idea. Goodness knows it wouldn't be the only BI-rated film for very long.
(For a concise, informative history of the MPAA rating system, see the Wikipedia article. Kirby Dick's devastating documentary about the MPAA's inconsistencies and hypocrisies, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, is also recommended.)
FROM THE TIME CAPSULE: When Red Dawn was released, 25 years ago this week, on Aug. 10, 1984...
• It opened in first place, bumping Ghostbusters down from the top spot. Also still in the top 10 were the two films that had directly inspired the creation of the PG-13 rating: Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Purple Rain, Revenge of the Nerds, The Karate Kid, and The Neverending Story were also doing well.
• On TV, the game show Scrabble and daytime soap Santa Barbara had recently debuted. The new version of Jeopardy!, with Alex Trebek, would premiere shortly.
• Miss America Vanessa Williams had been forced to surrender her crown three weeks earlier after appearing nude in Penthouse magazine. The Miss America pageant organizers don't like their contestants being objectified like pieces of meat! Except, you know, when they do.
• The Summer Olympics were underway in Los Angeles, though sadly not with any of the proposed L.A.-specific events: men's drive-by shooting, team screenplay writing, synchronized homelessness, etc.
• The NBA's Brandon Roy and Adam Morrison, American Idol runner-up Blake Lewis, and actress Rachael Taylor were all less than a month old. Comedian and prankster Andy Kaufman had died a few months earlier ... or had he? (Yes, he had.)
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Eric's Time Capsule appears every Monday at Film.com. You can visit Eric at his website which is rated A for Awesome.