Cloud over Hollywood: xenophobia darkens 'Red Dawn'
I've been deploring the racism and xenophobia in some movies lately. But even ''Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'' is a piker compared with ''Red Dawn,'' the latest macho epic from John Milius.
The story begins a few years from now in a Colorado classroom, where Genghis Khan is the subject of a history lesson. Outside, the sky fills suddenly with parachutes. Minutes later the landscape is crawling with Cubans, who promptly slaughter every kid in sight. A handful of youngsters escape to the hills, form a guerrilla band, and valiantly stand up to the invaders, who include Nicaraguans as well as Cubans and Soviets.
It took a lot of straining to concoct this plot. Where are the nuclear arsenals of East and West? It seems the Soviets knocked out the American missiles by infiltration in advance, and so needed only ''a few select strikes'' before the invasion. Where are the US allies? It seems the United States has lost nearly all its friends through bad diplomacy.
Once these far-fetched premises are established, Milius can wallow in the subject that really preoccupies him - the nasty thrill of conventional combat, splashed across the screen with enough grim gusto to stretch the limits of the new PG-13 rating.
International tensions are a legitimate topic for movie speculation, and Milius is entitled to his view that ''the two toughest kids on the block'' - the US and the Soviet Union - will eventually slug it out. What rankles me is the vicious glee he takes in guerrilla mayhem, and the way he uses slick Hollywood techniques to sell warfare as an exhilarating parade of bold victories and poignant martyrdoms.
What rankles me still more is Milius's crude portrait of the invaders, a collection of monsters and idiots (incessantly mowing down innocent people). It's the sort of caricature that pops up in movies made during actual wartime, when there's some excuse for propagandizing, and looks embarrassing when seen later on.
Milius, whose credits include ''Conan the Barbarian,'' doesn't embarrass easily. But his spiteful view of Soviets and Hispanics can only increase hates and hostilities that already plague human relations. Other points in the film also indicate racist attitudes just below the surface. Note that the invasion was prepared by Nicaraguans sneaking into the US from Mexico - a detail that seems designed to heighten fear, suspicion, and ill-feeling toward all Spanish-speaking neighbors of the US.
Even the making of ''Red Dawn'' points to an unsavory romance with warfare. According to production notes from United Artists, the main actors went through ''a no-frills course in soldiering'' for their roles. ''We took them out into the hills and ran them from sunup to sundown,'' the movie's technical adviser reports. ''By the end of the training, they began ... to think as a guerrilla would ... and they began to look out onto the countryside and the people around them as threats.''
That's nothing to be proud of.
'The Gods Must Be Crazy'
Production notes for another movie also point to dubious practices behind the scenes.
While watching it, I was charmed by ''The Gods Must Be Crazy,'' shot in Botswana by filmmaker Jamie Uys. It's the story of a Kalahari Desert bushman who travels into white civilization - a puzzling new world for him - and gets involved with a schoolteacher's romance and a gang of bumbling revolutionaries, among other things.
But an article by a sharp-eyed critic, Renee Shafransky, directed my eyes to background materials supplied by the distributor. These confirm that the hero is played by a real bushman named N!xau, who was himself mostly unfamiliar with the civilized white world.
The notes go on to say that director Uys, concerned about how N!xau might be reacting to his new experiences, hung a small radio microphone around the bushman's neck, calling it ''special medicine.'' Uys then tuned in ''from a Land-Rover some miles away'' and listened to N!xau's private family conversations. This strikes me as patronizing and condescending at best, flatly unethical at worst.
I still like the movie's wit and knockabout visual style; and while Uys depicts bush life with a syrupy paternalism, he does portray N!xau's character as wonderfully smart and resourceful, which takes the edge off any suggestions of racism.
But it's hard to swallow the idea of a veteran filmmaker literally planting a bug on a human being to eavesdrop on his private life. Something is seriously amiss when Twentieth Century-Fox reports such an incident as a colorful part of the filmmaking process, evidently oblivious to its looming moral implications.