Early reviews have been leaning negative, with more than one describing the depiction of invading North Koreans as xenophobic and ambiguously racist, a perception not helped by the fact that when the movie was shot, the Communist invaders were Chinese and in post-production they were transformed into North Koreans through the magic of special effects (in order to do better box office in China).
Whether or not the new Red Dawn ultimately deserves that critique, we've actually come pretty far on the politics of race -- at least when it comes to hypothetical invasions of the homeland.
Before there was ever a Red Dawn, there was The Red Napoleon, the very first paranoid fictional Communist invasion of the United States, a book stuffed from cover to cover with perfervid nationalism and over-the-top racism beyond the wildest dreams of anyone working in Hollywood today.
The Red Napoleon was written in 1929 by Chicago Tribune war correspondent Floyd Gibbons, whose fictional alter ego is also the book's protagonist. A journalistic pioneer, Gibbons' nonfiction reporting has been the subject of glowing hagiographies, most of which omit mention of the fictional race war he spent 470 pages chronicling.
The Red Napoleon describes the invasion of the United States by Communists in lavish detail. Where both Red Dawn movies open with foreign paratroopers landing on U.S. soil, The Red Napoleon takes its time, spending nearly 200 pages methodically describing the Soviet conquest of the entire world before a shot is fired in North America.
Despite a few clumsy stabs at political relevance, Red Dawn is a melodrama using an invasion as a backdrop. In contrast, The Red Napoleon is a book about an invasion, with a flimsy narrative overlay to keep the geopolitics from becoming too oppressive.
Real-life figures populate the pages, from American icons (and Gibbons contemporaries) Herbert Hoover and Douglas MacArthur, to a host of foreign political luminaries, most of whom meet with bad ends.
All this mayhem begins and ends with one Karakhan of Kazan, the son of a Cossack father and a Mongol woman, who rises to become a top military leader of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. When Stalin is mysteriously assassinated in 1932, in Karakhan's presence, he uses his military influence to take control of the country.
One of the first things Karakhan does as the new Soviet leader is marry and impregnate an American leftist radical from New York. You see, Karakhan has a thing for white women -- an ideological thing. He believes the answer to historical white hegemony is miscegenation, miscegenation, and more miscegenation. Or as Gibbons puts it in the first page of the book:
[Karakhan's] defiant pride in his coloured skin, struggling against an instinctive inferiority complex originating from impacts with white dominance, fired him with the ambition to fuse all races -- white, yellow, black, brown and red -- into one human race, the only one he acknowledged.
We're not talking about a subtle thread of un-PC racial content weaving through an obviously dated book. Miscegenation is Karakhan's raison d'etre, and it drives much of what follows, although the first description is about as deep as the analysis gets. Gibbons doesn't seem to be invoking race to grind his own ideological axe. Rather, a world of miscegenation is simply the scariest thing he can think of, and he assumes his readers do not require elaboration on its horrors.
For a modern reader, this focus in the opening pages can distract from the fact that what Gibbons is really interested in is geopolitics and warfare. Much of the book consists of detailed descriptions of the political and military maneuvering that brings Karakhan's "yellow horde" to the very shores of America. Every few pages, these ruminations are interrupted by paeans to the virtues of the white man's fighting spirit and the white woman's Nordic honor, but then it's back to business.
Karakhan sweeps through Europe, killing Mussolini and pre-empting Hitler. The fictional Winston Churchill -- who pre-dates the "never surrender" days -- abruptly resigns after an uprising of Reds and leftists call a general strike, setting the stage for a British surrender. He conquers Australia, where he asserts himself by massacring six million whites. (Wait, how many? As if this book wasn't creepy enough.)
In the United States, Gibbons installs as president Alfred E. Smith, who ran on the Democratic ticket in real life during the 1928 election, just before The Red Napoleon was published. Needless to say, Smith's liberal policies join forces with misguided pacifists and a Red fifth column to leave America weakened and vulnerable to the coming storm. But Gibbons gives Smith credit for eventually stepping up and making the tough calls when the Communist army arrives in America. (After all, he's still a white guy.)
As Karakhan's multiracial army mounts its land invasion -- under a rainbow flag, no less, to symbolize its diversity -- the East and West Coasts take a pounding. Washington, D.C., is abandoned, with the government relocated to St. Louis, and Gibbons briefly indulges in a Michael Bay-esque trashing of Boston, a spectacle of the sort that the book could frankly use more of.
Although the miscegenation theme is clearly of paramount importance to Gibbons, his description of what actually happens in Occupied America is oblique to the point of absurdity, never coming out and saying what is obviously inferred about rape. Only in the book's earliest and final pages (set after the war) does Gibbons reflect unambiguously on the consequences of Karakhan's policy "CONQUER AND BREED" policy (yes, in all caps):
...the thousands of Eurasian, mulatto, mestizo children, half-yellow, half-black, half-brown, or half-red, born to white women in the wake of his conquering armies in Europe and the Americas, he holds that they constitute the lasting mark he has made upon the population of the world and calls them the first step toward the "deliverance of mankind from the curse of race prejudice."
Very little of this comes out in the account of the war itself, which is instead an endless list of engagements, battle orders, regimental movements, and the occasional name-dropping of politicians Gibbons particularly likes or dislikes. For good measure, America's beleaguered conscript force is aided by surviving military members of the Italian "fascisti" and the German Nazi Party, and other, you know, white guys.
In the end, Karakhan is defeated after a disastrous naval engagement made possible by a piece of espionage executed by the Gibbons character himself, a sequence that's just about as contrived and self-aggrandizing as it sounds. This leads to a chain of events that devastates the Red Army in far fewer pages than it took to build it up. The fictional Gibbons -- a journalist, mind you -- personally captures the fleeing Karakhan, bringing an end to the war.
Of course, victory comes too late for white people, who are left to cope with a world now thoroughly miscegenated. Oddly, Karakhan is sent to exile in Bermuda, rather than being tried for war crimes or at least imprisoned in Siberia.
While The Red Napoleon is far more overtly political than its Red Dawn descendants, it's not much more subtle or complex. Lefties, pacifists, and dirty foreigners are the problem, righties and whiteys are the solution. That's about as deep as things ever get, although Gibbons' solemn inscription at the front of the book suggests the author imagined he was being somehow constructive:
DEDICATED TO THE HOPE THAT IT WILL NOT HAPPEN
Um, mission accomplished?