This week, audiences will line up to see the new remake of Red Dawn, a cult classic of chest-thumping Reagan-era bombast in which a group of all-American teenagers -- including the bulk of the future cast of Dirty Dancing -- transform themselves into Colorado mujahedeen to fight off the invading Soviet and Cuban forces.
The remake -- which features Thor star Chris Hemsworth in the Patrick Swayze role -- has been mocked by critics and journalists for months before its opening, thanks in large part to the filmmakers' decision to re-edit the movie to turn the invading Chinese army into far less plausible North Koreans. Yes, the idea of a country incapable of successfully launching a single rocket invading the United States is pretty far-fetched. But many of those laughing dismissively at the premise of Red Dawn were probably more than happy to plop down their $12 to watch a plutocrat in a bat suit fight crime from his private hovercraft or a suave British spy grapple a bad guy on top of a speeding train without wrinkling his immaculate Saville Row tailoring.
The reason why we find Red Dawn so much more ridiculous than Batman or Bond (well, apart from inferior writing, directing, and acting) may have less to do with the plausibility of the premise than the fact that images of invading armies fanning out across the American homeland are rare in contemporary pop culture -- compared to terrorist cells, shadowy crime syndicates, or even aliens. But this wasn't always the case. From the last decades of the 19th century until World War I, invasion scenarios and tales of future wars were a staple of popular fiction in both the United States and Europe. In many ways, the new Red Dawn is less a throwback to the 1980s than the 1880s.
In 1871, shortly after the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the unification of Germany, a British Army engineer and India veteran named George Tomkyns Chesney published a short story in Blackwood's magazine titled The Battle of Dorking. Told from the perspective of a former gentleman volunteer speaking years later in occupied Britain, it tells a tale of how disciplined and technologically superior forces (Germany is never mentioned by name, but it's pretty clear who he has in mind) overwhelmed British defense at the decisive Battle of Dorking -- putting an end to British freedom forever.
Alarmed by growing German militarism, Chesney's scenario was a not-so-subtle call for the reorganization of the British military to defend an increasingly vulnerable empire:
I need hardly tell you how the crash came about. First, the rising in India drew away a part of our small army; then came the difficulty with America, which had been threatening for years, and we sent off ten thousand men to defend Canada -- a handful which did not go far to strengthen the real defences of that country, but formed an irresistible temptation to the Americans to try to take them prisoners, especially as the contingent included three battalions of the Guards. Thus the regular army at home was even smaller than usual, and nearly half of it was in Ireland to check the talked-of Fenian invasion fitting out in the West. Worse still -- though I do not know it would really have mattered as things turned out -- the fleet was scattered abroad; some ships to guard the West Indies, others to check privateering in the China seas, and a large part to try to protect our colonies on the Northern Pacific shore of America, where, with incredible folly, we continued to retain possessions which we could not possibly defend.
As British intelligence officer turned literature professor I.F. Clarke recounts in his entertaining history of the genre, Voices Prophesying War, The Battle of Dorking wasn't the first tale of future war, but the inventiveness of Chesney's scenario and the timing of its publication -- amid growing fears of German militarism and the quality of Otto Von Bismarck's army -- combined to make the story a sensation. (In its depictions of how the technological advances of the invaders would change the global balance of power, The Battle of Dorking is also considered to be a precursor to modern science fiction.) Blackwood's quickly sold out its initial print run and proceeded to sell 800,000 copies of the story as a stand-alone pamphlet. Editions of the story were reprinted in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States and translated into French and German. Rebuttals to Chesney in the form of unauthorized sequels to his story like After the Battle of Dorking and The Other Side at the Battle of Dorking packed the popular press. The story was even adapted into a popular dancehall tune. Decades later, it would take on a second life as a Nazi propaganda pamphlet.