FrontPage | 5.27.11
By Alan W. Dowd

The remake of the hit 1984 film “Red Dawn” has been remade. It seems Hollywood was worried about choosing a politically incorrect—and financially risky—bad guy.

The bad guys in the original were Soviet and Cuban paratroopers invading a weakened, hollowed-out America. In the original “Red Dawn”, the invading army’s advance into the heart of America is stymied by a guerilla force made up largely of teenagers hiding out in the wooded mountain areas of Colorado. They call themselves “The Wolverines” after their high school mascot. Most of the Wolverines are killed but not before they repulse and reverse the communist invaders—and rescue America.

The updated version of the film, which was ready for distribution in 2010, substituted Chinese troops for the Soviets. But that worried MGM execs, who didn’t want to jeopardize future movie deals in China’s massive market. So MGM ordered the film to be radically redone in post-production, taking what The Los Angeles Times calls“the highly unusual” and “extraordinary step of digitally altering a film to excise bad guys from the communist nation lest the leadership in Beijing be offended.”

The result, according to published reports, is that most references to China have been replaced with North Korea. The MGM self-censors have gone so far as “digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols.” According to The Times, “There’s no known precedent for changing the nationality of an entire group of characters.”

All of this happened without Beijing “uttering a word of official protest,” according to The Times, which notes that we may be witnessing the beginning of a trend. The video game “Homefront” originally was set around a Chinese invasion of the United States, but “for business reasons, publisher THQ changed the occupying forces to North Korea.”

“Potential distributors are nervous about becoming associated with the finished film, concerned that doing so would harm their ability to do business with the rising Asian superpower,” The Times reports. MGM hopes to cash in on the Chinese market with future films in the James Bond and Hobbit franchises, according to The Times.

There’s more at work here, however, than the studio’s understandable desire to maximize profits. Artistic freedom and artistic integrity are also at stake—or perhaps better said, were at stake. Moreover, it all has the whiff of a kind of appeasement.

Think about the perverse irony here: The People’s Republic of China—the land where government censors control the Internet, government agents write the news, government bureaus approve religious activity, government decrees determine how many children a family can have—gets an American media conglomerate to rewrite, revise and rework a piece of fiction so as not to cause offense. The whole episode must make the PRC’s rulers laugh—and their subjects wonder why Americans don’t treasure the First Amendment.

Indeed, the notion of changing a finished film for fear that it might offend a foreign government—and a brutal dictatorship at that—seems antithetical to the American way of looking at the world and especially at odds with Hollywood’s modus operandi. After all, Hollywood certainly hasn’t censored itself when it comes to producing films that might offend, challenge, criticize, question or otherwise impugn U.S. policies, American history, American traditions and institutions, or specific U.S. political figures. The list is endless—“JFK”, “W”, “Wall Street”, “The People vs. Larry Flint”, “Born on the Fourth of July”, “Platoon” and “Salvador”—and those are just Oliver Stone films.

To be sure, depicting a Chinese invasion of the United States probably wouldn’t promote friendship. Of course, neither would it contribute to hostility. But altering a film to appease the gatekeepers of China’s massive market could contribute to the sense among China’s ruling elite that they hold all the cards. As Joseph Nye recently observed, admittedly in relation to the much bigger, broader issue of U.S.-China power perception, many Chinese “believe that the recession of 2008 represented a shift in the balance of world power, and that China should be less deferential to a declining United States….Faulty power assessments have created hubris among some Chinese….Any American compromise is read in Beijing as confirmation of American weakness.”

While reasonable people can disagree about whether China is a friend, foe or something in between, the PRC certainly represents a long-term challenge to the United States.  And while a U.S.-PRC conflict may be unthinkable to most Americans today—and let’s hope it doesn’t happen—it pays to recall that China and America have gone to war in the recent past (the Korea War), China’s military spending is growing by 12 percent annually, U.S. Pacific Command is expanding its capabilities and strengthening its web of alliances because of China, and observers on both sides of the Pacific conclude that the two powers are already in the early stages of a new cold war.

None of this makes a shooting war between the U.S. and the PRC inevitable, but it does help explain why a screenwriter would choose today’s PRC to replace yesterday’s USSR in the “Red Dawn” remake.

A North Korean invasion or occupation of the U.S., on the other hand, is downright laughable. To be sure, North Korea is a dangerous enemy and represents a real threat to regional stability and to two of America’s closest, oldest allies in the Asia-Pacific region. But it is starving, insular, backward, hollow and hermetic. It can hurt America but it could never invade America.

MGM’s post-production switch from China to North Korea calls to mind how studio execs changed Tom Clancy’s riveting and all-too real 1991 novel “The Sum of All Fears”, which contemplated the global consequences of a nuclear bomb falling into the hands of a jihadist group, into a movie where jihadists are nowhere to be seen and the villains are a cabal European neo-Nazis. The result was something that was neither believable nor entertaining.

We can expect the same from the remade remake of “Red Dawn”.