In 1984, MGM released "Red Dawn," a movie that depicted a Soviet invasion of the United States and the subsequent defense mounted by a group of rifle-wielding Colorado teens. With a cast of young unknowns and the MPAA's first PG-13 rating, the film was one of the top grossing movies of the year. Directed and co-written by John Milius, an avowed gun enthusiast, "Red Dawn" featured so much gunfire that some called it the "most violent movie ever made." Between the gun violence and the supposed right-wing undertones (or overtones?), it was one of the more controversial movies of its time, a cult hit of the Reagan era.
It was practically preordained, then, that Hollywood would greenlight a remake of "Red Dawn." The new film is due out later this year, but MGM's attempt to retell the story in a post-Soviet world, this time with Red China as the aggressor, is already facing its own controversy.
According to movie blogger Jason Apuzzo, who saw an advance screening last summer, this version of "Red Dawn" depicts the Chinese army invading the West Coast of the United States in an apropos mission to collect on the debt we owe. Some young Americans aren't willing to give up so easily, and the Seattle-based band of "Wolverines" launches their counterattack in the name of freedom. Mr. Apuzzo, founder of the film blog Libertas, writes that the cut he saw was a "stirring, highly patriotic ode to America and its freedoms."
So … why is Hollywood meddling with what sounds like a surefire hit in the heartland?
MGM, which filed for bankruptcy last year, has partnered with distributors wary of isolating themselves from what they consider a growing market for American movies in the People's Republic of China. The Los Angeles Times reports that producers are "digitally erasing Chinese flags and military symbols" from the movie and replacing them with references to an invasion by North Korea, "an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake."
A source close to the production of "Red Dawn" says these changes make the plot more credible and sophisticated, noting that the filmmakers consulted experts at the departments of State and Defense as well as non-governmental think tanks. True or not, MGM badly needs a blockbuster, and the Chinese market is one they can't afford to ignore.
The creative changes to "Red Dawn" may just be good business, according to veteran Hollywood producer Doug Urbanski, who contends there's nothing political about the way studios tinker with the movies they produce. "Hollywood is not run by Madonna, Sean Penn, and Alec Baldwin — it's run by serious businesspeople," says Mr. Urbanski, an unabashed conservative and occasional actor who turned in a memorable cameo in "The Social Network" as Harvard president and former Obama economic adviser Larry Summers.
"If I were in a situation where the Chinese offered me money to make movies there, would I take the money? The answer is no," Mr. Urbanski says. But, he says, studios have a moral responsibility to make good on their promises to investors.
Two other producers often associated with the handful of out-of-the-closet Hollywood conservatives are also unsurprised and unconcerned by the sacrifice here of creative choices to the profit motive. "This sounds like an economic issue," says Joel Surnow, the creator of the hit Fox series "24." "[China] would be a bad market to alienate."
Writer-director-producer Cyrus Nowrasteh says foreign sales are always a concern for studios and distributors. His 2008 film "The Stoning of Soraya M." was banned in Iran, but Mr. Nowrasteh says it was also not screened in some European countries like France, Italy, or Germany because distributors there were concerned the film's brutal portrayal of Islamic fundamentalism might incite riots.
The "Red Dawn" remake isn't the only recent entertainment product to receive a cleansing of all references Chinese. The recently released video game Homefront, coincidentally written by Mr. Milius, was also to feature an invading Chinese army, according to gaming blog Kokatu. That was changed, much earlier in the production process, to North Korea as well. All this, China experts say, is part of an attempt to open up the world's largest market through conciliation.
"The biggest problem for Hollywood in China right now is that Beijing places strict limits on the number of foreign films that are allowed to be legally imported into the country," says Kelley Currie, a senior fellow at the Project 2049 Institute. The industry wants to make and sell movies there, and there's a prevailing idea among studio execs that we sit at the cusp of China's long-awaited opening.
The hope of an open China is a major reason why studios and distributors are wary of productions that could embarrass the communist regime, including any depiction of China's known atrocities. Besides a handful of movies about Tibet, Hollywood has done a good job of avoiding making things uncomfortable for Beijing. Although there is ample material from recent history, from the Tiananmen Square massacre to the plight of the Falun Gong movement, the studios seem unwilling to rock the proverbial boat, lest China move even further out of reach.
There's little indication, though, that China is getting any closer to "opening up" in the way that Hollywood hopes. "On free speech, on human rights, [the Chinese] are all going in the wrong direction," says Ethan Gutmann of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "This is a massive blindspot."
And unfortunately for MGM, the sidestep on "Red Dawn" will probably be a fruitless endeavor. "This movie is unlikely to get past the censors" in China, Ms. Currie says, even with the North Korean switcheroo. The changes won't get Hollywood any closer to the mythical Chinese market. Instead, American audiences will get a scrubbed version of what had been anticipated as mindless but politically resonant fun.
Meanwhile, the compelling stories of China's victims will go untold. And everybody loses.
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