Hollywood Flashback: 'Red Dawn' Ushered in the PG-13 Era in 1984

Red Dawn Still - Photofest - H 2019
Courtesy of Photofest

The Cold War thriller became the first film released with the MPAA rating: "It's a lot like umpiring. What's a ball and what's a strike?" says 'Dawn' screenwriter Kevin Reynolds of the "fairly subjective" ratings process.

While Red Dawn was overlooked during the 1984 awards season, the John Milius-directed movie did secure a place in Hollywood history: The Cold War thriller was the first film released with a PG-13 rating.

Dawn had appeared at exactly the right moment for this to happen. The ratings code adopted in 1968 by the MPAA began as a way to stave off outside censorship and had four categories: G, for general audiences with no restrictions; PG, for parental guidance suggested; R, for restricted, with persons under 17 not admitted without an adult; and X (later NC-17), for explicit sexual activity, rarely for "extreme violence," with no one under 17 allowed.

"I've dealt with the MPAA over the years, and it's a fairly subjective decision-making process," says Dawn screenwriter Kevin Reynolds. "It's a lot like umpiring. What's a ball and what's a strike?"

The system worked until Hollywood started making too many movies that weren't child-safe enough for a PG but didn't deserve an R. One film that rattled the system was 1984's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There was something about the evil priest in the Steven Spielberg movie pulling a beating heart from a person's chest that seemed to call for more than just suggested parental guidance.

A reluctant MPAA president Jack Valenti eventually agreed to a PG-13 category between PG and R that "strongly" cautioned parents that some material might be inappropriate for children younger than 13. And Red Dawn fit the bill for possible excessive violence.

The National Coalition on Television Violence said the film had 134 violent acts per hour (mostly Colorado teenagers killing Soviet invaders and vice versa), which was more than any movie the group had studied. The Hollywood Reporter's review hardly noticed the violence and said the story "packs plenty of rabble-rousing ammunition, but its sloppy execution is unlikely to win any merit badges for marksmanship."

The $17 million production ($42 million today) had a domestic gross of $38 million ($94 million today). The film was remade in 2012 (this time with North Korean invaders), and it also received a PG-13 and no awards.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.