John Milius knew what he had in Patrick Swayze, and used him to get the rest of the young actors — including Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, and Jennifer Grey — in line. As Swayze recalled on a retrospective documentary for the film’s DVD:
“Milius is a very intense director, he’s a very wonderful director. I love the man, but we had to call him The General. And he called me and he says, ‘Swayze, you’re my Lieutenant of the Art.’ So he’s, ‘I’m directing these little suckers through you.’ So he put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, and I took it really seriously.”
Milius cuts the jingoism of “Red Dawn” by humanizing the Cuban colonel (Ron O’Neal) in charge of the Colorado invasion. He has the opportunity to gun down a mortally wounded Jed Eckert, but allows him to carry his brother (Sheen) to the park where they used to play as kids, and where they will soon die. The moment hits hard because Jed has been a steady, compassionate leader, and basically chose to die because he could not in good conscience shoot the Russian Strelnikov (William Smith) in the back. There is mercy and decency on both sides of the conflict, which redeems the movie. Swayze hits every note in his final scene with heartbreaking confidence. He was a wonderfully resourceful actor, and I miss him dearly.