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Defection or World War III?: Remembering “The Hunt for Red October” on its 30th Anniversary

March 2, 2020 - 9:00 am   |   by

The Hunt for Red October had a big problem in that the Cold War kind of… ended while they were in post-production. So The Hunt for Red October should have been dated before it even opened — which means that the fact that it not only succeeded at the time, but has endured over the thirty years since, says a lot.” — Eric Lichtenfeld, author of Action Speaks Louder

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 30th anniversary of the release of The Hunt for Red October, the Cold War action thriller based upon Tom Clancy’s best-selling novel and which ultimately launched the Jack Ryan franchise.

The Hunt for Red October was directed by John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard) and starred Sean Connery (James Bond, The Untouchables) and Alec Baldwin (Beetlejuice, Glengarry Glen Ross). [Read on here...]

The Hunt for Red October

Red October, which also starred Scott Glenn (The Right Stuff), James Earl Jones (Field of Dreams) and Sam Neill (Jurassic Park), was released thirty years ago this month. For the occasion The Bits features a package of statistics and box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context, along with passages from vintage film reviews, a reference/historical listing of the movie’s showcase presentations, and, finally, an interview segment with a film historian who reflects on the film three decades after its debut.

In case you missed them or desire a refresher read, the Bits’ other John McTiernan retrospectives include Die Hard 25th anniversary and Predator 30th anniversary.



  • 1 = Number of Academy Awards
  • 1 = Number of weeks top-grossing movie (weeks 1-3)
  • 1 = Rank among top-earning movies directed by John McTiernan
  • 1 = Rank among top-earning movies during opening weekend
  • 3 = Number of Academy Award nominations
  • 5 = Rank among top-earning films of 1990 (gross earnings, retroactive to 1990)
  • 7 = Number of months between theatrical release and home video release
  • 8 = Rank among top-earning films of 1990 (rentals, 1990 calendar year)
  • 17 = Number of weeks of longest-running theatrical engagement (in a single-screen theater)
  • 20 = Number of weeks of longest-running theatrical engagement (in a multiplex)
  • 1,225 = Number of theaters playing the movie during opening week
  • $14,009 = Opening weekend per-screen-average
  • $17.2 million = Opening weekend box-office gross
  • $30.0 million = Production cost
  • $33.9 million = Opening weekend box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
  • $58.5 million = Box-office rental (domestic)
  • $59.2 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $78.5 million = Box-office gross (international)
  • $115.5 million = Box-office rental (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $122.1 million = Box-office gross (domestic)
  • $154.9 million = Box-office gross (international, adjusted for inflation)
  • $200.5 million = Box-office gross (worldwide)
  • $240.9 million = Box-office gross (domestic, adjusted for inflation)
  • $395.7 million = Box-office gross (worldwide, adjusted for inflation)



“With its bad, treacherous Soviets on the one side (played mostly by Brits), its freedom-loving Americans on the other, and an indeterminate number of good Russian defectors in between — brought to you by a certain military-industrial-complex alliance of Paramount, Industrial Light & Magic, director John (Die Hard) McTiernan, and the U.S. Navy — this is a Reagan youth’s wet dream of underwater ballistics and East-West conflict.” — Desson Howe, The Washington Post

“[The Hunt for Red October is] an elegy for those dear, dark terrible days of the cold war, when it was either them or us, and before the world had become so thoroughly fractured that it’s no longer possible to know exactly who the thems are.” — Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“There’s an amiable smartness to the underwater thriller. Its filmmakers know that a little technology goes a very long way, and if they hope to keep an audience’s attention they’ll have to do it with story, not hardware.” — Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times

“It’s at the gut level that Red October disappoints. This impressively mounted machine is curiously un-gripping. Like an overfilled kettle, it takes too long to come to a boil.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

“Hypnotic.” — Richard Schickel, Time

The Hunt for Red October may be a disappointment for diehard fans of Die Hard, or Mr. Clancy or even Mr. Connery. But it’s not evil or fraudulent. Like its First Fan, former President Ronald Reagan, it’s just a little dim. Essentially, it’s a family-style thriller, slickly done, expertly mounted, with an impressive cast and expensive effects to keep it several steps above TV-moviedom. But a giant squid might’ve helped.” — Eleanor Ringel, The Atlanta Constitution

“Some actors are disaster-prone. Sean Connery is disaster-proof. As the renegade Soviet submarine skipper, he hefts a lumbering 132-minute misadventure on his shoulders. Connery even makes you believe that the sub captain can kill a man and persuade his colleagues that the murder victim slipped on spilled tea. That’s right: spilled tea.” — Michael Sragow, San Francisco Examiner

“The only word is ‘wow!’” — Michael Medved, Sneak Previews

“Director John McTiernan (Die Hard) has now put together back-to-back winners in the usually vapid action genre. He’s obviously someone to watch.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

“McTiernan, whose previous films were Predator and Die Hard, showed a sense of style and timing in those movies, but what he adds in The Hunt for Red October is something of the same detached intelligence that Clancy brought to the novel. Somehow we feel this is more than a thriller, it’s an exercise in military and diplomatic strategy in which the players are all smart enough that we can’t take their actions for granted.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

The Hunt for Red October is a terrific adventure yarn. Tom Clancy’s 1984 Cold War thriller has been thoughtfully adapted to reflect the mellowing in the US-Soviet relationship.” — Amy Dawes, Variety

“It can at least be said that the film goes wrong in a classy way, trying honorably to replicate Tom Clancy’s book. But it isn’t nearly as successful as Clancy was in giving us the same incident as refracted in rapid succession through different vantage points. What made for momentum in the novel seems fractured and lacking in coherence on screen until the film’s last half hour. While the 1984 novel made you respect the massive research that insurance salesman Clancy did into submarine technology, the film only seems to keep putting gear in the way of its characters.” — Jay Carr, The Boston

“This crisp, suspenseful adaptation of Tom Clancy’s mega-seller about a Soviet sub is riveting enough to hold the attention of even battle-weary moviegoers. Besides, when’s the last time Sean Connery gave a bad performance?” — Catharine Rambeau, Detroit Free Press

The Hunt for Red October, for all the effort, never musters the clammy claustrophobia and terror that James Cameron brought to last year’s The Abyss or the excruciating suspense that Wolfgang Petersen created in The Boat. The movie is as much a celebration of Hollywood’s technical prowess as an arresting thriller, and there’s no harm in enjoying it on those terms. It hinges on our fear of another and final world war, and it’s surely not such a bad thing that — outside the theaters — it arrives when the prospects for world peace have never been brighter.” — Desmond Ryan, The Philadelphia Inquirer


The Hunt for Red October


Event and prestige movies (what we might refer today as a tent-pole or high-profile release) have on occasion been given a deluxe release in addition to a conventional release. This section of the article includes a reference / historical listing of the first-run 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo premium-format presentations of The Hunt for Red October in the United States and Canada. These were arguably the best theaters in which to have experienced The Hunt for Red October and the only way to have faithfully heard the movie’s discrete multichannel audio mix or to have been guaranteed a theater tune-up prior to the booking. This is the sort of listing that might have trended on the Internet to assist moviegoers in finding a 70mm presentation near them had such a resource existed in 1990.

The 70mm prints of The Hunt for Red October were blown up from anamorphic 35mm and included Six-Track Dolby Stereo audio (Baby Boom format with a Split Surround playback option).

Of the 200+ movies released during 1990, The Hunt for Red October was among only twenty to have 70mm prints prepared for selected engagements. Only about two percent of Red October’s initial print run was in the deluxe 70mm format, which offered superior audio and image quality compared to its 35mm counterpart prints and were significantly more expensive to manufacture.

For the release of The Hunt for Red October, Paramount employed the services of Lucasfilm’s Theatre Alignment Program (TAP) to evaluate and approve the theaters selected to book a 70mm print.

Paramount’s 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo coming attraction trailers that circulated during the release of The Hunt for Red October included Another 48 HRS., Crazy People, Days of Thunder, Flight of the Intruder, Ghost, A Show of Force and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. (Additional 70mm trailers from other studios circulated during this period as well, and which trailers, if any, seen during the presentations of The Hunt for Red October varied by venue and screening.)

The world premiere of The Hunt for Red October was held February 27th 1990 at the Uptown in Washington, DC. Invitational previews and benefit premieres were held in various locales between February 22nd and March 1st. The film was officially released in North America on March 2nd and the 70mm prints were screened in the following first-run locales:

70 mm


  • Calgary — Famous Players’ Palliser Square Twin
  • Edmonton — Famous Players’ Paramount [THX]


  • Vancouver — Famous Players’ Stanley [THX]


  • La Mesa — Pacific’s Cinema Grossmont
  • Lakewood — Pacific’s Lakewood Center 4-plex
  • Los Angeles — Mann’s National [THX]
  • Los Angeles — Pacific’s Cinerama Dome
  • Newport Beach — Edwards’ Newport Triplex
  • Orange — Syufy’s Century Cinedome 8-plex
  • San Francisco — Blumenfeld’s Regency I
  • San Jose — Syufy’s Century 22 Triplex
  • Universal City — Cineplex Odeon’s Universal City 18-plex [THX]


  • Denver — Mann’s Century 21 [THX]


  • Washington — K-B’s Cinema


  • Chicago — Cineplex Odeon’s McClurg Court Triplex [THX]


  • New York — Loews’ 19th Street East 6-plex
  • New York — Loews’ 34th Street Showplace Triplex
  • New York — Loews’ 84th Street 6-plex
  • New York — Loews’ Astor Plaza
  • New York — Loews’ New York Twin


  • Ottawa — Famous Players’ Elgin Twin
  • Toronto — Famous Players’ Eglinton [THX]


  • Dallas — UA’s United Artists 8-plex [THX]


  • Montreal — Famous Players’ Imperial [THX]


  • Seattle — Cineplex Odeon’s Cinerama

The listing only includes the 70mm engagements that commenced March 2nd 1990. It does not include any pre-release screenings, any of the movie’s thousands of 35mm engagements, or any move-over bookings, second run, re-release, retro screenings, international, etc.

The Hunt for Red October newspaper ad

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Eric Lichtenfeld is the author of the book Action Speaks Louder: Violence, Spectacle, and the American Action Movie (Wesleyan, 2007), an authoritative and entertaining study of the action film genre.

Eric Lichtenfeld

Eric has written about film for Slate and The Hollywood Reporter, and moderated panel discussions for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (including a 2010 screening of The Hunt for Red October and 2011 screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the American Cinematheque. He has taught film at Loyola Marymount University, UCLA, Wesleyan University, and the Harvard School of Law. Eric has also contributed supplemental material for several DVD and Blu-ray releases, including Speed, Predator and Die Hard.

Lichtenfeld kindly spoke to The Bits about the appeal and legacy of The Hunt for Red October.

The Hunt for Red October

Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is The Hunt for Red October a significant motion picture? How do you think it should be remembered on its 30th anniversary?

Eric Lichtenfeld: It’s significant in how it rewards the audience’s attention and intelligence. It should be remembered as the height of what filmmakers could achieve working in a form we just don’t see much anymore: the studio-backed, well-funded dramatic thriller. Even more, though, it should be remembered as an ageless viewing experience despite its being set against a very specific geopolitical context.

The sense that the film was “the thinking man’s thriller” or that Jack Ryan was “the thinking man’s hero” became the lens everyone seemed to view the movie through. As a consequence of that, the emotionality of the movie — mostly kept on a low flame — has never been appreciated enough. So it should be remembered, or maybe reevaluated, as a film with a lot of heart.

It should also be remembered as the last Cold War movie the world would need.

And as one of the greatest collections of voices ever assembled for a live-action film.

Coate: What do you recall about the first time you saw Red October?

Lichtenfeld: Specifically, the transition from Russian to English as the angle closes in and then widens back out. More generally, feeling like this was something substantial in a way I wasn’t used to. At the time, I didn’t know enough to be as enthralled as I wish I had been. That’s okay, though; I was young.

Revisiting it over the years as a more mature movie-person and a more mature person-person, I saw so much more in it: technically, aesthetically, narratively, and even personally. Years ago, the director, John McTiernan, became a friend. For Red October’s twenty-fifth anniversary, I wrote him a letter telling him what the film had come to mean to me, as someone who’d always spent a lot of his time in his own head, not unlike its depiction of Jack Ryan (though the similarities pretty much end there). For all I know, he thought I was crazy… but from what I was told, he kept the letter!

So comparing my feelings from that first viewing to later ones? I wouldn’t say it’s a movie that’s grown on me; I’d say that it’s a movie that I’ve grown with.

Coate: Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin…good choices to play their respective roles?

Lichtenfeld: Alec Baldwin’s performance is perfect, and it was the perfect moment in his career for him to play Jack Ryan. He wasn’t so big a star that his persona cast a shadow over the character. And that was to his advantage because a key part of the movie is that this Jack Ryan is in a world that’s so much bigger than him, and populated by characters whose personas are so much bigger than his.

As for Sean Connery, he almost wasn’t in the movie. It began shooting with Klaus Maria Brandauer cast as Ramius, but he dropped out one week into production. When Connery was offered the role, he turned it down because he didn’t think the story made sense in the era of glasnost that had begun under Mikael Gorbachev in 1985. Luckily, it just turned out that when the script had been sent to Connery, the first page, explaining that the story takes place in 1984, had been missing from the fax. The moral of the story is that history can work in weird ways, but thank goodness when it works. I can’t think of another Scotsman I’d have cast to play a Russian submarine commander! Even more than James Bond, Marko Ramius will always be the Sean Connery of my imagination.

Coate: In what way was John McTiernan an ideal choice to direct, and where do you think the film ranks among his body of work?

Lichtenfeld: McTiernan was the perfect director because of his passion for naval history and also because of who he is as a filmmaker. For one thing, he’s very skilled at laying out space. In many of his movies — especially the two that he made before Red October — he makes complicated geography really clear for the audience. That’s just as true in this movie, which allows the audience to always know where it is, which sub it’s on, etc.

Even more than that, though, McTiernan has a wonderful sense of gamesmanship and of adventure that gives a dynamic charge to the very cerebral source material. And most of all, he’s a shrewd and sympathetic observer of people and how they behave. That informs even his more outlandish movies, like Die Hard with a Vengeance, and it’s a powerful asset in Red October. Again, the source material is so cerebral and so technical that it would have been easy for a director to get lost in that. But McTiernan always brings our attention back to the fact that these things are happening to people — and he does it with subtlety and consistency.

As for where it ranks among his other films, it was more than a worthy follow-up to Die Hard, which was a masterpiece of the genre and only McTiernan’s second studio feature. Which of the two is the better movie? That’s easy — whichever I’ve seen more recently!

Coate: Where do you think Red October ranks among films’ with a Cold War theme?

Lichtenfeld: That’s a very big field, but I’d have to say it’s close to the top — on the strength of the filmmaking alone, if nothing else. And don’t forget, as Cold War-themed films go, Red October had a big problem in that the Cold War kind of… ended while they were in post-production. I mean, that was a good thing for the world, just maybe not for the movie. So The Hunt for Red October should have been dated before it even opened — which means that the fact that it not only succeeded at the time, but has endured over the thirty years since, says a lot.

Coate: Do you believe Red October has been well represented on home video formats over the years?

Lichtenfeld: I can tell you that, over the years, home video releases of Red October have been well represented on my bookshelves!

I would defer to others’ expertise on this question, including yours. I remember being thrilled when a letterboxed edition was released on VHS — on a red cassette no less. Later, I was happy enough with the DVD and Blu-ray, but a 4K edition was one of my most hoped-for releases on disc. Paramount did a great thing releasing it, both in the Jack Ryan set and now as a standalone. It’s not as showy a movie as a lot of what we’d see today, but the craftsmanship of the movie is superb and very intentional, and demands to be seen in the finest presentation possible.

Coate: What is the legacy of The Hunt for Red October?

Lichtenfeld: Superficially, it launched the Jack Ryan franchise — at least all of its filmed incarnations. But it stands apart from them, too. Maybe it’s because it was first, or maybe it’s because I’m biased, but I always feel like it’s more its own entity than any of the others. It’s not a Jack Ryan property; it’s The Hunt for Red October.

I had the privilege of being asked to present the movie by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in celebration of its twentieth anniversary. Before I spoke, the person who introduced me told the audience in his remarks that Red October is one of those movies that he simply has to keep watching whenever he comes across it on TV. Based on the audience’s reaction, he was speaking for a lot of people — mainly guys, perhaps, but I like to think it’s people in general — and putting The Hunt for Red October in the company of films like The Godfather or The Shawshank Redemption.

That may seem like a small thing — and certainly an unscientific one — but I think it speaks to something bigger. I like to think that there’s a cultural consensus that this is simply a great movie.

I still shake my head at the thought that it didn’t get more Academy Award nominations (though I was proud to have on stage the filmmakers who had been nominated in the technical categories). Ultimately, though, awards don’t do much to shape a movie’s legacy; from a cultural standpoint, they’re snapshots. What determines a movie’s legacy is the love viewers continue to have for it over time. Whenever Red October comes up in conversation, I never see anyone shrug and go, “Oh yeah, that one was pretty good.” I see them light up. And they should light up. Because for all its complexity and all its depth, it is one of the simplest — but also rarest — things: a great story perfectly told.

Coate: Thank you, Eric, for sharing your thoughts about The Hunt for Red October on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.




Selected images copyright/courtesy Bobby Henderson, Los Angeles Times, Paramount Pictures, Paramount Home Entertainment.

The Hunt for Red October



The primary references for this project were regional newspaper coverage and trade reports published in Billboard, Boxoffice, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety.

All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States and Canada except where stated otherwise.



Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, David Ayers, Sheldon Hall, and Bill Kretzel.



  • Don Bassman (Supervising Re-Recording Mixer), 1927-1993
  • Richard Jordan (“Jeffrey Pelt”), 1937-1993
  • Anthony Peck (“Lt. Comm. Thompson, USS Dallas”), 1947-1996
  • Donald Stewart (Screenplay), 1930-1999
  • Larry De Waay (Executive Producer), 1942-2003
  • Basil Poledouris (Music), 1945-2006
  • Peter Zinner (“Admiral Padorin”), 1919-2007
  • John McTiernan Sr (“Advisor #2”), 1921-2008
  • A.C. Lyles (“Advisor #1”), 1918-2013
  • Tom Clancy (novel), 1943-2013
  • Fred Dalton Thompson (“Admiral Painter”), 1942-2015
  • Terrence Marsh (Production Designer), 1931-2018

-Michael Coate

Michael Coate can be reached via e-mail through this link. (You can also follow Michael on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

The Hunt for Red October (4K Ultra HD)