When you mention the name John Rambo to most people it conjures up images of a bulked-up, greased-up Sylvester Stallone as a super-soldier who travels to foreign lands to right wrongs on behalf of America. It’s a name that synonymous with violent American jingoism. And yet the origins of the character couldn’t’ be further from where the character ended up in the popular culture. How did this happen? Now that the first three Rambo films have landed on 4K UHD Blu-ray from Lionsgate Home Entertainment, I want to trace how John Rambo became the poster child for rah-rah American violence when he started as critique of the very mindset he would become.
In 1982 audiences were first introduced to John Rambo (Stallone) in director Ted Kotcheff’s adaptation of the novel by David Morrell, First Blood. In the film, John Rambo is trying to start a new life and tracks down the home of one of his brothers in arms in the town of Hope, Washington. However, the side effects of Agent Orange gave him cancer and he passed away. Just as the film is beginning it establishes a critique of American foreign policy in the war in Vietnam as well as the national indifference to the returning troops from that war. The reality is this is not the Rambo that became a dominant force in pop culture.
After learning the tragic news of his friends demise, John Rambo goes to walk down the quiet streets of Hope. It’s while just quietly passing through that John Rambo catches the eye of Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy). The Sheriff doesn’t want drifters in his town and he gives Rambo a ride to the edges of his sleepy little city. When Rambo turns around to reenter the town, the Sheriff arrests him on trumped up charges of vagrancy. It’s in the town jail when he’s subjected to extrajudicial beatings that Rambo’s PTSD starts kicking in, flashbacks to being a POW in Vietnam race through his mind. That’s when his special forces training kicks in and Rambo beats his way out of jail, escaping to the nearby woods.
In the establishing moments of the film First Blood tackles PTSD, Agent Orange, police brutality, and the mistreatment of Vietnam veterans. Not exactly the work of violent jingoism, eh? Sure, First Blood then becomes an action thriller, with John Rambo hiding in the woods and setting traps for his would-be pursuers, but it’s also an effective action thriller. First Blood is able to consistently escalate its stakes and it puts John Rambo in moments of peril consistently, making the character have to use his wits to escape dangerous situations.
Eventually, the carnage and mayhem unleashed by Rambo gets the attention of Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo’s former commanding officer in ‘Nam. As hard as the military commander tries to convince Sheriff Teasle that he’s just entered into a death match with the deadliest man alive, the local lawman and his foolish masculine pride refuses to admit defeat or that he even erred in the slightest. The Sheriff will send in the National Guard to take down Rambo. Of course, that’s a big mistake.
From a truck full of weapons Rambo arms himself with a massive M-60 machine gun. He then proceeds to continue his rampage into town, blowing up a gas station and destroying a gun store along the way. First Blood has an emotional conclusion where Colonel Trautman confronts his suffering soldier, imploring him to surrender. In one of Stallone’s most effective performances, he maintains a sense of physical invulnerability but embodies an emotional vulnerability. John Rambo may be a super-soldier when under fire but he’s a man who has been suffering ever since returning from the front lines, a man whose suffering has been exacerbated by indifference from government and civilians. All of this chaos and violence could’ve been avoided if not for an overaggressive lawman who felt himself above the laws he was sworn to enforce.
There’s no trace of the Rambo that would become the symbol of American militaristic excess of the ‘80s in First Blood. Instead this is a somber action film, one that is critical of law enforcement as well as the military industrial complex that failed the soldiers in a lost cause war in Vietnam. It’s also a lean, efficient piece of filmmaking, establishing its premise before steadily escalating the action until its conclusion. The myth of Rambo would begin to change when the sequels started coming, and we all know that Sylvester Stallone never met a sequel he didn’t like. We’ll dive into Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III in the coming days as we explore just how this character evolved into something that doesn’t resemble his origins.
- Overall Score
A lean, mean action thriller, First Blood introduced the world to John Rambo but it’s a film that’s much more critical of American militarism and masculinity than the character would later come to embody in its numerous sequels.