The Rambo movies have become regarded as quintessential 1980s action pieces to such an extent that it’s easy to forget that David Morrell’s First Blood – the novel that introduced the character and then killed him off, before the first movie decided it was more interesting to keep him alive to squeeze sequels out of – came out in 1972, when the Vietnam War was still ongoing and its subject of a generation traumatised by the war was a hot topic.
The original novel also puts equal emphasis on two protagonists, not just one: Rambo, a drifter who’s dropped out of society after coming home from Vietnam, is naturally one and the other is Police Chief William Teasle, who in the first movie is given a title change to “Sheriff” and is very much an antagonist, rather than a co-protagonist. The conflict is essentially intergenerational, with Rambo representing the Vietnam generation and Teasle the Korean War generation, and in that way it captures the rift in American society at the time.
In the 1980s, however, mainstream American society didn’t seem to want to hear about division – or at any rate, Hollywood didn’t want to talk about it. This led to a shift in the emphasis for the movie adaptation of First Blood, but that movie still retained something to say about how the traumas of war shapes people and how American society too easily treated people as disposable and abuse of police power and so on.
Increasingly, however, the sequels shifted gear and the tone of the movies became less critical and more propagandistic, until finally they were cheerleading war and bloodshed when they’d started out from a point depicting the dehumanising nature of war. Let’s see how that happened.
First Blood‘s story is nice and straightforward: Sylvester Stallone introduces us to John Rambo as a soft-spoken, basically harmless-seeming sort who’s hiked his way to the small town of Hope in Washington, where he was hoping to visit an old friend from his Vietnam days. Alas, he gets the grim news that his buddy died last year of cancer due to Agent Orange exposure. Before he can really process that grief, he’s hassled by Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy), an abrasive asshole who just wants Rambo to fuck off out of his town.
When Rambo decides to walk straight back into town after Teasle drops him off at the edge, he’s promptly arrested and taken in. But as Teasle’s shithead deputies work him over in the cells, Rambo suffers a PTSD flashback to his time as a Viet Cong POW. Soon he’s escaped and fighting a guerilla war in the hills around town against the Sheriff’s Department, and Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), his old commanding officer, has come down to town to try and urge Teasle to de-escalate the situation and let him try to talk Rambo down.
Stallone came to the project fresh off the success of the Rocky movies, which gave him enough clout to exert a lot of creative control; the final version of the script is basically his revision. He still didn’t necessarily have a lot of confidence in the project, and was particularly worried that a movie about an American killing American authority figures would get roundly rejected. A lot of his revisions to the character were intended to soften him and make him more sympathetic – he even researched some real Vietnam veterans’ stories of traumatic incidents in the war for Rambo’s rambling monologue at the end. Rambo is still a cop killer in this, but he’s much less bloodthirsty than he is in the novel, in which he’s happy to kill cops without a second thought.
The other way to make Rambo a more sympathetic figure without softening his hard edges completely, of course, is to be really harsh about the police, and they’re certainly major-league assholes to him here. The thing is, watching the movie now, with the cultural conversation on police brutality and institutional prejudice having reached the point it’s gotten since 1982, feels incongruous, particularly since the film really doesn’t communicate why Teasle takes against Rambo in the first place.
Let’s take a look at Rambo as he appears at the start of the movie. He is wearing jeans and a US Army jacket, and given the reverence for the troops in the US it seems really weird that a conservative small-town cop would take against this. Apparently army surplus jackets were common hippy fashion items back in the day, but I feel like that trend had largely passed by 1982, and on top of that Rambo’s wearing dog tags so it’d be easy to establish that he wasn’t a phony veteran – there’s no “stolen valour” issue here.
I think we are supposed to assume that Teasle considers Rambo, if not an outright hippy, then at the very least some sort of disreputable drifter. Unfortunately, Rambo just looks too clean-cut and well-groomed to really convey this, with the result that Teasle just comes across as deciding to bully Rambo for no apparent reason whatsoever. Whilst this certainly helps make him seem unsympathetic, from a social commentary perspective it still feels like it would make a bit more sense if Rambo were several notches more hippified, significantly more ragged-looking, or appreciably more snarly and abrasive from the get-go. It would make a lot more sense if he were black. As it stands, he’s played by Stallone and seems pretty mild-mannered and respectable until the manhunt has already begun.
As I mentioned, Teasle’s beef with Rambo is handled with a bit more nuance in the novel, in which his status as a Korean War veteran is very significant. In the movie you can apparently spot some of his military awards on the wall in his office, but it’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stuff and we don’t get any further insight than that, and you could believably come away with it thinking that Teasle has some sort of general beef with the military.
This is far from the intention. In the novel, Teasle’s military background is just as important as Rambo’s: specifically, Teasle is proud of his service in Korea and has a withering contempt for Vietnam veterans because he generally dislikes the younger generation’s attitude and thinks they’re lazy no-goods who are losing the war over there, barely any better than the civilian opposition to the war at home with their defiant attitudes. (Remember, the original novel was written when Vietnam was still happening.)
It feels like First Blood is missing a conversation somewhere which could have established this. They make a big thing of the process of him having his particulars taken down at the Sheriff’s office, and finding his dog tags, and in part of that process Teasles swings by the desk where his deputies are working on getting Rambo’s particulars down to yell at them for how long it’s taking; that would have been a perfect moment for Teasle to go off on a rant about his service in Korea and running down Rambo for being a broken-down dropout from a failed war or something. It doesn’t happen, and this aspect just doesn’t make it into the movie – leaving the motivation for the entire feud weird and muddled.
Stallone and Dennehy’s performances are, nonetheless, pretty decent, which manages to make Teasle’s muddied motivations less of an issue than they would have been. They really get across a sense of just plain not liking each other from the get-go, and since Teasle is never really given the same opportunity to explain his motivations the way Rambo is, it all comes down to Dennehy’s performance there, and he delivers.
Richard Crenna’s Colonel Trautman, on the other hand, feels like he’s walked on from the set of a much more simplistic action movie – it’s no wonder he’s such an important figure in the sequels, since his hyping of what a badass dude Rambo is lays a bunch of the groundwork for them and tonally speaking his performance seems much more in keeping with the overall approach of them as opposed to the more serious tone taken here.
Still, as a sustained study of toxic masculinity and how it puts these two characters into a situation that neither of them understand how to de-escalate, and how the American intervention in Vietnam traumatised a generation and created a vast rift in society, as expressed through a series of absurd stunt set-pieces, First Blood ain’t bad. It’s aged poorly, but not as bad as some episodes in the series.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
In this movie Rambo, serving time in prison due to being a cop killer, is recruited by Colonel Trautman to undertake a special intelligence mission under the auspices of US Army bureaucrat Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier). There’s concerns that the Vietnamese government has got a stash of American POWs in an encampment deep in the jungle – but if Rambo can get visual confirmation of the presence of American prisoners, the government can use it as leverage to secure their release. Murdock, however, has no intention of allowing any such evidence to make it back to Congress – and when Rambo goes outside the scope of his mission in order to attempt a rescue, Murdock has the perfect excuse to leave Rambo behind enemy lines…
The script for this one (initially by James Cameron, then revised by Stallone) riffs on the theory of American soldiers “missing in action” in Vietnam actually still being alive as prisoners of war. At the time, relations with Vietnam had still not normalised, so this wasn’t 100% implausible, but it’s still difficult to see what the Vietnamese government’s motivation here would be for not disclosing their existence (secretly through diplomatic channels, if not openly) in order to exert negotiating leverage against the US.
It requires the Vietnamese government to be ruthless enough to keep the prisoners for no real purpose, but not ruthless enough to just kill them and erase all evidence of them ever being held prisoner – in other words, a very specific level of ruthlessness which doesn’t seem to give any pragmatic advantage. One could maybe imagine the Vietnamese government being worried that disclosure of the prisoners’ existence creating public demand in America for a renewal of hostilities – but that’s not a reason to keep them but keep their existence secret, that’s a reason to release them as a goodwill gesture – then you don’t have a dirty secret to be blackmailed with, and you look like the goodies, and you take the heat out of any American appetite to go into Vietnam to look for POWs. There would simply be no upside to Vietnam for keeping those prisoners, and it should really have been evident from a consideration of their interests at the time that there would be no such upside.
Naturally, there’s a hefty dose of Cold War jingoism incorporated into the movie, right down to the Vietnamese being backed up by a substantial Russian contingent (because those Commie bastards are all in it together!) led by Lt. Col. Podovsky, played by Steven Berkoff with the sort of accent usually reserved for World War II-era German officers of the “sadistic Nazi sophisticate” stripe. I am 99% sure he is meant to be Russian, not East German, despite the fact that his accent sounds to me more like the latter than the former. Given the overlap of Stasi and Gestapo methods, considering that he pretty much literally drops in to preside over a torture sequence, I suspect that Stallone and director George Cosmatos just wanted to pay tribute to classic war movies without thinking whether the particular presentation they went for made a blind bit of sense.
Here and there, you can spot the occasional subversive touch. As Murdock spills a pack of lies during the mission briefing, a photograph of Reagan smiles vacantly from the wall above him, and as Murdock prowls about the mission headquarters sweating in a heat he’s not at all accustomed to he swills Coca-Cola, about as unambiguous a symbol of American corporate interests you could care to pick out.
Stallone himself argues that whilst Trautman and Murdock present different right-wing views (one sincere, one insincere), whilst Rambo himself presents a more neutral figure, putting the interests of the men caught up in the war before the geopolitical interests of the government that sponsored it – and via Murdock has now sponsored the peace. There’s something to that, though there’s a thick survivalist streak to Rambo which was somewhat more neutral at the time of filming (hippies were just as likely as hard-right sorts to go make World War III-proof compounds in Montana back in the day) but which has gained increasing right-wing connotations since.
His closing speech centres around the idea that America should love its soldiers as much as its soldiers love it, but from 9/11 onwards it’s very much been the case that support of the troops is conflated, absolutely and always, with support of military policy; sometimes the best way to support the troops is to say that what the troops are doing is wrong and that their goodwill is being misused for wicked ends. (“Peace In our Life”, the sappy song to back up Rambo’s point – written by Stallone’s little brother Frank! – that plays over the end credits is, if anything, even sillier than “Freedom Isn’t Free” from Team America: World Police.)
The thing is, this heartfelt appeal for veterans in need to be respected and supported by society is joined at the hip with an absolutely over-the-top orgy of violence, in which the more grounded approach of First Blood which pays at least some heed to the human cost of Rambo’s action is replaced with a disturbingly dehumanising attitude. Rambo is presented as a hulking mass of masculinity fighting foes who, by and large, are smaller and weedier than him, which plays uncomfortably to a quasi-fascist might-makes-right ethos.
The racial undertones of the violence are also disturbing, as is the film’s desultory attempt at a romance subplot. Rambo’s love interest Co Bao (Julia Nickson) is a fantasy figure pandering to the same set of stereotypes and tropes which drive skeevy mail order bride businesses: you have a pretty Asian woman speaking halting English who’s just super interested in this heroic white guy she’s only just met; she dreams of leaving Commieland to live in Freedomtown, USA; she gets fridged really cheaply in order to motivate Rambo. It’s not good.
The sheer cartoonish spectacle of the movie is clearly deliberate on the part of the filmmakers. As well as wanting to one-up their competition in the action stakes, they may well have got word that Cannon were doing the Chuck Norris Missing In Action movies ripping off Cameron’s story treatment, and decided to respond by creating an absurd spectacle well beyond the means of Cannon to imitate.
As it happened, Cannon rush-produced and released the first two Missing In Action movies after being inspired by James Cameron’s original script treatment for First Blood Part II, which had been floating around Hollywood in 1983, so that they could claim to have got their movie out first and thus be in a better position in the event they got sued.
They were an even more vapid treatment of the subject matter than this, with Chuck Norris declaring that he wanted to present a more positive view of the war in Vietnam and that he was more trusting of the American government, citing the part where the chopper leaves Rambo behind as unrealistic because no red-blooded American would ever do something so rotten. The fact is, though, that it’s only really that bit (and Murdock’s motivations for ordering the pilot to abort the pickup) which really sets First Blood Part II apart from Missing In Action when it comes to its worldview.
This starts out with Rambo participating in a martial arts tournament in Thailand, because that was the new hotness in action movies at the time, in order to raise some money for the Buddhist monastery where he’s been staying – which is where, as always, Colonel Trautman finds him. It’s 1988 and the pushback against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is well underway except in one province, where the brutal Soviet commander Colonel Zaysen (Marc de Jonge) has things tightly locked down. Trautman intends to go in to gather intelligence, and wants Rambo to come with; Rambo refuses at first, but when he learns that Trautman has been captured he volunteers for a desperate rescue mission.
A violence-fest on a par with First Blood Part II for sheer over-the-top absurdity, the movie does its best to be a propaganda piece concerning Afghanistan, introducing an American audience who most likely had heard little of it prior to the Soviet invasion to a heroic, lionised portrait of the Afghan people and demonising the Soviets as hypocrites, acting as genocidal aggressors in Afghanistan whilst talking peace and disarmament with the US. Whereas First Blood focused on the toll taken by Vietnam by its American participants, and First Blood Part II tempered its demonisation of the Vietnamese government with distrust and suspicion of the American government, Rambo III is unabashedly, unapologetically partisan.
First Blood had a worldview that war is bad in part because it produces broken people whose traumas and capacity for violence make them victims when they lack power and victimisers when they hold power; Rambo III presents the war in Afghanistan as a heroic struggle of an absolutely virtuous Afghan people against an absolutely barbaric Soviet force, whose outrages are framed in the same over the top terms used to demonise, say, the German forces in World War I.
It ends with a gushing on-screen tribute to the brave people of Afghanistan in their struggle against Soviet occupation, which is pretty wild to see since the freedom fighters we see Rambo working with here are presented in much the “hardy primitives with guns” way the Taliban would be depicted with in subsequent decades.
Of course, when the US government wanted to send in an elite special operatives to fuck up the Soviets’ day in Afghanistan, they didn’t send in one mumbly American – the CIA bankrolled a general mobilisation of mujahideen from across the Islamic world, including a plucky young scion of a wealthy Saudi family with a taste for adventure – one Osama Bin Laden. The rest was history – specifically, a history including 3000 dead people in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, the rise of the Taliban, and the general destabilisation of the entire region. (There’s a speech 35 minutes into the movie where one of the leaders of the resistance explicitly identifies himself and his colleagues as mujahideen, using that exact word.)
In short, this has aged poorly and has more or less entirely abandoned its moral compass in favour of promoting the most violent intervention possible in some hot-topic conflict of the day. This is not the only respect in which the movie presents a detestable inversion of First Blood‘s values. Trautman’s speech to Rambo that his essential nature is that of a combat soldier and he’ll never be at peace with himself until he accepts this is presented as this benign, heartfelt appeal but is just a slimy bit of emotional manipulation, combined with a bleak worldview where people simply cannot change and that the one thing which will make Rambo find tranquility, after getting PTSD in the Vietnam War, is more war. It’s just unbelievable.
The Ill-Judged Revival of Rambo
Stallone had the good sense to let Rambo lie fallow for a couple of decades, but along with his similarly uncalled-for attempts to revive the Rocky series Stallone has also made attempts to pad out the series yet further in recent years, each time following the sequels’ pattern of “Rambo applies absurd levels of violence to a fresh-from-the-headlines conflict”, and usually in a way which was either offensive at the time, or has aged poorly, or both.
2008’s Rambo had him trying to rescue whitebread Christian missionaries from the military regime in Myanmar; this was obnoxious from a racial perspective, since it’s one more example of Rambo rescuing a bunch of white people from demonised Southeast Asian folk, and the cause for democracy in Myanmar no longer seems as unambiguously virtuous as it did in 2008 with the Rohingya genocide ongoing. It would have aged somewhat better had the focus been more on Myanmar military violence against minority populations within Myanmar itself, but alas it didn’t. Rambo: Last Blood finds him living in Arizona and fighting a one-man war against a Mexican drug cartel. I haven’t seen it, and on the basis of the reviews don’t intend to.
In Stallone’s commentary on First Blood – salient points for which have usefully been summarised by Film School Rejects – he recognises that Rambo over time has become a sort of right-wing symbol of American military might, but argues that this isn’t what the character is all about. That may well be true for his First Blood incarnation, but if Stallone really wanted to turn this around, he’s gone about it an odd way given the sequels he’s participated in. It’s almost as though he regards First Blood as being the only “real” movie in the series, and every sequel was just a cash-in – but if that’s the approach, there’s surely less corrosive ways to cash in.