“You don’t seem to want to accept the fact you’re dealing with an expert in guerrilla warfare; with a man who’s the best…with guns, with knives, with his bare hands. A man who’s been trained to ignore pain…ignore weather; to live off the land…to eat things that would make a billy goat puke. In Vietnam his job was to dispose of enemy personnel. To kill! Period! Win by attrition. Well Rambo was the best.”
Back in August, I babbled a bit about David Morrell’s original novel First Blood on the occasion of its 40th birthday. Now we turn our attention to the movie it spawned, the first of four cinematic outings (so far) starring Sylvester Stallone as the character Morrell created, distraught Vietnam vet John Rambo.
Released thirty years ago today, the original First Blood hits several of the same notes as the novel, at least in the beginning. Rambo (given a first name of John for the film), a drifter, finds his way to a small mountain town and is harassed by the local law in the form of Sheriff Wilfred Teasle. Concerned this long-haired unwashed hippie might attract others of his kind to his quiet, tranquil little town, Teasle at first tries to “help” Rambo with a lift to the edge of town. When Rambo, hoping to stop somewhere for something to eat, decides to wander back, Teasle is none too happy and arrests him. That’s when things start to take a turn toward shit as Rambo is less than cooperative while being processed at the sheriff’s station.
Suffering from a PTSD-induced flashback to his time as a tortured prisoner of war in Vietnam, Rambo attacks Teasle and his men and makes his escape, commandeering a motorcycle and heading for the nearby mountains. Teasle and his men give chase, but that doesn’t turn out so well, does it? Things only get crazier when they find out Rambo is not only a former Green Beret with seriously mad ass-kicking skillz, but he’s also a Medal of Honor winner. Then, his former commanding officer, Colonel Sam Trautman, shows up looking for his boy, and by then we’re off to the races.
First Blood, for my money, anyway, is still the best of the Rambo movies. It does differ in several respects from David Morrell’s novel, most notably with the ending, of course. The Rambo of the novel is a much darker, disturbed, and violent character than his film incarnation, and Teasle is presented in somewhat less sympathetic fashion in the movie, but he’s still pretty much a dick in both versions even though his motivations are at least a bit more understandable in the book. The setting is changed from a small town in Kentucky to the Pacific Northwest, and the film adds the extra bit about Rambo seeking out one of his old Army buddies and discovering that the man has died due to cancer, perhaps the result of exposure to Agent Orange. One big change that I’ve never really understood is why the filmmakers chose not to keep more elements from what ends up being a very personal battle of wills between Rambo and Teasle. There are shades of it in the movie, sure, but the setup and payoff in the book are much stronger and more visceral, thanks in large part to Morrell’s decision to alternate the story between the two men’s points of view from chapter to chapter. If you only know Rambo from the movies, Morrell’s book is well worth the read.
Stallone’s initial outing as John Rambo was successful enough to warrant three sequels: Rambo: First Blood, Part II in 1985, 1988’s Rambo III, and the surprisingly solid Rambo in 2008. The first two follow-ups suffer from featuring stock, almost cartoonish villians and action, but the fourth movie pulled no punches in its depictions of war-torn Burma. It seemed like John Rambo’s story might have reached a logical conclusion at the end of the fourth film, with him having “come full circle” as Trautman told him he one day would have to do. However, as of this writing there supposedly is a fifth (and final?) installment in the very early stages of development.
For now, though? Tip your glass to one of the iconic action movies of the 1980s. Draw First Blood.