“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.“
Earlier this year, David Morrell’s debut novel, First Blood, celebrated its 50th birthday. Like many authors who go on to write other books they consider better (or at least, better written) than their inaugural outings, it’s doubtful Mr. Morrell ever envisioned this relatively “small” story about a single man attempting to navigate a world he no longer understands or in which he feels welcome would go on to become – arguably – his signature work.
And while he perhaps hoped it might one day be adapted for film, he likely didn’t anticipate what would happen with that.
Released 40 years ago today on October 22nd, 1982, First Blood – the movie – introduced theater audiences to distraught Vietnam combat veteran John Rambo.
The first of what would become (so far?) five films focusing on Rambo 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 enclave, 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 far and away the best of the Rambo films. Sylvester Stallone does a fine job embodying the tormented soul of John Rambo, shifting with aplomb between brooding loner, ruthless warrior, and broken man. He also served as a co-writer for the film’s script, and he would take on increasingly greater control of the character and storylines with each new sequel.
As for this first outing, it does differ in several respects from David Morrell’s novel, most notably with the ending, of course (No spoilers. You’re just gonna have to suss out that info on your own). 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 the man has died due to cancer, perhaps the result of exposure to Agent Orange.
One big change 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 absolutely and without equivocation well worth the read.
Stallone’s initial outing as John Rambo was successful enough to warrant four sequels: Rambo: First Blood, Part II in 1985, 1988’s Rambo III, the surprisingly solid Rambo in 2008, and 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood. The first two follow-ups suffer from featuring stock, almost cartoonish villians and action, while the fourth movie pulled no punches in its depictions of war-torn Burma. For whatever the hell my opinion’s worth, Rambo as depicted here is closest to what Morrell originally envisioned for the character.
Despite an initial wave of mixed reviews, the original First Blood enjoyed box office success which lead to the aforementioned sequels (which in turn inspired comics, video games, and – believe it or not – an animated series complete with toys). Over time, First Blood has come to be recognized as an influential entry in the action-adventure and military film genres.
While 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, we neverthless (and perhaps inevitably) got one more sequel with Last Blood. It’s not a story that needed to be told, particularly given how the previous film ended on what I thought was just the right note. That feeling was only reinforced with the movie’s return to the more one-dimensional antagonists and what is essentially a build-up to a single violent confrontation with a Mexican drug gang. To be fair, the version I along with the rest of U.S. audiences originally got to see in theaters is a disappointment. The “extended cut” seen overseas and currently available for digital rental/purchase on Amazon Prime adds 12 minutes inexplicably left out of the U.S. release. Those 12 minutes don’t make Last Blood a great film, but for damned sure they make it a better film.
Have we seen the last of John Rambo? Recent rumors have whispered about a possible sixth film and even a TV series which might reboot the character, and I long ago learned to never say never when it comes to this kind of thing.
Meanwhile, there’s the original film, as good in its own way as the novel from which it sprang. Tip your glass to one of the iconic action movies of the 1980s. Draw First Blood.