First Blood at 40: Rambo’s first outing mixed violence with vulnerability

The 1982 action thriller saw Sylvester Stallone play a wounded veteran with depth that was later betrayed by a series of xenophobic sequelsThe original ending of First Blood had John Rambo, an ex-Special Forces super-soldier in Vietnam, pulling a gun from his…

The original ending of First Blood had John Rambo, an ex-Special Forces super-soldier in Vietnam, pulling a gun from his mentor’s holster and asking him to pull the trigger: “You trained me. You made me. You kill me.” Finally surrounded after waging war against seemingly every armed man within CB range in the Pacific north-west – a local police department, inept “weekend warriors” for the national guard, the US army – Rambo wants his Green Beret Geppetto to kill him rather than the strangers that don’t understand him. Moreover, he wants to be released from the pain he carries from a conflict that scarred him physically and mentally overseas and left him despised and unmoored at home. His mentor obliges.

Test audiences hated that ending. As did Kirk Douglas, who was originally cast as Rambo’s creator, Colonel Sam Trautman, before Richard Crenna eventually stepped into the role. The director, Ted Kotcheff, at the urging of his star (and the film’s co-writer) Sylvester Stallone, anticipated the reaction enough to conceive of an alternate ending on the spot, one where the hero takes a more dignified perp walk out of the sheriff’s office. The new ending turned out to be great for Stallone’s pocketbook – the franchise has four sequels and inspired Gizmo to fight back in Gremlins 2: The New Batch – and it plays better, too, still sobering without having to be so abrupt.

But the Rambo that would emerge three years later in Rambo: First Blood Part II would be a betrayal of the wounded soul at the center of First Blood, a xenophobic fantasy figure who treated Vietnam less as an aching loss than as a war he hadn’t been allowed to win. It’s the same pattern that followed Stallone’s Rocky movies: the underdog palooka we came to love in the first film eventually morphs into a world-conquering cartoon, and any future attempts to recapture the modesty of the original film wind up feeling cynical. Stallone wants to be a salt-of-the-earth Joe Lunchpail- type and an unstoppable action Goliath, and it’s hard to be both things at once.

First Blood comes awfully close, however. Adapted from David Morrell’s novel, the film remains the template for 80s action cinema, a pulpy thriller full of shootouts, car chases, explosions, and other displays of heavy artillery and set-splintering pyrotechnics. Stallone’s Rambo is indeed a force of near-immortal resilience, but his psychic vulnerability, like Rocky’s, is the grounding force that makes him seem more human than he would otherwise. He is a one man army, beating back hundreds of assailants in the woods of the Pacific north-west, but Stallone and Kotcheff are savvy about revealing his weaknesses, too, including his post-traumatic stress and his almost ghostly sense of displacement. There’s a part of him that’s already dead, whether Trautman pulls the trigger or not.

As First Blood opens, Rambo is a long-haired drifter seeking out the last of his surviving Special Forces comrades, who turned out to have died of cancer the year before. That news puts him back on the side of the road, ambling his way through the town of Hope, Washington, but the local sheriff, Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) wants Rambo to leave Hope behind. Rather than accept his personal escort out of city limits, however, Rambo turns back to where he doesn’t belong and the sheriff arrests him on trumped-up charges of vagrancy and resisting arrest. When Teasle and his men – including a young David Caruso – use this opportunity to torture him behind bars, triggering flashbacks of his time as a POW, Rambo fights his way out of custody and heads to the mountains for cover.

From there, a simple vagrancy beef turns into a Battle Royale, as Rambo slips deadly traps and lays some himself, and the police department and other armed volunteers are somehow overmatched by their only target. When Trautman finally shows up to offer assistance, he tells the sheriff, “I didn’t come to rescue Rambo from you. I came to rescue you from him.” Teasle cackles at the idea that 200 men might not be enough to take Rambo down – Dennehy, a first-rate character actor, gives his villain a fine layer of fake folksiness – but the more people come at him, the more weapons he acquires. The winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor isn’t going to be taken down by some yokel with a rocket launcher.

As an early volley in the 80s action arms race led by Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, First Blood set a standard that many films followed but only a handful were able to match. The gorgeous natural backdrop, with British Columbia serving as a majestically overcast Washington, has enough wilderness for Rambo to reacquaint himself with jungle warfare, but the setting has the melancholy feel of other films set in the region, like Five Easy Pieces. The essential point of First Blood – after violence for its own rousing sake, of course – is that Rambo may be back in America, but the place doesn’t feel like home. He is a drifter in more than the literal sense.

Though Stallone generally speaks softly and carries a loud machine gun, the film does build to a famous “nothing is over” monologue where Rambo’s anguish comes tumbling out and he becomes the mouthpiece for Vietnam veterans who feel disrespected and forgotten at home. It’s a terrible piece of writing that would encourage future terrible pieces of writing from Stallone – see also the monologues in Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV – and conspicuously out of place in a movie that suggests a tension among different kinds of veterans by tucking evidence of Teasle’s service in the background. Stallone either doesn’t trust the audience to have a read on his character or is servicing his own vanity as an actor.

Still, First Blood spoke to lingering national aggrievements about Vietnam while offering a satisfyingly bloody catharsis. It remains a superior piece of action craft, widely imitated in a decade that would replicate its domestic warfare while only rarely besting it. One man fighting an entire town was an old western trope that Stallone slyly updated with high-capacity magazines and gas-station explosions. The formula still worked.


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