Rambo: First Blood (1982)

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From what I heard about Sylvester Stallone’s iconic film I was looking forward to a wall-to-wall action flick with tons of gunplay, ambushes and half naked men yelling in the middle of the woods. After all, this is supposed to be the ultimate man movie with the kind of stuff that makes the testosterone flow and the call of the wild all the stronger.

So imagine my surprise when the film didn’t start with a war scene or a group of terrorists but with John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) wandering into some small town trying to find an old war buddy. As a Vietnam veteran and a “drifter” he’s not welcome in the small town of Hope, Washington. Will Teasle (Richard Crenna), the local sheriff, goes so far as to drive him out of town and warn him to stay out even though Rambo hadn’t done a thing.

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The film is not about watching Rambo kick ass but about this real world political tension between Vietnam veterans and American civilians. Americans didn’t only hate the war, they hated those who fought. So when Rambo attempts to make his way back into town again he’s arrested. It’s not long before He breaks out and a new war begins on American turf begins in a kind of political civil war. Rambo takes to the outlying wilderness luring the police officers into his trap. As Rambo puts it: “In town you’re the law, out here it’s me.”

This adds even further conflict with the tension between the natural and civilized world. Both have their forms of savagery and prejudices, the jungle in its harsh elements and civilization with its social hatred. In some ways, the jungle is better because at least it is equal in its prejudice. But who is in the wrong? The cops do seem excessive in their force and more than one is a bit gung-ho about hunting Rambo, but in some ways they are still trying to maintain order. Rambo is the protagonist, but that hardly makes him the hero. He’s fighting everyday cops, not Vietcong or terrorists. Furthermore, there’s a strong argument to be made that he’s the one who started the entire debacle.

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But Rambo gains our sympathies because he faces such insurmountable problems and suffers such prejudice.  He suffered torture and imprisonment at the hands of the Vietcong, serving bravely for his country, only to return to find the country he served hates him just as much as the enemy he fought. Furthermore, he’s become the product of a war that never ended, a war they didn’t win. He’s been trained to be a killer and seems unable to do anything else.

It’s all this ideological tension and conflict that makes First Blood a compelling story. The action will satisfy that itch but it is far from the tightly packed modern flicks. It gradually builds, creates suspense and provides only brief smatterings of action at a time. It’s more interested in the construction and pacing of the picture than in setting up entertaining action pieces. The action serves to develop the conflict and stretch the tension, not as simply a spectacle to enjoy.

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Perhaps the oddest thing is that our hero almost constantly has the upper hand. Even in the police station he is the one in control. Most compelling stories develop heroes who are constantly outgunned, outnumbered and overpowered but for Rambo the more men only means the other side is going to need a lot more paramedics at the end of the day. But in some ways this helps further his development as he must struggle over whether or not he will kill these men. After all, these aren’t the enemy and he has no orders.

Rambo: First Blood surprised my by not being very violent or even all that action oriented. If anything the film is a political thriller without the politicians. It’s a rare instance of a film using the action to further the ideological conflicts instead of simply making the action a manifestation of the conflict. The film is a meaningful and powerful exploration of the social and human problems of a generation of soldiers and despite the fact I didn’t even live in that decade I found every moment simultaneously entertaining and compelling.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing

First Blood [Bluray]