Between a rock and a hard place: Neither a quiet little town nor wild woods offer stillness nor sanctuary for a ragged John J. Rambo

The hypocrisy of small-town America at holidaytime is laid bare in Ted Kotcheff’s ground-breaking actioner


IN THE MOUNTAIN-FRAMED town of Hope, Washington (‘Gateway to Holidayland’ a sign at its border proudly declares). Police Sergeant, Bill Teasle (Brian Dennehy) stands on the steps of the station, looks out on the main street and smugly pulls himself up as if he is king of all he surveys. There might be wintertime frost in the air and a Christmas tree on the first floor ledge of every store running down the street but, regardless of the season, he knows everyone by name to say ‘Hello’ to, and they know him. So when long-haired Vietnam vet, John J. Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) wanders over the border into his ‘quiet little town’, Teasle immediately has an axe to grind: ‘You know, wearing that flag and that jacket, and looking the way you do, you’re asking for trouble around here, friend.’

Rambo is labelled a ‘smart-ass drifter’ but in actual fact, never mind that he was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honour, he represents the undesirable and embarrassing remnant of a war the USA unceremoniously lost. Before the ex-soldier knows it, he’s being unjustly booked for vagrancy, resisting arrest, and carrying a concealed weapon. Except he’s also suffering from undiagnosed and severe PTSD, so when brutal officers take him past the station’s front desk tree and ‘Merry Christmas’ banner and down to the basement and lay into him with a baton, water jets, and attempt to dryshave him with a cutthroat razor, an all but mute John J. Rambo experiences terrifying flashbacks of being tortured in ‘Nam.

One Man Facing The Multitude.

All hell is let loose as Stallone’s broken killing machine flips into guerrilla warrior mode and flees by stolen motorbike to hide out in the local forest which, for him, might as well be an East Asian jungle. Hordes of gun-happy local police with dogs, State Police units, helicopter teams, and even the National Guard are called in, but will prove no match for Rambo. He will later trash the town. Only his one-time Colonel, Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) understands him since it was he who trained the fugitive for intense combat ‘I came to rescue you from him,’ he tells a short-fused Teasle. (David Morrell, author of the original 1972 novel named the Colonel after Uncle Sam who created the soldier that is Rambo. There is a strong whiff of Mary Shelley’s novel, ‘Frankenstein’ (1818) about First Blood (1982).)

For director, Ted Kotcheff, John Rambo’s story was a metaphor of the long-term effects of the Vietnam War on the USA. It also gave voice to so many returned soldiers who had brought the madness of warfare back home with them. ‘We’re dealing with someone who had a complete mental breakdown because of his experiences in Vietnam,’ he explains in the dvd extras. For co-writer and star, Sylvester Stallone, the role of Rambo broke new cinematic ground: ‘For the first time, we had a super-soldier declare war with high-tech weapons in his own country‘. There had been screen renegades before but none with such lethal ability. First Blood came to kick-start a whole new style of action movie.

Strength And Vulnerability

First Blood had an extremely difficult gestation with over twenty script rewrites and a fleet of directors and stars at one time attached to it. In retrospect, the film’s gathering of cult status and critical acclaim over the years’ cements the final culmination of production tean and cast as extremely fortuitous. Sent the script by Kotcheff, Stallone read and made his decision after a mere weekend. But the actor and screenwriter of the Oscar-winning Rocky (1976) also recognised the need for significant changes. The humanising combination of strength and vulnerability he had brought to the role of Rocky Balboa he duplicated as John J. Rambo. His acting career became defined by both.

In August 1987, when a random shooting spree in Hungerford, Berkshire by Michael Ryan culminated in 16 dead and his suicide, the killer’s style of combat gear and arsenal led the media to shorthand the atrocity to the ‘Rambo’ killings. First Blood thus became caught up in the furious ‘violent movies lead to violent acts’ debate of that era. This infuriated the movie star. After all, it was Stallone who had had the genius idea of contradicting the novel’s characterisation by having Rambo not commit one single murder.

Letting A Lost Man Live

Rambo did his country’s bidding but once home found himself poorly regarded, essentially ‘cursed’. He is a victim of circumstance, ‘a fellow who wants to get back into society, but society won’t let him,’ Stallone has said. It was important too that Rambo would not be picked off himself, as occurs at the end of the book. This decision was too much for Kirk Douglas, (celebrating his 100th birthday today) who had been slated to play Colonel Trautman, so had to be replaced at the last minute by Crenna. Not only did test audiences not want to see Rocky die, but the screenwriters were mindful that it was not a good message to send any Vietnam vets watching that the only solution was to kill them!

With First Blood, Stallone again proved that for all his strength and masculinity, he is not afraid to convey or portray a man’s heart and emotions. Jerry Goldsmith’s score emphasises this human side of the killing machine. (It was Kotcheff’s second Christmas film, after Wake In Fright (1971) in which a man’s very psyche was ripped to shreds.) By the end, Rambo’s terror spree has proved cathartic: we have witnessed the unleashing of all the deep pain he had been carrying. (Ironically, for many women viewers the soldier’s all but indecipherable sob-filled mumbling to his Colonel in the final reel only made them wonder why the hell had no one given John J. Rambo a jolly good hug at the film’s start, and be done with it!)

First Blood looks to be a wrong-way-round Christmas movie, the town of Hope’s celebration and decorations only a surface display. For all its self-styled ‘niceness’, it is not a warm or inviting place for the outsider. But by the end, it is not Rambo’s rampage that heals him; but instead a life-saving love and compassion. And for those who choose to believe, there’s something very Christmassy about that.