First Blood (1982)

NOTHING IS OVER! NOTHING! You just don't turn it off! It wasn't MY war! You asked ME, I didn't ask YOU! And I did what I had to do to WIN! But somebody wouldn't let us win! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting, calling me "baby-killer" and all kinds of vile crap! Who are THEY to protest me! Who are THEY! Unless they've been me and been there and know what the hell they're yelling about!

Yes, this is the first Rambo movie.

No, it wasn't called "Rambo". You're thinking of that 2008 film. They didn't start putting his name in the title until the first sequel.

Based on the 1972 novel written by Canadian-American author David Morell and starring Sylvester Stallone in the role that made him an action star, when not a plucky prizefighter from Philadelphia, First Blood was the first of several movies featuring everyone's favorite one-man army, John Rambo.

This movie differs greatly from the Rambo films that came after it by the fact that its body count is significantly smaller--in fact, only one guy dies in its entire 97-minute running time. There is plenty of the gun play and explosions that the franchise would become known for, certainly, but compared to its sequels it is noticeably tamer. Ironically, you can thank Stallone himself for that--his other multi-picture franchise made him enough of a star to give him some influence on the film's screenplay, and it was his idea to deviate from the original novel and have Rambo leave his pursuers alive to make him more sympathetic. The filmmakers also shot a different ending in which Rambo commits suicide, as in the novel, but scrapped it when it proved too depressing for test audiences.

The film was a hit with critics and audiences, so in 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II came out, in which Sly Stallone reprises his role from the first film, this time searching for American POWs in the Vietnamese jungles, but more importantly perforating ex-Viet Cong soldiers and joining the ranks of Chuck Norris, G.I. Joe and the kids from Red Dawn in the gratuitously violent fight against Communists or Communist-type enemies. The sequel wasn't so much a post-mortem on the Vietnam War as it was a complete do-over, as were other Vietnam or Cold War-related films of the time.

How did this happen? How did Rambo go from a shell-shocked veteran to the rampaging Commie killer we know so well? How does a franchise go from lamenting the ravages of war to glorifying them?

I have a theory that Ronald Reagan becoming President might have had something to do with it.

A lesser known Oregon blue law: it is illegal to ask for directions to the nearest restaurant.

John Rambo, for those who aren't familiar, is a veteran of the Vietnam War. In combat he was a hero, a Green Beret and a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor. (Impressive for the man who would direct a sequel to Saturday Night Fever one year later.) He could fly a gunship, could drive a tank, he was in charge of multi-million dollar equipment. Nowadays, he's just a rambler visiting his old war buddies in the British Columbian Oregonian mountains. One day he happens across a quaint little hamlet looking for a bite to eat when Sheriff Will Teasel (Brian Dennehy) spots the American flag patch on his jacket and does him a favor by driving him clear to the other side of town, all while making it known to him in not so subtle terms that he "don't take kindly to his type 'round these parts." He drops him off outside of city limits in hopes that he'll take his recommendation of a diner 30 miles up the road, but when he notices him walking back towards town he about faces and slaps some cuffs on him on charges of vagrancy and, after finding a very large knife which Rambo fails to convince him he uses for hunting, carrying a concealed weapon.

Rambo is brought to the station and handed over to Deputy Sergeant Arthur Galt (Jack Starrett) to prepare him for trial the next day, which includes a rigorous interrogation, fingerprinting, and spraying him with a high-pressure hose, despite one of Galt's subordinates remarking on some nasty scars on Rambo's back which Galt pays no attention to. They are just about to dry shave him when a Vietnam flashback causes him to run wild, beat down policeman after policeman on his way out of the station, hijack a motorcycle and ride off into the woods somewhere with Teasel in hot pursuit. After he loses his prey at a riverbed, he calls for reinforcements, including hunting dogs and a chopper, to hunt him down.

Hide and seek was always Galt's favorite game.

Rambo is chased to the edge of a tall cliff complete with waterfall where he jumps onto a tall tree as Galt rides in on the chopper and starts taking shots at him with a rifle, oblivious to Teasel on the radio ordering him to stop shooting and a thermal draft rocking him up and down. In self defense, Rambo chucks a rock at the helicopter, causing it to pitch and throw Galt out to become the only human fatality in the entire movie. Teasel appears, gets the wrong impression, and is suddenly filled with an impulsive urge of vengeance, refusing to acknowledge that he and his inexperienced team of deputies are in way over their heads, especially when Rambo begins non-fatally snaring them one at a time with makeshift booby traps and guerrilla tactics and then holds Teasel to a tree at knife-point, warning him to leave him alone.

The state police is brought in for assistance, followed by Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo's superior officer in Vietnam, whose advice to let Rambo go and put out an APB falls on the prideful Teasel's deaf ears. Throughout the movie. Your funeral, dude.

"I told you I use this knife for hunting."

Trautman makes radio contact with Rambo and attempts to reason with him while Teasel and company get a lock on his current position. Some rookie National Guardsmen corner Rambo in a mine entrance, and fire is exchanged before one of them launch a rocket at him which caves in the entrance and traps Rambo inside, where everyone presumes he is dead. But in a not entirely all that shocking turn of events, Rambo wades through rats and standing water and manages to escape the mine through a shaft to the surface, after which he hijacks an army truck and uses the explosives in the back to blow up a gas station back in town.

The final scene has Teasel on the roof of the police station with a shotgun waffling back and forth as Rambo incinerates a hunting rifle shop and shoots in store windows. He then enters the station and blasts Teasel off the roof through a skylight, and is just about to finish him off when Trautman arrives and notifies him of the state police and army personnel surrounding the building and ready to blow his head off...which leads into Rambo's famous monologue about how nobody respects him and how difficult it is for him to go back to a civilian life after returning from an unpopular war. He then recalls the dying agonies of a friend who had been killed by a bomb in a child's shoeshine box before collapsing in tears in Trautman's arms and finally turning himself in.

"Where did my contacts fall out?"

First Blood is a fascinating movie. Fascinating in that it's a tense action story about a PTSD-ridden war veteran pushed over the edge, which Stallone plays well, but also in that it is a mostly casualty-free film which would lead off an increasingly violent movie franchise, which poses to me a question: how exactly did this character go from a man who was traumatized and horrified by the ugliness of war to the ruthless killing machine we know today? If war horrified this man so much that he keeps flashing back to bad memories during his army days, then why does he go back to that very thing in the next three movies? In his closing monologue, he stated that he was tired of people demonizing him to the point where he couldn't live a normal life. So what, he was so fed up with being called a ruthless killer that he decided to go back to southeast Asia and BECOME a ruthless killer, as if to say "HERE!! I'M A RUTHLESS KILLER!! HAPPY NOW!?"

First Blood shows us that Rambo should be pitied as well as feared. War is apparently all he knows how to do, and every time he tries to get out, they keep pulling him back in. And they've kept pulling him back in for three decades now. He has become the very thing he spent this whole time hiking in the Northwest being accused of.

So...are you all happy now?

Hate the game, not the player.

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