Difficult as it may be to believe, I never actually grew up watching or as a fan of the Rambo films (Various, 1982 to 2019) and my exposure to the works of Sylvester Stallone was comparatively now compared to that of Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, having recently watched the entire series from start to finish, I’m attempting to rectify that by dedicating the next four Fridays to celebrating the fact that First Blood (Kotcheff, 1982) was released on the 22nd of October, 1982.
Released: 22 October 1982
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Distributor: Orion Pictures
Budget: $15 million
Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Jack Starrett, Bill McKinney, and Richard Crenna
After returning to the United States from the Vietnam War, former United States Army Special Forces soldier John J. Rambo (Stallone) faces not adulation, admiration, or a hero’s welcome but, rather, persecution and abuse at the hands of small-town sheriff William Teasle (Dennehy). Driven into the woods and suffering from post-traumatic stress and nightmarish memories of his time as a prisoner of war, Rambo wages a one-man war against his tormentors using only his unparalleled survival skills and finely-tune guerrilla tactics.
First Blood is an adaptation of a novel by the same name, which was written by David Morrell and published in 1972. Influenced by Rogue Male (Household, 1939) and horrific stories of the Vietnam War told by his students, Morrell’s book was well-received upon release but the subsequent movie adaptation languished in development hell for ten years. Production began in earnest when Sylvester Stallone signed on to the project; Stallone, who was a proven box office commodity after the success of the first three Rocky films (Various, 1976 to 1982) also wrote around seven different versions of the film’s script but, while an ending was filmed that reflected the bleak conclusion of the novel and Rambo’s death, it was ultimately cut at the agreement of Stallone and Kotcheff. Interestingly, upon release, First Blood was met with mixed reviews, although the actors’ performances were highly praised (with Stallone’s being notably well-received). Regardless, First Blood more than made up for this with its frankly staggering $125.2 million box office and contemporary reviews not only regard the film much more favourably but First Blood is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1982 and one of the most enduring and influential movies of its genre.
When we’re first introduced to Rambo, he’s little more than a vagrant wandering across the country in a bid to reunite with an old war buddy. Literally carrying his entire life over his shoulder, he’s a simple man just trying to reconnect with a world that has largely passed him by. Sadly, however, his attempts are largely in vain; his friend, Delmar Barry, has died after exposure to Agent Orange and it’s clear that Rambo is basically a stranger in his own country.
However, this is made undeniably explicit when Rambo crosses paths with Sheriff Teasle, who immediately pegs him as a troublemaking drifter on sight alone. Teasle’s judgement of Rambo boils down to little more than his own personal bias and animosity, no matter how hard he tries to justify himself. I’m sure the ironically-named town of Hope is a nice, quiet little town and that Teasle is proud of the tight ship he runs but his persecution of Rambo is completely unfounded and unnecessarily aggressive. Of course, things only escalate after Rambo is arrested on paper thin charges of vagrancy and carrying a concealed weapon; while being processed, Rambo runs afoul of Teasle’s equally-despicable Deputy Sergeant Arthur Galt (Starrett) and suffers nightmarish flashbacks to his time as a prisoner of war. And, honestly, who can blame him after the disgraceful treatment he receives at Galt’s hands; Galt wallops Rambo with his nightstick, orders him to be hosed down and holds him in an unorthodox choke with that same nightstick but he goes too far when he attempts to have Rambo shaved with a straight razor.
Triggered into a maniacal rage, Rambo easily takes out Teasle’s men with his bare hands and flees into the nearby woods. Earlier, Galt had described Rambo as a wild animal and his initial outburst and escape through town certainly support that; Rambo is an animalistic force of brute strength and unbridled rage, all brought on by flashbacks to his torture. Covered in scars and clearly still haunted by his experiences in Vietnam, Rambo is a force to be reckoned with and the police department vastly underestimate his capabilities. This comes to a head in their ensuing attempts to hunt him down; Teasle spares no expense in tracking Rambo down, pursuing him deep into the woods (and destroying his patrol car in the process), bringing in the dogs, calling in the helicopter for air support, and even drafting in the National Guard for support (who come packing a rocket launcher, no less!) It’s a monumental effort just to capture one man who, so far, is guilty of very little other than walking into town and being forced to relive the worst experiences of his life. Teasle’s obsession completely blinds him to Rambo’s obvious threat even after he is told of Rambo’s unmatched capabilities by Colonel Sam Trautman (Crenna) and directly leads to the accidental death of Galt after he takes this obsession to another level and ends up falling to his death as a result.
This is, of course, a significant element of First Blood that separates it from the subsequent sequels. Rambo isn’t some ruthless killing machine here; instead, he’s a tortured, desperate man pushed to the edge by ignorant and abusive bigots but, despite his unbridled rage and brute savagery, Rambo doesn’t directly kill anyone in his debut film. Indeed, Rambo goes to great lengths to ensure that his pursuers are incapacitated non-lethally, setting elaborate traps and falling back on his extensive and peerless survival training. The result is actually far more impressive as it emphasises Rambo’s skill, ability, and restraint and he’s clearly deeply affected by Galt’s death. He just wanted to be left alone and would have harmlessly passed through town without incident but, when backed against the wall, easily disables Teasle’s men, and gives him every opportunity to “let it go” but is just pushed further and further until he has no other option than to wage a one-man war against the entire town…all with non-lethal force.
First Blood is a deeply moving and bleak representation of the animosity and persecution many Vietnam veterans, and other war heroes, faced back then (and, I’m sure, even now); Rambo did absolutely nothing wrong but was set off by Teasle’s victimisation and Galt’s antagonism. Indeed, the only one of Teasle’s men to actually speak out against their treatment and vendetta against Rambo is the young deputy Mitch Rogers (David Caruso), the one voice of reason in Teasle’s department who begrudgingly follows his orders despite realising the very real threat Rambo poses.
Of course, Rambo’s history and true danger are related to an unimpressed Teasle by Trautman; Trautman, who takes full responsibility for Rambo’s training, regards Rambo as the literal best of the best, a man trained to survive in the wild with very little resources and who actually thrives under such circumstances. He urges, practically pleads with, Teasle to simply let Rambo slip away, fully confidant that he’ll surrender willingly if allowed to pass on (which is seen to be true when Rambo tries, and fails, to surrender following Galt’s death) but Teasle adamantly refuses to believe that one man can outwit his entire show of force even after everything he’s already seen. Sadly, Trautman’s attempts to quell Rambo’s anger also fall on deaf ears as, by the time he is able to contact him, Rambo has fully committed himself to the fight against Teasle and is basically reliving the war out in the woods.
Teasle’s obsessive vendetta against Rambo is only fuelled after Gart’s death and he absolutely refuses to be dissuaded from his crusade no matter how many horror stories Trautman tells him. While Teasle’s humanity is practically non-existent, he does exhibit a bit more than just bigotry and hatred after it appears that Rambo has died; feeling cheated out of his victory, he nonetheless attempts to apologise for his abrasive actions to Trautman. However, it turns out that Trautman’s warnings were all based on irrefutable fact and we clearly see how adaptable and skilled Rambo is; he quickly retrieves his knife, acquires a police radio and other weapons from Teasle’s men, and is able to fashion all kinds of traps using just the woods alone never mind when he commandeers and army supply truck and rolls into town for the explosive finale.
In the end, Rambo’s downfall comes not from Teasle or the hundreds of guns pointing his way but from his own traumatic experiences; while his time in Vietnam affords him unprecedented survival skills and allows him to live off the land and overcome superior forces with little more than his wits, it also scarred him both literally and figuratively. Everything he experiences in Hope is a reminder of his time in the war: the straight razor reminds him of his torture, he’s basically reliving his time in the jungles of Vietnam out in the woods, and he is basically attacking an enemy encampment when he storms the town in the end. With Teasle at his mercy, Rambo finally breaks down in despair at the loss of his entire team and the horrors he witnessed in Vietnam; the only one who understands him is Trautman, who validates Rambo’s heart-breaking monologue about the trauma and disrespect he has experienced both in and outside of the Untied States and the film concludes with Teasle injured, but alive, and Rambo surrendering himself to his old mentor and overwhelmed by the atrocities he has had to commit and suffer through.
First Blood is an intense and moving experience; essentially a glorified manhunt for the majority of its runtime, it tells the story of a highly trained and skilled soldier pushed to the edge by abusive and cruel cops and forced to both relive, and live with, the horrors and atrocities he faced in combat. Hounded at every turn and judged for his appearance as much as his status as a former soldier, Rambo receives only persecution and abuse rather than admiration or respect and, in the end, his tormentors pay for their mistreatment not with their lives but with their pride. Despite the insurmountable odds against him, Rambo succeeds through sheer grit and determination and is the original one-man army and yet, despite all of this, all he wanted was a little respect and to be left alone. Indeed, so tormented by his experiences is Rambo, and so tired of conflict and killing, that he refuses to kill any of his tormentors even when he has every chance (and right) to do so, making First Blood a haunting action/thriller. A thinking man’s action film, First Blood is a stark reminder of the horrors of war and the foul treatment they received back in the day, as though it was their fault that they were forced to fight and kill for their country; it’s very different to the bombastic and over the top, action-packed sequels that followed it and so might not be for everyone but it remains a sobering and impact film in its own right.
Are you a fan of First Blood? Did you watch it back when it was first released and, if so, how did you find it in the context of the time? How do you feel it holds up today, especially compared to the sequels, and were you disappointed that the sequels veered more towards action and death than introspective commentary on the horrors of war? What did you think to Rambo’s survival skills and Teasle’s baseless persecution and obsession with him? Do you think the film should have ended in the same way as the book and with the cut scene of Rambo dying? Which of the Rambo films is your favourite? Whatever you think, comment below and let me know and check out my review of the sequel.
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