Years after the Vietnam War, legendary soldier John Rambo travels through a small town where he is wrongfully arrested and abused. Their assault triggers his PTSD, causing him to break free and flee into the forest. Rambo is pursued by the police who are unaware that he’s an expert in guerilla warfare.
Directed by: Ted Kotcheff
Written by: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone, and David Morrell (novel)
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna, Bill McKinney, and Jack Starrett
Rated R for violence, language, and brief nudity
Release Date: October 22, 1982
Run-time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
In 1982’s film First Blood, John J. Rambo, an extremely skilled and highly decorated soldier in the United States Army Special Forces, travels to Washington years after the Vietnam War in search for a friend, only to instead find a whole lot of trouble. Upon finding his friend’s home, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is informed that his friend, the only other survivor of his Special Forces team from the war, has died of cancer as a result of exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. After receiving the dreadful news, Rambo drifts into the nearby town of Hope, Washington, where he’s immediately picked up by the sheriff, Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who kindly offers to give him a ride. However, Sheriff Teasle then reveals his true intention, which is to escort the wandering veteran back to the city line, in an attempt to keep unwanted and potentially dangerous ex-soldiers out of his peaceful town. When Rambo disregards the sheriff’s dismissal by refusing to walk thirty miles to the next town, he’s immediately placed under arrest and sent to the local police station, where he’s blatantly disrespected and bullied despite his innocence. When the officers’ aggression triggers Rambo’s post-traumatic stress order (PTSD), inciting flashbacks of Vietnam, Rambo breaks out of custody and flees into the forest. Determined to recapture Rambo, Teasle sends his police force after him, unaware that Rambo is an expert in survival situations and guerilla warfare.
Based on a novel of the same name by David Morrell, First Blood turns the tables on the pitiless, pursuing police force once they enter the wild, where Rambo’s many years of military combat make him a force to be reckoned with. Even though Sheriff Teasle has ordered his police to bring Rambo in alive, they initiate their attack by firing on him with attempted deadly force. Faced with the threat of death, Rambo prepares for war. Equipped with only a survival knife, he quickly begins putting his skills and knowledge to use, creating weapons and booby traps to slow his pursuers. While the novel depicts Rambo as a psychotic, cold-blooded killer after his return from war, Stallone rewrote the script to make him a more sympathetic and merciful character. In the film, Rambo gives the police repeated chances to leave him alone, with fair warnings of retaliation, but they continue to advance, forcing him to fight back for his own survival.
Being the first film in the iconic Rambo series, First Blood introduces us to who is arguably cinema’s most celebrated soldier. In many ways, this movie in particular is a far cry from the other films in the franchise that would follow. It depicts John Rambo as a victim with vulnerabilities as opposed to his later stature as a venerable Hollywood-style action hero. He’s still a badass, of course, but he’s in a fragile emotional state and is struggling to keep it together. There’s a strong political commentary being made here on the devastating effects of war, and it’s demonstrated through Rambo’s unstable mental status and PTSD. The horrors of war have forever changed him. He’s the perfect soldier out in the battlefield, where he’s hailed as a hero, but back in his home country, despite all of his accomplishments and sacrifices for the safety and freedom of his fellow Americans, he’s unwanted, mistreated, and looked down upon. It makes it hard for him to adapt to civilian life and he struggles to come to terms with it, and in this struggle, he turns to the one thing he knows best – war.
In some sense, Rambo’s a monster of America’s own making. He’s unable to escape his past because society doesn’t allow him to. However, society also condemns him and persecutes him for it. Now they’ve gone and pushed him too far, and they’ll have to face the consequences of their own creation. I think this represents a great commentary on Vietnam and the level of disrespect that soldiers faced upon their return. Rambo’s just trying to get by, but he can’t catch a break. He exists as a tragic figure who has to continuously suffer through the sad aftermath of war. Even though he’s a war legend and the last of his kind, he’s been beaten, bullied, and abused to the point that his rebellion against the law feels both satisfying and justified.
It’s a lot of fun watching Rambo get his vengeance. One of my favorite things about First Blood is seeing just how clever and crafty Rambo is as a character. He has all of the odds stacked against him, yet his skills and expertise help to even the battlefield. Rambo may be grossly outnumbered, but he has the police entirely outsmarted. It’s thrilling and rewarding to watch him take down his hunters one by one, in a number of creative ways, all while using the environment to his advantage. He’s incredibly resourceful, and having spent years fighting in the wild while in Vietnam, it’s clear that he feels perfectly at home in this natural habitat.
I really enjoy Stallone as Rambo, and nowadays it’s hard to believe that there were over a dozen other actors that were almost chosen for the role ahead of him. Stallone brings so much toughness and physicality into his excellent performance. They just don’t make action stars like this anymore. He really puts in the work with his body in what is a very physically demanding role, and he manages to make it all really convincing. Stallone doesn’t have many lines of dialogue, but he makes his words count. His iconic speech at the end of the movie has to be one of my all-time favorite epilogues. I admire the range he shows as Rambo, as we witness him go from a happy soldier eager to be reunited with an old friend, to a relentless war machine, and ultimately to an emotionally wounded warrior. He gives us a fascinating character study of a veteran soldier who has returned home to an indifferent world, and I love how he portrays his vulnerability in spite of his capability and toughness.
I have yet to even mention Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), the man who trained Rambo, and therefore is seemingly the only one capable of stopping him. Crenna gives a great performance as the Colonel, serving as a much needed voice of reason amidst the ineptitude of Teasle’s police force. As Rambo’s old friend and ally, Trautman’s the only one who’s able to tame him or at least reason with him, to help provide a practical way out of this predicament. I really like the dynamic between the two characters, and Trautman helps to build up Rambo’s legacy and authenticity. He also creates an interesting and tense contrast with Teasle, who repeatedly underestimates Rambo’s abilities. Teasle is played by Brian Dennehy who also does a fine acting job serving as Rambo’s main opposition.
There’s a good assortment of action in First Blood and all of it is entertaining. The movie features brawls, tactical combat, vehicle chases, shootouts, explosions, and plenty of cool survival situations. It all leads up to an awesome and destructive finale. Granted, some of it is a little cheesy and not all of it has aged terribly well, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. A few scenes probably could have benefitted from some tighter pacing, but I think it can mostly just be chalked up to a difference in style between that era and the present.
There are surely a lot of reasons why Ted Kotcheff’s film adaptation of First Blood is heralded as a classic, but mostly I think it’s because it is very much reflective of its time, especially as it pertains to the attitude and ideals of a post-Vietnam America. It really dives deep into the psychology of being a soldier and all of the emotional baggage and lasting trauma that comes with it. The film looks into the harsh reality that our soldiers faced at home after the war. They left to Vietnam viewed as heroes, but as views on the war shifted, they were seen as unscrupulous scoundrels upon their return. First Blood is more than just a great action movie, it’s an effective anti-war film that holds up a mirror to a hypocritical America.
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