Every once in a while everyone is reminded there’s a reason you don’t let other people make up your mind for you.
I’ve never seen FIRST BLOOD or any of the Rambo movies, but somewhere along the line I made up my mind that because of all the clips and parodies I’d seen, I knew what the movie was about and therefore didn’t need to see it.
FIRST BLOOD is not Sylvester Stallone’s finest film (that would be Rockys 1 and 2) nor his most enjoyable (that would be Expendables), but it might very well be his finest performance. Stallone plays John Rambo, a Special Forces vet of the Vietnam War struggling to find his place in the post-Vietnam world. He walks into the wrong town, meets the wrong sheriff, and ends up starting a new “war” with an increasing amount of cops.
Stallone is brilliant, and so is the film.
FIRST BLOOD is an amazingly good movie, much more a character study than the balls-out action film I was expecting. There is violence here, but the manner in which it escalates is one of constant restraint and inevitability. Most impressively, the violence here is cloaked in sadness as Rambo is a veteran at a time in our nation’s history when veterans were shunned rather than celebrated. In today’s pro-military climate, the idea of a veteran being escorted out of town by the sheriff the moment he arrives in town feels wrong, but as a nation we continue to struggle with the care and treatment of returning veterans, especially those, like Rambo, who are suffering from mental rather than physical afflictions.
As the film opens, Rambo is visiting the home of Delmar, a fellow soldier in his special forces unit. He’s walking – or drifting, in the parlance of the late ’70s/early ’80s – and discovers from Delmar’s mom that her son has died from Agent Orange poisoning. It’s a wonderful scene, with Delmar’s mom not trusting of the stranger and Rambo politely showing her evidence that he and Delmar were, indeed, friends. At this stage in his career, before he largely traded in his acting chops for star power, Stallone displays a incredible vulnerability. He’s this massive puppy dog, looking for some kind – any kind – of port in the storm. Stallone’s voice has been slagged over the years, and parodied as an evidence of his (or his characters’) stupidity, but here it’s his face, open and empty, that makes him come across as almost simple.
It’s a wonderful approach to bringing Rambo to life. Stallone’s portrayal is almost Alien-like in how it unfurls over the 90 minutes, going from non-threat to the deadliest threat around.
In small town Washington, Rambo’s path crosses with that of Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who firmly tells Rambo that his kind really isn’t wanted around here in a small town. Rambo asks if there’s a place he can get some food, but Teasle just wants him gone, so he drives him to the city limit, pointing him towards Portland. Rambo watches Teasle turn and leave, but then decides he’s going to go back to town, after all.
What’s brilliant about the way Dennehy and Stallone play their conversation in the car is how they feel each other out. Teasle is open but firm, and Rambo is cagey. There’s no pyrotechnics here. Just two men having a conversation that they’ve clearly had before with other drifters and cops. It’s a conversation neither want to have, but Teasle has reached his breaking point long ago and decided it’s best if drifters are ushered through town rather than allowing them in and opening up the idea that they might want to stay. For Rambo, this moment is the breaking point. When Teasle leaves him standing at the end of the bridge, it’s one rejection on top of one disappointment too many.
Before Teasle’s car is out of sight, Rambo walks back across the bridge towards town. Teasle isn’t playing and arrests Rambo for vagrancy.
The car ride and bridge sequence are designed to be read as sympathetic to Rambo. Here he is, a vet, walking to reconnect with war buddies, saddened by the loss of one of those friends, and now denied the chance to sit down and eat some food at a diner like a normal person. Teasle sees his own actions as keeping the town free from a potential problem, while Rambo sees Teasle’s actions as denying his chance at normalcy. Given that Rambo is now taken into town, booked, and then abused by some of Teasle’s cops who do not understand the mental damage his service has caused (which we start to understand through flashbacks), Rambo gains the audience’s sympathy, which is critical, given that he spends the rest of the film injurying and killing all sorts of cops as he lives normalcy behind for the comforts of the “jungle.”
All of the action scenes are great, and the film does an excellent job showing us how Rambo is so dangerous, but the action itself takes a backseat to the psychological study taking place. Rambo was a kid, trained by the army to kill, then sent back into society, so he’s been knocked back and forth from normal to jungle to normal settings. What the army did to him and what Vietnam did to him, however, isn’t so easily forgotten. The jungle, as it were, does not let him go, and so when Teasle denies Rambo’s chance at normalcy (eating at a diner) and then the cops that represent the normal world’s authority figures begin acting like his enemies in the jungle, Rambo decides to flee back into the jungle, running into the forest outside of town and living in the “jungle,” again, the only place where he now feels comfortable.
Where he now feels normal.
The jungle is a world Rambo understands, and so when he breaks, that’s where he runs.
Rambo’s old commanding officer, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) arrives on the scene to save Teasle’s cops from Rambo, which Teasle thinks is absurd. “Why did God make a man like Rambo?” he asks as the casualties start to pile up. “God didn’t make Rambo,” Trautman declares by way of introducing himself to Teasle. “I made him.”
Dennehy and Crenna (who is also fantastic – there’s a case to be made that FIRST BLOOD is one of the very finest action movies around) do the jurisdictional dance as well as anyone because the contention between Teasle and Trautman isn’t about jurisdiction, at all. It’s about methodology. Too often in these “locals vs. feds” confrontations, it’s just a p*ssing contest, but here it’s really about the best way to diffuse the situation. Teasle’s manhood has been questioned by Rambo (who injured almost all of Teasle’s deputies and put a knife to the sheriff’s throat, telling him to back off so no one else would get hurt), but where he wants to stop Rambo by sending waves of troops at him, Trautman wants to save his ex-soldier.
Crenna’s performance is powerfully reserved. You can see the pain in his face and hear it in his voice when discussing Rambo. Trautman built this kid into what normal society thinks of as a monster because that’s what the army needed, but he knows that the army hasn’t done right by Rambo since then. You can’t just “turn it off” and be normal again. What Rambo has seen, done, and become is too far removed from normal for that re-transition (or de-transition) to occur.
As much as Trautman is sympathetic towards Rambo, he’s not blind to what’s going on, accusing Rambo of wanting all of this to have happened. Trautman’s accusation recontextualizes that earlier scene on the bridge – now it’s not a scene about Rambo wanting normalcy, as it originally appeared, but wanting the excuse to head back into the jungle by forcing the normal world to reject him, yet again.
That’s good storytelling, kids.
Trautman is not trying to save Rambo from Teasle (or Teasle from Rambo) as much as he’s trying to save Rambo from himself. In the scene’s climactic sequence, Teasle comes at Rambo with violence and Rambo takes him down with violence. Trautman comes at Rambo with words, however, and the largely silent Rambo now gives voice to his circumstance: he’s scared, lost, unable to integrate back into society. The jungle, as horrible as it was, gave him an identity that he could be proud of having and great responsibilities, but back in society, he can’t even hold down a menial job.
It’s Stallone at his best. Rambo’s breakdown and surrender is a powerful display of vulnerability and probably should have ended with his death. By having Trautman walk Rambo outside and into custody, however, the film gives Rambo, Trautman, the army, and society to redeem themselves.
FIRST BLOOD isn’t just a great war movie, or great post-war movie. It’s a great film, and a powerful reminder that the events we read about in the papers and history books and watch on the TV were moments that were actually lived by real people, and that we can turn the channel or close the book, but the people who lived those moments cannot.