“First Blood” is a film that was almost made many times throughout the 1970s before finally being produced for release in 1982. Throughout a tortured decade in turnaround, the names attached to play John Rambo, the main character, are striking: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Nick Nolte, Michael Douglas. The script is based on David Morrell’s first novel of the same title. Some put the film’s inability to get made for so long down to simple Hollywood bad luck; others say the film’s violence ultimately repelled would be backers.
It was finally made with Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. When he saw the first cut of the film, Stallone apparently thought it was so bad it would kill his career. As it happens, the film was a massive hit and he would go onto to play the Rambo character three more times.
“First Blood” is easily the best of the Rambo films. It is a story about a Vietnam Vet named John Rambo who has become an unemployed drifter. He wanders into the wrong town – the sheriff tries to run him out of the place. This backfires horrifically and leads Rambo and the local police into a violent confrontation, one the heavily trained Rambo is at a distinct advantage in regards to emerging the victor from. When Colonel Trautmann (played perfectly by Richard Crenna) shows up at the horrorshow and the sheriff assumes he’s come to save his former underling, Trautmann sets him straight, with the best line of the entire series:
“I don’t think you understand. I didn’t come to rescue Rambo from you. I came here to rescue you from him.”
The film is an allegory about the Vietnam War itself: something the American establishment thought it had control of until it realised too late this was not the case. The movie ends with Trautmann holding onto a shattered Rambo in an abandoned house the latter has ensconced himself in, Rambo crying about how life back home has been unbearable:
“Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment; back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars.”
The film is about America coming to terms with the disaster that was the Vietnam War and moving on. It ends with nothing more to say and conforms to the final stage of grief in the Kubler-Ross cycle: acceptance.
Only problem was, success demands sequels and so a follow up film was put into production almost as soon as “First Blood” was clearly a hit. In this way, “First Blood” is a lot like “Dirty Harry”, made a decade before it: a very powerful, politically charged film that said everything it needed to say yet because it was commercially successful, required sequels that were clearly going to be substandard and unnecessary. In fact, the Rambo films are worse than the Dirty Harry series because at least a huge part of the appeal of the first Dirty Harry movie was the character himself; Rambo is pretty boring, actually, a guy who is dead inside. He is really only a device for projecting onto.
“Rambo: First Blood, Part II” (a terrible title, incidentally) has a fairly simple plot: Rambo is in prison after his rampage in “First Blood”. Trautmann comes and tells Rambo he can have his freedom if he runs one more secret ops mission: he has to go into Vietnam and prove that there are no American POWs left there. Only when he arrives in Indo-China, Rambo discovers there are indeed American soldiers still being held in prison camps. He attempts to expose the truth, but the military industrial complex tries to stop him. However, Rambo is too good and not only exposes the truth to the relevant (good) authorities, he steals Soviet technology and rescues the remaining American POWs.
The film represents a regression on the Kubler-Ross scale from the first Rambo movie. Whereas “First Blood” was about acceptance, “Rambo” dabbles very briefly with the fourth stage, depression, before jumping past it to the third stage, bargaining, which is where it finishes. It is all about the idea that perhaps Vietnam wasn’t all bad after all, and that if looked at a different way perhaps redemption is possible. “If we’d had a real Rambo back then, maybe we could have won that one!” is the basic theme.
The third Rambo film is creatively entitled “Rambo III”. This one begins with Trautmann again approaching Rambo with a mission, this time to Afghanistan to help the Mujahedeen fight the Soviets.
It would be hard to downplay how overjoyed I am that this movie exists. It freezes in aspic one of the worst American foreign policy disasters of all time – the CIA training of Islamic extremists in the 1980s, which led to the events of September 11, 2001. In Kubler-Ross terms, this one goes backwards again, past the second stage, anger, and right back to the very first one, denial. “Rambo III” imagines that Vietnam never really happened at all, and that the 20th century has been an unbroken stream of American foreign triumphs with its will mercilessly foisted onto the rest of the world with no hiccups. If you want to understand why America has gone so wrong in its foreign policy decisions in the 21st century, this movie would be a great place to start.
This left the second stage, anger, without a film. Skipping depression is fine, commercially speaking I mean, but the producers of this string of megahits couldn’t let good ol’ rage slip them by. So in 2008, twenty years after “Rambo III”, we were treated to a film simply called “Rambo”, not to be confused with the second Rambo movie, also technically called “Rambo”. “Rambo” (2008) is set in Burma, but this is incidental – the idea is just to set it anywhere that isn’t actually in a part of the world the then American government was having direct problems with. It is basically just Rambo going around, mindlessly kicking ass. It does do the second stage, anger, very well though.
The saddest thing is that rumours floated after the events of September 11, 2001 around the notion of Stallone considering setting a fourth Rambo movie back in Afghanistan – with the good guys from the third movie now the villains. That would have been epic, and even done badly would have struggled to have avoided being the best Rambo movie by miles.
Alas, that plot was clearly too close to the bone. There was to be a rumoured fifth Rambo film, tentatively titled “Last Blood”, that was to have Rambo fighting Mexican drug gangs, but ultimately that came to nothing. Too bad – covering the forth stage of grief, depression, really would seem fitting in 2016.