John J. Rambo’s cinematic introduction was (believe it or not), a surprisingly subtle piece of work, and a very long way from the mental image (either interpretation of the phrase ‘mental image’ is fine), most people associate with the character.
John Rambo is a highly decorated but troubled Vietnam Special Forces veteran who, while suffering borderline post-traumatic stress, finds himself the last of his unit and the subject of an impromptu manhunt in rural USA – aka “Hicksville”. This is after falling foul of a rather unsympathetic and prejudiced local sheriff and his less than kind deputies. His training and superior survival know-how kicks in and all hell breaks loose in the forests around the small town with seemingly no way to diffuse the situation.
First Blood is not an uber gory or violently shocking movie, particularly when compared to genuinely bloody stuff like Friday the 13th and An American Werewolf in London, but there were a couple of scenes in it that fuelled numerous school-yard anecdotes. The scene where Rambo, after falling through the trees and injuring himself, takes a needle and thread and sews his bleeding upper arm up is still grisly even now and you wince with every push of the needle, particularly as the blood runs freely and pumps out of the wound in heartbeat pulses. The other scene is the infamous ‘Punji Stakes’ trap, that also still looks fantastic, convincing and, above all, horribly painful. That particular scene has been copied in other movies with many variations over the years.
First Blood is a surprisingly subtle movie, and not a teen-titillating gore fest. It does attempt to deal with the more serious psychological issues that were at the root of all the character’s motives and actions.
In a funny way, because of the infamous nature of the sequels in popular culture, and the completely different direction the filmmakers chose to take with them; the first movie resides in a sort of netherworld where only those that really know and love it (I count myself as one of the true believers) can really appreciate it specifically for its different and nuanced treatment of the subject matter. Those that don’t know the movie that well lose those specifics and subtleties, and tend to orientate themselves around the Rambo of parts 2 and 3 (and I guess part 4 now too). First Blood is a great film, but not because of its action, which is measured and almost completely non-lethal (one accidental fatality).
We get to see a man who has been damaged by war. John Rambo is a man who has seen and done things most of us could only imagine in our worst nightmares, he is a tool of death and survival. Yet we see him at the movie’s opening at least trying to hold it together, trying to be just a man. Finding himself the last of his elite group, having witnessed the fall of one comrade after another, each death is an erosion of the hope that a connection to the world of the living can be maintained.
Sheriff Teasle’s (Brian Dennehy), hostile attitude to Rambo sparks Rambo’s quest for escape and survival His focus becomes a sustained attack on the town and specifically the Sheriff’s office. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Rambo’s rampage is the misguided expression of a need for guidance, love and simple human contact.
Eventually, we see John J, broken down, a man again, collapsed and emotionally unable to hold back any longer. Watching him weep in the arms of the closest thing he has to a father, namely Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) is stirring stuff even though Crenna is at every moment in danger of appearing like a cheesy comedy genius.
Rambo’s final scene and impassioned monologue is still one of those moments that I would direct all Stallone naysayers to watch when the big man’s acting ability is called into question. It is a marvellous bit of writing, and a wonderfully rich and heartbreaking thing to witness. I well up even now, and is part of what makes First Blood so very rewarding. Hell, I even dig the corny song (It’s a Long Road) that plays over the credits once a handcuffed Rambo is being led away to the sequel.
Stallone proves he’s a class act. Sly even changed his body to better inhabit the character: Rambo is not a beefcake or gym-rat type in this movie; in fact he’s as ‘regular’ looking as you’ll ever see him aside from early in his career, but very slimmed down. The movie is also tight and well made. It’s concise, poignant, and well thought through most of the time.
The only scene that, to this day jars me as being ‘out of character’ is the high speed chase scene when Rambo runs a police car off the road into a lay-by where a parked car is stationed, thereby causing an horrific collision which results in total carnage. My problem with it is that Rambo has not wilfully taken life, it’s nothing but a contrived excuse for a spectacle of course, but it rankles.
Now then, let’s move on to Part 2, and start cranking up the body-count!