Rambo Revisited: From First to Final Blood

As the media erupts with slightly affectionate derision at the thought of another Rambo film, now seems like the perfect time to engage in a defense (sort of) of Sylvester Stallone’s flagship movie series, the Rambo tetralogy (soon to become a pentalogy).

And why not defend the adventures of John Rambo? No, he may not possess the loveable personality of Rocky. Sure, he might tend to engage in acts of extreme violence that make his presence on home soil untenable. But whenever you need a reactionary action-movie figurehead to obliterate vaguely outlined caricatures of human beings, decked out to look like the national enemy-of-the-moment, Rambo’s your man.

First Blood (1982)

First Blood is, for the record, actually a decent film by contemporary standards. Stallone does a serviceable job as the Vietnam veteran with few possessions outside a severe case of PTSD, and a whole lot of terrible memories. When he passes through a town looking for one of his buddies from the service, he discovers that like so many before him, his friend has died. As Rambo sits in a diner lamenting another fallen friend, the local hard-nosed sheriff arrives (Brian Dennehy) and forces what he believes to be ‘just another drifter’ out of town. On principle Rambo returns, things escalate, and he blows everything up.

Special mention should go to the mid-film entry of Richard Crenna as Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s old superior officer, and deliverer of lines more appropriate to Flying High (1978) than a serious action film (he would later use this to his advantage in the Rambo parody, Hot Shots: Part Deux).

All in all, this is a solid action film with a passable allusion to the plight of Vietnam veterans. Recognition should be given to the solid direction of Ted Kotcheff, whose true gift can perhaps be more completely appreciated in his earlier masterpiece, Wake in Fright (1971).

Rambo: First Blood Part Two (1985)

When David Morrell penned his novel, First Blood, in 1972, he had the good sense to do away with his irreparably damaged protagonist, John Rambo, in the book’s final pages. After all, the alternative for this misunderstood but deeply disturbed reprobate was to spend the rest of his life in a maximum security penitentiary. Lucky for us, Hollywood had the vision to shoot two endings to their film, eventually choosing the one that would open the door for this quality franchise. And here is the immediate result, the appallingly titled Rambo: First Blood Part Two.

One might have expected more from a screenplay written by the now much lauded James Cameron and Sylvester Stallone (let’s not forget that Stallone was nominated for an Oscar for his Rocky screenplay in 1976). However, it’s hard to imagine what the script looked like before going through the short-hand direction of George P. Cosmatos, who appears to have trimmed out all the boring bits with the plot and dialogue.

But here’s the story so far as it goes. Colonel Trautman shows up at the prison facility where Rambo is now spending much of his time, and offers him a full pardon in exchange for his participation in a suicide mission to go and rescue POWs from Vietnam. Rambo is initially uninterested, but Trautman’s one-liners prove irresistible. Rambo goes over, falls in love, rescues the POWs, then kills a lot of people before being abandoned by his government once more (the series’ underlying theme) and captured by a group of very angry Soviets and Viet Cong. Some torture ensues before Rambo manages to free himself and kill everybody that got away the first time. Then he goes home and sorts out those pesky government people…

Rambo III (1988)

Poor John Rambo probably thought he was going to live out his days in peace when he moved to Thailand to help Buddhist monks construct their temples. Save for the odd stick fighting match to help raise a few extra dollars for the poor, he’d left all the violence behind. But then… of course… his so called friend Colonel Trautman showed up with another set of terrible one-liners that paradoxically seemed to suggest the best cure for PTSD was a new dose of the old ultraviolence. Luckily, Rambo seems to have caught on to all this, and politely turns Trautman’s offer down. And what was the offer? To go on a one-man suicide mission to resupply mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan. Piece of cake.

For once, Trautman decides to do his own dirty work and goes on the mission himself. When he’s captured about five minutes later, Rambo has to go rescue his friend… and once again kill everybody. There are plenty more Soviets and some rescued POWs, of course – and as you might expect, a little bit of torture. The gunship finale allows Rambo to slaughter at a rate much faster than in previous films and he appears genuinely pleased with himself.

Peter MacDonald’s direction is on a par with Cosmatos’, and Sheldon Lettich’s screenplay is just as good as the subtle and powerful work he did for films like Bloodsport (1988), Double Impact (1991), and Legionnaire (1998). Cough.

Rambo (2008)

Sylvester Stallone directs this horrifically brutal fourth film in the Rambo series, substituting the relatively bloodless killing of the enemy in previous films for extremely graphic depictions of violence more likely to unsettle the stomach than entertain. Mercifully, the film is brief and always fascinating, if only in the way its extreme (and rather fascistic) message is delivered with such a deranged sense of earnestness.

Twenty years after his last happy escapade, John Rambo has found peace working as a snake wrangler in Thailand – a job that has somehow piled an additional 20 kilograms of muscle on to his archaic frame. He also has a boat, which is the reason a group of Christian missionaries ask him to secretly take them up river to Burma so they can provide aid to tribespeople being persecuted by Tatmadaw soldiers. Rambo takes them up river, but is forced to brutally kill a few a pirates on the way, appalling the missionaries who promise to report the incident the first chance they get. All of this is part of the film’s rather disturbing theme: sometimes you have to kill a lot of people for the greater good. Lovely.

Either way, Rambo drops them off and they go to the village. Five minutes later, in one of the more horrifically violent scenes in action-movie history, the men, women and children of the village are obliterated and the missionaries are taken hostage. Long-story short, Rambo and a group of mercenary’s go in and kill everything. This one kept me up at night.

So given the fact that my celebration of the Rambo series is tongue-in-cheek at best, I couldn’t possibly be looking forward to the next one, could I? Would that be weird?

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

13 thoughts on “Rambo Revisited: From First to Final Blood

  1. Thanks for the discussion.

    I agreed that First Blood deserves some notice (and perhaps some of the others in the series but I haven’t gotten around to those yet). Just as Jaws and the Exorist brought so-called grindhouse horror to the mainstream and created the blockbuster, First Blood took the grindhouse revenge films of the 70s and brought this theme to the mainstream.

    I recently watched Lonely Are the Brave again, and it was interesting to see how much First Blood borrowed from this film. In fact, I viewed the helicopter scene in First Blood as almost a literary device, rather than just a ripoff. They made the borrowing so obvious, and so perhaps the scene is really an allusion to Lonely are the Brave. This seems important because allusions are often used to highlight themes, and for First Blood, the allusion to Lonely Are the Brave helps expose the universal aspect of the themes.

    Of course, First Blood is commentary on the Vietnam experience but it’s more than that. It’s commentary on America and so much a part of the loner theme we saw again and again in the 70s. And as with those films, the theme goes beyond the USA.

    First Blood is one of my favorite Christmas movies. He’s a bit of a Grinch coming down from the mountain, but who can blame him. After all, he’s not descending on Whoville.


  2. Some of the great lines in movie history came out of First Blood. “He drew First Blood” being one. “John, John, come home John” being another…my kind of film

    • “You don’t seem to want to accept the fact you’re dealing with an expert in guerrilla warfare, with a man who’s the best, with guns, with knives, with his bare hands. A man who’s been trained to ignore pain, ignore weather, to live off the land, to eat things that would make a billy goat puke. In Vietnam his job was to dispose of enemy personnel. To kill! Period! Win by attrition. Well… Rambo was the best.”

  3. Let’s be honest here… Rambo 3 was pretty much two hours of straight propaganda, complete with dedicating the movie to the “brave Afghani rebels” in the credits. But I guess that’s no surprise considering we were still in the last stages of the Cold War. Very cool article though.

  4. Great piece, James, as usual. I actually like the original First Blood, too–it has a scene at the end in which Stallone/Rambo breaks down that’s surprisingly effective and sad. The sequels, though … ehhh. They did (at least the second installment) have a strong impact on the American cultural fabric, though … for better or worse.

  5. I am never a huge fan of violence simply for violence sake, or anything in a movie being there simply for the sake of it, for that matter, but First Blood does indeed have more heart than the other films and at least some sort of social commentary. Great overview of the “franchise” and shame about Stallone’s potential as a screenwriter. I love the first Rocky as well as Staying Alive, but I suppose his passion lay in the maiming and murdering side to things. 😉

    All my best!

  6. “Rambo is initially uninterested, but Trautman’s one-liners prove irresistible.” I believe you have perfectly captured the inanity, and occasional glimpse of absurdist humor, of most macho action fantasies. I agree with Pete about liking the first one. Didn’t bother with numbers 3&4. Yippee-Kai-yay, motherf….

  7. Despite your amusing celebration of this general pile of cinematic manure, I actually have a soft spot for the original film. If you put it into context of being 32 years old, it wasn’t at all a bad film- at the time. Pity about the sequels though…
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

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