R is for… Rambo: First Blood

I have finally seen Rambo: First Blood (okay, okay, First Blood, but calling it “Rambo” means it can be my “R” movie; I could have just done the fourth Rambo film from 2008 but it would have been viewed out of context). It was… not what I had expected. Granted, I went in with absolutely no preconceived notions outside of “action movie.” The only sort of Rambo anything I’ve seen before is the short clip in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (“To survive a war, you gotta become war”) that inspires Gizmo to fight, but that’s obviously from a different film. I absolutely hadn’t expected First Blood to be so serious, and Rambo so damaged.

First Blood, directed by Ted Kotcheff, starring Sylvester Stallone as the titular character, and based on the novel First Blood by David Morrell, begins with John Rambo attempting to visit an old friend from his military unit. Upon learning of his friend’s death, he becomes upset and continues his wandering. He wanders his way into the small town of Hope, Washington and manages to anger the local sheriff, Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy). Teasle drops him off outside of town, not wanting a dirty drifter vet in his town, but Rambo heads back. Teasle arrests him on charges of vagrancy and resisting arrest. The other cops treat Rambo horribly and he gets flashbacks to Vietnam, causing him to not quite realize where he is and fight back. He manages to escape and Teasle chases him into the woods.

The middle part/second act of the film is basically a manhunt through the woods as Rambo escapes and sets traps for the cops that are chasing him. Officer Galt (Jack Starrett) dies in an accident, which enrages Teasle even further and changes his motivation from personal affront to revenge for his fallen comrade. Rambo is simply fighting, and his former commander, Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna), tries to explain to Teasle just who Rambo is and what he can do, and that he should be left alone.

The film’s third act has Rambo making a focused assault on the town and Teasle, as he rolls back into town in a stolen truck. He blows up a gas station and fires his stolen rifle into storefronts, and ultimately shoots Teasle. Finally Trautman catches up with him and keeps him from killing Teasle. Rambo breaks down at that point, explaining that he had a place in the military and Vietnam, but now he’s supposed to be a regular civilian and he can’t be one of those. He faces protests and people judging him and doesn’t understand how anyone can be judgmental if he or she wasn’t there, didn’t face what he did. He’s tried living in the regular world and he simply can’t.

The film ends with Rambo being led away in handcuffs.

To the criteria!

A is for… Accents

No one has an accent, unless regional American accents are counted.

B is for… Badguys

Sheriff Teasle is painted as the bad guy from the start, with his cop bodies filling in as his goons. Granted he might have been trying to save Rambo from himself by leading him out of town after recognizing him as a drifting vet, but he didn’t have to be rude. If he’d simply helped him out, or at least explained his reasoning, perhaps Rambo wouldn’t have turned around to head back to town. By pushing Rambo and arresting him, Teasle invited problems.

The other cops, minus Mitch (David Caruso), are complete jerks who beat, tease, and kick Rambo, and not only that, they seem to be incompetent. They’re all surprised when Rambo doesn’t want to be fingerprinted, they don’t understand why he doesn’t want to give them his name, or why he resists pretty much everything they try to do to him. It’s almost like they learned how to be cops from watching movies about cops, and were never actually trained on how to handle difficult perpetrators.

The cops actually open fire on Rambo when he’s unarmed and offering to turn himself in.

However, as the film reaches its conclusion, it’s no longer the cops chasing Rambo, it’s Rambo damaging the town. By the end it’s unclear if the viewer should be cheering for Rambo or wishing the cops would apprehend him so he stops blowing things up.

C is for… Chases

Rambo escapes from the police station and steals a motorcycle, and Teasle chases after him in his cop car. The chase includes slow motion and crazy jumps. Interestingly, the chase has no music over it. The chase ends with Teasle rolling his car down a cliff face as Rambo continues up into the woods, though ultimately he can’t continue on the bike.

Most of the rest of the film is a sort of chase, as the police engage in a manhunt through the woods to find Rambo.

There’s a short chase between Rambo in an army truck and a cop car chasing him, but Rambo is able to get out of it by forcing the cop car off the road.

D is for… Damsels

Outside of Delmar’s relative and later on the waitress, there are no women with speaking parts at all.

E is for… Explosions

For some reason, the National Guard guys lug a rocket launcher into the woods in order to hunt down Rambo. They use it to fire at the mineshaft he’s taken cover in, and of course the place explodes.

At one point in his stolen army truck, Rambo forces a cop car off the road into a parked car, causing an explosion.

Rambo takes it upon himself to blow up a gas station in town, and the army truck. This move might have been made to send a signal to Teasle, who can see it from the police station. Later Rambo blows up a hunting goods store.

F is for… Flashbacks

In the police station Rambo has two flashbacks—one of him in a pit having something thrown on him, and another of him being strung up on some sort of rack. At this point it’s clear to a modern audience that Rambo is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I don’t know what a 1982 audience would have thought about the flashbacks, or about Rambo’s actions and motivation throughout the rest of the film.

G is for… Guns

Check out the complete listing at the IMFDB.

The cops of course have their rifles, and the National Guard guys have their machine guns.

Rambo is eventually able to steal a gun. He also steals a jacket, but he doesn’t seem to ever wear it.

There’s a shootout at the mine, before the rocket launcher is used.

Rambo steals am M60 from the army truck.

He also uses the gun to ignite the gun powder in the sporting goods store.

He seems to just shoot randomly around the town. He shoots out the electricity, okay, but then he shoots into storefronts and the police station. He hunts down Teasle and shoots him.

H is for… Helicopters

The police first try hunting for Rambo using a helicopter, which leads to the death of the really jerky officer, Galt, who beat and kicked Rambo in the station. He falls out after Rambo throws a rock through the windshield, but his fall was foreshadowed by the unsteady helicopter, which couldn’t stay still in a thermo updraft.

A medical helicopter is flown in after Rambo damages more of the cops.

There’s a yellow helicopter that takes a veeeeery long time to circle around and land.

I is for… Improvisation

Rambo is very resourceful, as he uses a tarp to make a shirt, and his beloved knife for about six different things including a torch. He uses a rock to attack the helicopter. He uses branches and mud as camouflage. He builds several traps in the woods, including one with sharp wooden stakes. He makes a spear to hunt.

J is for… Jumping Through Solid Objects

Rambo throws a cop through an internal window in the police station.

Rambo also pushes a cop through an exterior window at the police station.

Teasle falls through the skylight at the police station.

Rambo himself takes a fall through a tree.

K is for… Kill Count

Rambo specifically points out to Teasle that he is not killing his men, even though he could.

L is for… Limitations

Rambo is alone in the war he manufactured. He can’t go forward because there’s nowhere for him to go, but if he goes back Teasle will probably kill him. Certainly everyone is against him because of lies Teasle tells. Because Teasle isn’t a clear villain, there’s no real way for Rambo to “win.”

M is for… Motivation

The motivation aspect of the film is what is very challenging to parse. In the beginning Rambo turns around to defy Teasle, even though Teasle clearly has it out for him. Why challenge that? After that, Rambo clearly wants to avoid arrest, which is understandable. Then, rather than run as fast and as far as he can, he sets up camp to face Teasle and the other cops. He’s given chances to give himself up, especially once Trautman arrives, but he still doesn’t give in. As he tells Trautman, there are no friendly civilians, and there wouldn’t be trouble for him except for the “kingshit cop.” The cops “drew first blood.”

Then Rambo destroys part of the town for no discernible reason other than to gain Teasle’s attention.

As far as Teasle, he wants to keep a sketchy drifter vet out of his town, but he goes about it in all the wrong ways. After his fellow officer falls out of the helicopter, he wants Rambo back to face justice. Or be killed, either way. Teasle specifically says he wants to “pin the Congressional Medal of Honor to [Rambo’s] liver.”

N is for… Negotiation

Any negotiation is pretty much to just get Rambo in police custody. Trautman does tell Teasle to just let him slip through and someone else will pick him up later, but no matter what Rambo has to be taken into custody.

O is for… One Liners

The film is fairly devoid of humor due to the nature of its themes and content, so most of the lines here are somewhat amusing due to delivery or intent, or are relevant to those dark themes.

Mitch: Can’t you see this guy’s crazy?
Galt: Can’t you see I don’t give a shit?

Teasle, and later Galt: What do you hunt with a knife?

Random cop: Jesus. He’s got a gun.

Rambo: There are no friendly civilians.

Rambo: Don’t look at me, look at the road. That’s how accidents happen.

Trautman: You’re gonna die, Teasle.
Teasle: Everybody dies.

P is for… Profession

John Rambo is a Vietnam War veteran, and eventually is specifically labeled a Green Beret, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, and a war hero. He’s a “real [bad ass].” He’s the last surviving member of his unit, which seems to be what pushes him over the edge. He obviously needed any sort of comfort Delmar could have given him. He wants to be in Fort Bragg, but Trautman wasn’t there when he looked for him. Rambo lives under the mantra of, “When in doubt, kill.”

Trautman pretty much sets Rambo up as being a killing machine, by describing him as, “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.”

Q is for… Quagmire

Especially after Trautman’s description, it’s hard to see Rambo as being in any sort of real danger. The cops have already been depicted as incompetent, and Rambo as skilled and crafty. Especially considering there are now three sequels, the viewer knows Rambo is going to be alive at the end of the film. If he can take on enemy soldiers with a lot better training than the cops in “Jerkwater, USA,” he should be fine.

Of course, there is the more practical aspect of just how deeply he’s digging himself in. The viewer is obviously supposed to root for him over the jerky cops, but after he keeps fighting, and especially after he starts destroying the town, there is nowhere for him to go. The cop falling out of the helicopter was an accident, but the property damage and injuries to the cops were intentional. He is definitely going into police custody. The emotional quagmire of Rambo’s pain and helplessness is really at the forefront, not his physical conflict with the cops.

R is for… Reality, or Lack Thereof

The film is simple in its set and action pieces, so as far as one man causing a lot of damage, especially a well-trained man, the film is quite realistic. Especially if the cops are so incompetent. It’s just unlikely.

However, the problems that Rambo faces are real. Are vets and special ops guys just released from the military with no support, left to fend for themselves in a world they don’t fit into?

S is for…Sidekicks

Rambo is utterly alone except for Trautman, who isn’t so much a sidekick as just trying to keep the cops from killing themselves by Rambo’s hand. Trautman recruited, trained, and commanded Rambo, and is the closest thing Rambo has to family, so Rambo trusts him.

T is for… Technology

Another ‘80s movie that focuses on real plots instead of made-up ones related to technology. The most high-tech thing in First Blood is a CB radio.

U is for… Unexpected Romance

Haha, no.

V is for… Vehicles as Weapons

Rambo uses the army truck he stole to force the cop car chasing him off the road. He later blows up the army truck.

W is for… Winning

Due to the film’s nature, there really isn’t any “winning,” per se.

Rambo does come back in to town in order to get Teasle. He hunts him to the police station, and, knowing he’s on the roof, shoots through the ceiling, catching Teasle in the legs with his bullets. Teasle falls through the skylight, and Rambo hovers over him, readying for the kill.

But Trautman intervenes, telling Rambo he can’t kill Teasle. He tells him the mission is over and he needs to stop.

Rambo then has a breakdown, letting Trautman know why he’s got so many problems: “Nothing is over, you just don’t turn it off,” “It wasn’t my war,” “Who are they to protest me?” He explains he has no place in civilian society, because he can’t do what he was trained to do, what his life purpose became in the war. He tells Trautman that civilian life is nothing.

Trautman eventually leads Rambo away in handcuffs.

X is for… X-rays, or Maybe You Should See a Doctor

Rambo slams through some tree branches, but sews himself up. It looks realistic, actually, as blood pumps out of the wound.

If anything, Rambo needs a psychiatrist who can help him through his mental issues, not a medical doctor for physical problems. (yes, I know psychiatrists are medical doctors, but you know what I mean)

Y is for… Yesterday’s Problem is Today’s Problem

Clearly if Rambo had been treated for his PTSD—if it had been recognized and he had been provided help to adjusting to the regular world—perhaps he would never be in that town and facing Teasle.

Z is for… Zone, in the

Clearly Rambo is in his own sort of zone most of the movie, and it’s worth noting that even though he’s trained to kill, he goes out of his way to not kill his attackers.

Well, that is Rambo: First Blood. I hadn’t expected a PTSD-suffering vet waging a war against people who don’t really deserve it, but I think the film is really important for the way it provides a look into what vets can suffer. Especially Vietnam vets who received little support assimilating back into society, and didn’t receive the mental help they needed. It’s really a sad movie.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

The long opening take sets the pace of the film nicely. I knew immediately the film would have a lot of long takes and move relatively slowly compared to today’s films.

Delmar died from cancer from Agent Orange. One job I had involved transcribing veteran hearings as veterans tried to get medical benefits to cover injuries or illnesses caused by being in the military, and hearing what Agent Orange can do to people… It’s horrible. I can easily picture Delmar and how sick he was, and how his family suffered along with him. Having that experience gives me a bit of an inside look at Rambo’s PTSD, too, knowing that vets suffer real pain that they cannot escape.

There’s some strange homoerotic tension in the film upon first viewing that isn’t as obvious in the second viewing. For example, the way Teasle tells Rambo to put his hands on the car and “spread ‘em,” then the fire hose as Rambo is naked (which would be a different scene if Galt wasn’t watching so gleefully and asking Mitch if he likes water sports), or Teasle’s line about “[wrapping] your arms around him and [giving] him a big sloppy kiss.” It’s completely inappropriate to view the movie this way, but it was there. The sheriff’s name being “Will Teasle” certainly didn’t help.

It’s interesting that Rambo’s weapon of choice is a knife. Killing with a knife is more personal and visceral than killing with a gun, or maybe he was trained to not need a gun in case he couldn’t find one. Knives also don’t run out of ammunition.

As I said before, to today’s audience, Rambo clearly has PTSD. But what did audiences in 1982 think? Maybe they just viewed him as crazy, like Mitch, rather than suffering from a clear actual DSM-IV condition.

Rambo doesn’t really have all that many lines, mostly because he’s alone, but it kind of forces Stallone to do a lot of eyeball acting the way Schwarzenegger does.

The torch Rambo makes in the mineshaft seems to be the only light illuminating those scenes, which is awesome. Too often scenes at night or in dark rooms have some sort of extra light coming from no discernible light source, so it was nice to see some realism.

As I mentioned before, the film has a lot of looooong takes and even long shots, with the focus far into the distance. I think it would be hard to have a film made like this today accepted by today’s audiences. Surely they are made, but I don’t think they’d qualify as “action” or “thriller” films. Today people want explosions and quick edits and fight scenes that don’t involve actual choreography, not shots that last for 20 seconds with a static camera. It’s a very noticeable difference in styles.

Like Lethal Weapon, the film’s end credits feature a terrible song. Let’s hope that’s left to the ‘80s as well.

Overall the film kept making me think of other films, but since First Blood was made before those films, obviously those films are taking their cues from or paying homage to this movie. For example, Rambo’s love of his knife made me think of Machete in Machete, and the concept of a guy fighting his enemy in the woods and setting traps made me think of Predator. Talking over radios is reminiscent of Die Hard. Rambo’s perfection as a soldier made me think of Forrest Taft in On Deadly Ground. Walking through water filled with rats made me think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Obviously the character of John Rambo and films made about him set the stage for the lone-wolf-hero action films, and I’m glad to have finally seen the first one.

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About abcsofaction

I'm a girl and a fan of action movies, two things that a lot of people think are mutually exclusive. I assure you there are plenty of us, and that we do know what we're talking about when it comes to what makes a good--or terrible--action flick. My articles will run the gamut from A to Z of action movies, and my goal is to be informative as well as amusing. Enjoy!

Posted on November 5, 2013, in R is for..., Rambo. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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