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First Blood

First Blood

By Stephen Amos • January 18th, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Orion Pictures

Original release: October 22nd, 1982

Running time: 93 minutes

Director: Ted Kotcheff
Writer: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone, David Morrell
Composer: Jerry Goldsmith

Cast: James Dean, Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, Jo van Fleet, Burl Ives, Richard Davalos, Lois Smith, Harold Gordon, Albert Dekker

First Blood

When we watch First Blood today, 31 years after its release and having had our thoughts coloured by three sequels, we’re faced with a contradiction. On the one hand we have the John Rambo we all think of when we hear is name, the fighter, the warrior. As Colonel Trautman says, Rambo is ‘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.’

Yet this isn’t the John Rambo we’re introduced to in the first of this series of films. He’s a Vietnam veteran who now has difficulty holding down a job, a wanderer who doesn’t fit in anywhere and who can’t settle down. At the start of the film we he’s at his most hopeful as he walks down a country road looking for his old friend and fellow member of Baker Team, Delmar Berry. For a man who, as we’ll discover, uses very few words, here he’s at his most animated. It seems this only happens when he’s experiencing both moments of high emotion and memories of his old team (the closest he ever got to a family). The only other time he would be so open is at the climax when he’s cornered, both physically and mentally, in the police station and once again he allows the trauma and the loss to be revealed. These two scenes act as bookends to the silent stoic type we usually associate with John Rambo.

Unfortunately Delmar’s dead, just like the rest of his platoon. He returned from ‘nam with cancer caught from, we suspect, agent orange. ‘Got himself killed in ‘Nam, didn’t even know it. Cancer ate him down to the bone.’On finding out about his friend’s death something dies in Rambo. It’s at this point, early in the film that he becomes the silent anti-hero we remember him as. He’s angry and lost and the last thing he needs is for someone to push him. Then he meets Brian Dennehy’s Sherriff Teasle who, of course, pushes.

First Blood

Teasle’s a no nonsense sheriff whose motives are discussed numerous times throughout the film but are, ultimately, subjective. Is he just doing his job? Does he pick on Rambo because he’s a vagrant? Because he’s a Vietnam vet? He justifies himself a number of times although these are often very defensive– ‘Dammit, Dave, you think this kid just waltzed into town, announced he was a Medal Of Honour winner, and then I just leaned on him for the hell of it? I tried to do him a favour, I treated him like he was one of my neighbour’s kids. I did my job, Dave, I booked him for vagrancy and resisting arrest’.

What’s obvious is that Teasle doesn’t want Rambo in his town but, unfortunately for him, he picks the wrong man on the wrong day. Rambo’s dropped off on the outskirts of town with one simple instruction – keep going. He doesn’t listen, turns around and heads back in town. At this point Teasle’s put himself into a corner and has no choice but to arrest the wanderer for vagrancy and it’s in the police station we glimpse the depth of Rambo’s problems and the post-traumatic distress disorder he’s suffering from. As the police manhandle him he has flashbacks to the torture he endured in the hands of the Vietcong. The bars on the police cell become bamboo bars of his Vietnamese cell, the shouting cop becomes a Vietcong barking insults at his prisoner of war.

It’s easy in hindsight to only think of Rambo as the one-dimensional action hero he would become with each sequel but in First Blood he’s more than that, he’s damaged and First Bloodafraid. He wants to fit in but can’t and because he can’t people will not let him. The only way he knows how to react when faced with this perceived threat is to revert to his training and his expertise and fight back.

The extent that Rambo will go to to survive is perfectly illustrated in the opening scenes on the mountain when the police are in pursuit, a cop in a helicopter is shooting at him and the only way to get away is to jump off a cliff. There’s no stoic heroism in his eyes only fear – fear of getting caught, of being shot and of injury, yet he still jumps, ignoring the possibility of death. Director Ted Kotcheff and the stunt doubles do not try to hide the folly in this. Each branch of the tree Rambo hits on the way down obviously hurts as he grunts and cries out in pain. On the ground he holds his arm and grimaces in agony. Yet he can still sow himself up without any antiseptic or something to numb the pain. Later, as he makes his way through the cave, rats crawl up his back and start biting his neck. Again it’s evident he’s a lot of pain and pulls the rats off in anguish and disgust. It reminds me of a very similar yet different scene in Indianna Jones and the Last Crusade, here Indy nonchalantly picks up a rat and discards it as the woman screams; the threat the rats pose is played for comic value.

We’re also introduced to Rambo’s commanding office Colonel Trautman, played by Richard Crenna, as straight laced as possible. There’s a feeling that Trautman can’t be trusted, he now sits behind a desk in Washington, a bureaucrat, instead of the man who trained and led Rambo in battle. This turns out to be the case later when the Colonel offers to help turn his man in.
Yet no one knows or understands Rambo better that Trautman. It to him Rambo confesses of his inability to cope with civilian life. The soldier needs his commanding officer; he needs the structure of the army. As Rambo says in that climatic scene: ‘For me civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honour, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there’s nothing!’

It’s in this final scene that Rambo gives us the second glimpse into the trauma he endured. He and his friend Joey were in a bar in Siagon when a child offers to shine their shoes. Rambo goes First Bloodoff to get a drink but Joey stays says yes. The shoe-shine box is wired and a bomb goes off and Joey’s body is blown all over Rambo – ‘I’m tryin’ to pull him off, you know, my friend that’s all over me! I’ve got blood and everything and I’m tryin’ to hold him together!’ Worse still, and a premonition of what was to come in the civilian world – ‘Nobody would help!’

He was alone then and he is alone now: ‘I can’t get it out of my head. A dream of seven years. Every day I have this. And sometimes I wake up and I don’t know where I am. I don’t talk to anybody. Sometimes a day – a week.’

At the end of Taxi Driver, another film about a Vietnam veteran who goes on a destructive rampage, Travis Bickle is hailed as a hero for saving a young prostitute and disposing of low-life pimps. At the end of First Blood, Rambo’s arrested and escorted away by the police.

It’s good sometimes to go back to the start of a series, to watch with new eyes and try to recapture those impressions that we had at the time but have slowly changed over the decades. We don’t think of Rambo as a man who suffers yet here he is, at the start of his story, a man all alone in the world and not able to do anything about it.

First Blood

Stephen Amos

Stephen Amos

Stephen read Film Studies at Middlesex University in the 90s but after graduating found life got in the way of his desired profession. Instead he stumbled into Finance and today works in the accounts department of Coleg Y Cymoedd, one of the biggest FE colleges in Wales.

The great loves in his life, beside his wife and two children, are Blues music, amateur photography and movies. A fan of all genres lists his top 5 as - Pan’s Labyrinth, Cinema Paradiso, King Kong, Star Wars and Casablanca. You can keep up with him on Twitter @WelshBluesman

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