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First Blood at 40: Rambo’s first release mixed violence and vulnerability | Sylvester Stallone

JIn the original First Blood ending, John Rambo, a former Special Forces super-soldier in Vietnam, pulls a gun from his mentor’s holster and asks him to pull the trigger: “You trained me . You made me. You’re killing me.” Finally surrounded after waging war on seemingly every gunman within range of CB in the Pacific Northwest — a local police department, incompetent “weekend warriors” for the National Guard, the US military – Rambo wants his green beret Geppetto to kill him rather than strangers who don’t understand him, plus he wants to be free from the pain he carries from a conflict that scarred him physically and mentally abroad and left him despised and unmoored at home, his mentor obliges.

The test audience hated that ending. So did Kirk Douglas, who was originally cast as Rambo’s creator, Colonel Sam Trautman, before Richard Crenna finally stepped into the role. The director, Ted Kotcheff, at the request of his star (and co-screenwriter of the film) Sylvester Stallone, anticipated the reaction enough to design an alternative ending on the spot, one where the hero comes out of the scene with more dignity. . sheriff’s office. The new ending proved great for Stallone’s wallet – the franchise has four sequels and inspired Gizmo to fight back in Gremlins 2: The New Batch – and it plays better too, still thought-provoking without having to be so abrupt.

But the Rambo who would emerge three years later in Rambo: First Blood Part II would be a betrayal of the wounded soul at the center of First Blood, a xenophobic fantasy figure who treated Vietnam less as a painful loss than a war he hadn’t been allowed to win. It’s the same pattern that followed Stallone’s Rocky films: the underdog palooka we loved in the first film eventually morphs into a world-conquering cartoon, and any future attempts to recapture the original film’s modesty ends up feeling cynical. Stallone wants to be a salt-of-the-earth type Joe Lunchpail and an unstoppable action Goliath, and it’s hard to be both things at the same time.

First Blood is very close though. Adapted from David Morrell’s novel, the film remains the blueprint for ’80s action cinema, a pulpy thriller full of shootouts, car chases, explosions and other displays of heavy artillery and exploding pyrotechnics . Stallone’s Rambo is indeed a near-immortal force of resilience, but his psychic vulnerability, like Rocky’s, is the core strength that makes him seem more human than he otherwise would. He’s a one-man army, fending off hundreds of attackers in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, but Stallone and Kotcheff also know how to reveal his weaknesses, including his post-traumatic stress disorder and sense of displacement. almost ghostly. There’s a part of him that’s already dead, whether or not Trautman pulls the trigger.

As First Blood opens, Rambo is a long-haired wanderer searching for the last of his fellow Special Forces survivors, who was found to have died of cancer the previous year. This news sets him back on the sidelines, making his way through the town of Hope, Washington, but the local sheriff, Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) wants Rambo to leave Hope behind. Rather than accept his personal escort outside the city limits, however, Rambo returns where he does not belong and the sheriff arrests him on false charges of vagrancy and resisting arrest. When Teasle and his men – including a young David Caruso – use the opportunity to torture him behind bars, triggering flashbacks to his time as a POW, Rambo fights his way out of custody and heads towards the mountains for shelter.

From there, a simple wandering beef turns into a Battle Royale, as Rambo slips in deadly traps and sets some himself, and the police department and other armed volunteers are somehow overwhelmed with their single target. When Trautman finally shows up to offer his help, he tells the sheriff, “I didn’t come to save you Rambo. I have come to deliver you from him. Teasle sneers that 200 men might not be enough to take down Rambo – top-notch actor Dennehy gives his villain a thin layer of fake folksiness – but the more people come to him, the more weapons he acquires . The winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor won’t be shot by some jerk with a rocket launcher.

Sylvester Stallone and Brian Dennehy
Sylvester Stallone and Brian Dennehy Photography: Thorn Emi Video/Joseph Lederer/Visual Icon/Allstar

As the first volley of the ’80s action arms race led by Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, First Blood set a standard that many films followed, but only a handful were able to match. The beautiful natural backdrop, with British Columbia serving as majestically covered Washington, has enough wilderness for Rambo to get a feel for jungle warfare, but the setting has the wistful feel of other movies set in the wild. region, such as Five Easy Pieces. The main point of First Blood – after the violence for his own enjoyment, of course – is that Rambo may be back in America, but the place doesn’t feel like home. He is a wanderer beyond the literal sense.

Although Stallone is generally soft-spoken and carries a loud machine gun, the film turns into a famous “nothing is over” monologue where Rambo’s angst erupts and he becomes the spokesperson for Vietnam veterans who feel slighted and forgotten at home. It’s terrible writing that would encourage future terrible writing by Stallone – see also the monologues from Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV – and obviously out of place in a film that suggests a tension between different kinds of veterans with evidence of Teasle’s service in the background. Stallone doesn’t trust audiences to read his character or serve his own vanity as an actor.

Still, First Blood addressed lingering national grievances about Vietnam while providing a satisfying bloody catharsis. It remains a superior action ship, widely imitated over the course of a decade that would replicate its inner warfare while only rarely surpassing it. One man fighting an entire city was an old Western trope that Stallone slyly updated with high capacity magazines and gas station explosions. The formula still worked.


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