First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)
I never saw First Blood when I was growing up, my only experience of the Rambo character being First Blood Part II where he singlehandedly frees a bunch of POWs in a Vietnamese camp killing scores of enemy soldiers in the process (I looked it up, it seems the body count was 75…). So, when I sat down to watch First Blood for the first time a few years ago I expected something similar: Sylvester Stallone violently murdering hordes of his enemies in the name of war and glory. Instead, what I saw was a damaged and fragile Vietnam veteran being driven to desperation by an abusive and short-sighted small-town police force. First Blood was a much more solemn and substantial story than I was expecting, with a good deal of emotional weight. The biggest surprise of all was that only one person died in the whole film, and it was entirely accidental…
John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is travelling on foot in the Pacific Northwest with plans to meet up with an old army buddy who he served with in Vietnam. When he arrives at the address he was given he asks where his friend is and a family member informs him that he died the previous summer, of cancer he had contracted after the war due to exposure to the chemical weapons used there. John leaves and continues his walk, coming upon a small town in Washington named Hope. The local Sheriff John Teasle (Brian Dennehy) notices John and his army attire and takes him for a drifter, picks him up and leaves him at the other end of town and sends him on his way, telling him that the town of Hope doesn’t want his kind, even if the visit is just for the time it takes to have a meal. After being dropped off, John turns right back around and begins walking back into Hope.
Teasle notices John re-entering town, turns around and arrests him. He confiscates John’s knife and brings him into the station to be processed. A particularly nasty officer at the station named Galt is extremely rough with John, who is silent and unwilling to follow commands. Galt at one point even uses his baton on John and beats him. When the officers hold John to be shaved he has flashbacks to his time in a PoW camp in Vietnam and struggles loose, eventually fighting his way free of the station, injuring some officers in the process. He steals a motorbike once outside and rides off into the hills, followed by Teasle, who orders backup to apprehend John including a helicopter and dogs. The police discover that John Rambo is a decorated Vietnam war hero and Green Beret but nevertheless a chase ensues which culminates in Galt going against orders and trying to shoot and kill John from the helicopter rather than just apprehending him, which causes John to throw a rock at the helicopter in desperation, cracking the windscreen and making the pilot lose control, causing Galt to lose balance and fall from the helicopter to his death on the rocks below.
John tries to give himself up peacefully, stating that it was all accidental but the remaining police fire on him and he flees further into the hills. The police continue their pursuit and John incapacitates them all one by one (causing injury, but no death), using his guerrilla warfare training to set traps and hide in his environment. The final man he incapacitates is Teasle, and holding a knife to his throat he tells him that he could have killed them all, and that if they continue to pursue him he will give them a war they “wouldn’t believe”.
The state police and local National Guard are called in, as well as John’s former commanding officer Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna). Col. Trautman advises Teasle to call off the search and allow John to escape so he can be recovered with less hostility at a future time. Undeterred however, Teasle continues to push for the capture of John Rambo. Eventually the National Guard blows up a mine John is hiding in and, believing him to be dead, the search dissipates. John, of course, survives the blast and finds an alternative exit through the mine, and upon his exit he hijacks an army truck, drives it to town and blows it up along with a gas station. He creates a further diversion by shooting out power lines and destroying a gun shop, before heading to the police station at the other end of town. While there he shoots and wounds Teasle, and is stopped before delivering a killing blow by Col. Trautman, who intervenes and warns John against it, stating it’s a sure way to end up killed by the waiting police outside. John breaks down crying, reflecting on the horrors he has had to endure in Vietnam and the miserable and aimless existence he found waiting for him back home. Col. Trautman consoles him, and he is led out of the building peacefully to be arrested as the film credits roll.
While there is some great action in First Blood, the films power and impact is down to something entirely different than just John Rambo being a badass super solider. There is a distinct emotional core to the film, and the violence and mayhem is treated in a sombre way rather than glorified and ostentatious. For example, in Rambo’s dispatching of his pursuers, we see exactly how terrified and out of their depth they are in the situation, and while we are firmly not on their side thanks to their prior treatment of Rambo at the station, we don’t revel in their subsequent injuries at his hands. In fact, it is distinctly unpleasant, with the injuries all appearing to be extremely painful (especially the officer who steps into a booby trap made of multiple sharp, pointed pieces of wood which deeply embed themselves into his legs) and careful attention given to their cries of agony and shouts for help. Juxtapose this with the previous sequence where Rambo is chased further into the woods by the officers and the dogs, it seems more exciting, with the audience wondering how Rambo might escape and the officers perhaps not treating the whole affair as seriously as they should, almost like it’s a hunt or wargame. Both the audience and officers are not yet aware of exactly what Rambo is capable of, but soon find out, to their horror.
The death of Galt is an exception to this. It’s extremely quick, and we are only shown Galt’s fall from the helicopter and not the undoubtedly gruesome landing. We see his bloody corpse lying on the rocks in the aftermath, but are spared the more unpleasant details of the impact. The quick and largely unseen nature of the death, coupled with the audience perception of Galt as a loathsome bully, accidental nature of his death and the fact that Rambo was acting only in self defence contribute to a perception of blamelessness for Rambo, and further fuels our feelings that the continued aggression against him from the police officers is entirely unwarranted.
The police force itself is not portrayed as entirely barbaric however, while they are shown to treat Rambo poorly to some extent at the station, it is only Galt who can be said to be especially nasty and taking pleasure in his actions, with the others ranging from indifferent to reticent, although all are complicit in the abuse, and none do anything to stop it. The closest thing to help Rambo receives at the station is an officer who tells Rambo that going along and doing as he is told will be the best option for him. While sympathetic to his plight, this officer offers Rambo no real help. The audience might feel conflicted. Rambo should never have been arrested, has been treated extremely poorly at the station itself setting off episodes of PTSD, and only wishes to be left alone, but he has also been extremely uncooperative, injured and attacked some officers in his escaping the station and played a part in the death of another officer (however much the audience may feel it was deserved or an appropriate action), so we can understand why the police would continue to pursue him after he escapes. Even so, it is still clear who is in the wrong (the small-minded police force) and right (Rambo, who just wanted to pass through in peace), but the fact that the police force’s motivation to chase Rambo can be easily understood by the audience (even if they don’t agree with it) helps the film become less of a good vs. evil cartoon, and much more fully fleshed.
First Blood does much to make us sympathise with Rambo and shed light on the horrors he and many other young men would have faced in Vietnam. For example, at the beginning of the film when Rambo is trying to track down his old army buddy, he shows a photo to a woman and explains that the man he is looking for is in the back of the photo because he was so large that he would’ve have taken up the full frame otherwise, and the woman explains that this same man is now dead, having withered away so badly thanks to cancer he brought back from Vietnam that he was so frail and small that even she could lift him easily by the end of his life. The short flashback sequences back to Rambo’s time in a POW camp also emphasise what a horrible time he has had, and that he is unable to escape it even back in his home country. Rambo may not have taken home a physical illness, but he is constantly mentally tormented by his experiences in Vietnam.
I can’t really imagine anyone other than Sylvester Stallone in this role, and he wonderfully portrays a tortured and mentally anguished man who has been backed into a corner by an aggressive and antagonistic small-town police force. I always find his eyes and face to have a forlorn, sombre quality in this film, and a quiet sadness. He is entirely believable as a super-capable and relentless soldier thanks to his physique and how he moves on screen, but also (and more importantly) he is able to convince us of the emotional and mental damage that has been wrought on this poor ex-soldier.
That we can sympathise with and root for a man who is so adept in violence, and who demonstrates that violent capability against the police is testament to the performance of Stallone and how the story unfolds. While it sometimes may seem a little far-fetched, such as with Galt bordering on cartoonishly evil, or how frighteningly well-prepared Rambo is in every physical situation that presents itself, the overall feeling I get from the film is one of realism and grit, especially in an emotional sense. If you have only seen the sequels and found them to be excessively violent, over-the-top wish-fulfilment silliness, I would urge you to watch First Blood and be taken on a sometimes exciting, sometimes emotional and always entertaining journey.