How Rambo Turned a Complicated Antihero into Agitprop

When Grand Central Publishing released a new edition of the novel First Blood in 2000, author David Morrell penned an introduction, attempting to bridge the gap between the character he wrote in the early 1970s and the version of that character that had been lodged into pop consciousness by (at that time) a trio of Hollywood blockbusters. “Rambo,” he wrote. “Complicated, troubled, haunted, too often misunderstood. If you’ve heard about him but haven’t met him before, he’s about to surprise you.”

That’s putting it mildly. But the time that novel was reissued, the Rambo the world knew was decidedly less complicated – thanks primarily to the tonal shifts of the second film in the series, which hit theaters 35 years ago this week. The film adaptation of First Blood, though released in 1982, feels more like a holdover from the action cinema of the 1970s; sure, it’s bloody and violent, and guns are fired and explosions are had, but its action is grounded in the contradictions of its central character, not unlike Death Wish or The French Connection or even Taxi Driver. Rambo: First Blood Part II, on the other hand, is full-on ‘80s Action Product, a pivot consecrated by Rambo III three years later. (The fourth and fifth films, released decades later and thus responding to the political and cultural winds of their own moments, don’t really apply here.)

In retrospect, what’s most shocking about First Blood, particularly considering how the character (and Sylvester Stallone, who played him) have been championed by right wing culture, is how vehemently anti-authoritarian – and, specifically, anti-cop – it is. The John Rambo we first meet is soft-spoken, earnest, and friendly, up in the Pacific Northwest looking for an old buddy he served alongside in ‘Nam, but he stiffens up immediately when the good ol’ boy local sheriff (Brian Dennehy) starts in on him. “Why are you pushing me?” he asks, honestly; the lawman drives him out to the edge of town and tells him, “If you want some advice, get a haircut and take a bath. People wouldn’t hassle you so much.”

It turns out that John Rambo isn’t quite what his long hair and scruffy clothes seem to indicate: a former Green Beret and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, a Vietnam War hero. But he just won’t do what he’s told, and when the roughness of the local cops triggers a PTSD-induced escape, the bloodthirsty deputies chase him out to the woods. Their desire to save face and exact revenge ends up harming themselves more than him; this is a gang that cannot shoot straight, and ditto and double that for the buffoonish weekend warrior National Guardsmen who comprise the second wave (“I do this part time, I didn’t come here to get killed!”).

Rambo ends up taking the fight back to the winkingly named Hope, Washington, barreling through a police blockade (cue the triumphant music), blowing up an army transport truck (and some poor schmuck’s gas station), and proceeding to shoot up nothing less than Main Street, USA, concluding with the gleeful slo-mo machine-gunning of the sheriff’s station. It feels like a suicide mission, and it was intended to be; the film originally ended with Rambo taking his own life, a slight modification of the novel’s conclusion, in which his mentor, Col. Troutman (Richard Crenna) puts him out of his misery. That’s not all that was changed; one of the key contradictions of the character Morrell wrote was his counterculture edge (“He would let his hair grow long, stop shaving, carry his few possessions in a rolled-up sleeping bag slung over his shoulder, and look like what we then called a hippie”), and while some of those elements remain, particularly in his early conflicts with the law, the film adds a breakdown in which Rambo shares the (apocryphal) story of Vietnam War protestors spitting on vets, and says of the war itself, “Somebody wouldn’t let us win!”

That notion is the key connective tissue between First Blood and Rambo – established in the pre-title scene, in which Troutman recruits a now-imprisoned Rambo for a recon mission to find lost POWs back in ‘Nam. “Sir, do we get to win this time?” Rambo asks, and after Troutman replies, “This time it’s up to you,” Jerry Goldsmith’s score goes heavy with Spaghetti Western guitar. Later Troutman refers to Rambo by his own terms – “a pure fighting machine with only a desire to win a war someone else lost” – and Rambo again references those damn dirty hippes (“I came back to the States and found another war going on… kind of a quiet war, a war against all the soldiers returning. The kind of war you don’t win”).

But aside from those callbacks, Rambo (co-written by Stallone and James Cameron, though the latter would all but disavow his contributions) divorces itself entirely from the reality of the inaugural outing. When he’s briefed, Rambo is sternly warned that he is to take photos of POWs only (“Under no circumstances are you to engage the enemy,” he’s told, an audience laugh line if I’ve ever heard one), and it’s worth remembering that the body count in First Blood is quite low, with our antihero even announcing, after the first casualty, “I don’t want any more hurt!”

That is, to put it mildly, not the case this time around; Rambo does not hesitate to mow down dozens and dozens of his targets in Rambo and Rambo III; a difference worth nothing is that, unlike in First Blood, his enemies in the sequels aren’t white people. Now, of course, you can argue that this is the result of location and narrative; Rambo takes him to Vietnam, Rambo III to Afghanistan. But the question to ask is why those particular narratives were crafted – why the filmmakers decided this is what audiences wanted to see Rambo do (and who they wanted him to kill, without hesitation.)

An even trickier question lies in how to make an anti-authority, anti-government flag-waver in the middle of the Reagan era. The filmmakers found that answer in the character of Major Marshall Roger T. Murdock, played by Charles Napier as a William Atherton-style mid-‘80s fuming petty bureaucrat who feigns concern early on (“Maybe the government didn’t care. Maybe certain sections of the population didn’t care. But my committee cares”) but ultimately tells Troutman, “It wasn’t my war, Colonel. I’m just here to clean up the mess,” and ends up aborting the mission in the midst of Rambo’s extraction leaving him to fend for himself – and, presumably, die in the jungles of Vietnam.

The motive for this plot turn doesn’t hold water as much more than cartoon villainy (or proto-Deep State nonsense), though more was presumably intended; Ted Kotcheff, the director of First Blood, explained that “Rambo’s treatment by the redneck sheriff and his deputies was a microcosm of the way America had treated their returning veterans,” and it seems possible that Stallone and Cameron’s script was broadly attempting to make the character’s abandonment a metaphor for the entire Vietnam conflict. In an interview that summer of 1985, the screenwriter/star explained, “The vets were told wrong. The people who pushed the wrong buttons all took a powder. The vets got the raw deal and were left holding the bag. What Rambo is saying is that if they could fight again, it would be different.”

The nuance wiped away by Rambo was a distant memory by the time the nonsensically-titled Rambo III arrived in multiplexes three summers later. By airdropping Rambo and Troutman into the actual invasion of Afghanistan by ‘80s Hollywood’s favorite villain, the Russians, the personal, character-driven storytelling of First Blood had evolved into straight-up agitprop, inserting the fictional (and impossible) character into a real, and complex, geopolitical struggle.

But by then, audiences knew what they were getting: their sweaty, shirtless hero, sporting a comically oversized physique and a bandana wrapped around his permanent wet-head, taking out his faceless, foreign enemies. (These increasingly elaborate executions, many via crossbow, mirror the one-upsmanship of the “gags” in another quintessential ‘80s franchise: the Friday the 13th movies.) As it comes to its cartoon conclusion, with Rambo and Troutman side-by-side to face off a full army of choppers, tanks, troops, and trucks, Troutman asks our hero, “Whaddaya say, John?” And he responds with a bon mot worthy of Wilde: “F*ck ‘em.”

“I wasn’t involved with the films,” Morrell writes. “However, I did write a novelization for each of the sequels in an effort to supply the characterization that they omitted. I felt that it was important to remind readers of what the novel’s Rambo had been about.” His tact and understatement is admirable; it must have been tough to watch Hollywood take this complicated story, with its morally ambiguous characters, and turn it into a video game, full of pop-up shooters, cardboard villains, and A- Team violence. There are no stakes or no gravity to the later Rambo movies; it’s all become white noise, a brick wall of explosions, machine gun fire, and rah-rah music.

“Rambo is everything,” writes J. Hoberman in his recent ‘80s film study Make My Day, “super-grunt, Green Beret, hippie protester, VC guerrilla, righteous outlaw, Hollywood Freedom Fighter, total violence, the War itself.” With each passing film, he would become less than that character onscreen – and, troublingly, more than it elsewhere, an avatar for America machismo and, accordingly, a nuance-free, black-or-white worldview. Barely a month after Rambo: First Blood Part II wiped out the opening weekend box office, President Reagan screened the film at the White House, as something of an impromptu victory celebration for the impending release of thirty-nine hostages from a hijacked airliner in Beirut. “Boy, I saw Rambo last night,” the president joked at a June 30 press conference. “Now I know what to do next time.”

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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