Sunday, 17 June 2007
First Blood (1982) dir. Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna
The Rambo films have an unfair stigma to them. It’s become the symbol of the bloated 80’s action franchise where the body count matters more than character and story. The consensus is both right and wrong. And while the films are sparse in story and plot, you might be surprised at the depth of the main character. I don’t want to overanalyze it, but if watch “First Blood” again, in addition to it being a compelling action film, you’ll find John Rambo a fascinating character.
Rambo enters a small milling town in Oregon. He’s looking for a friend of his, a Vietnam vet whom he served with in the war. He approaches the wife of the man and asks her if he’s around. Johns is cordial and tells her a few fun stories of their friendship. The woman bursts John’s bubble when she tells him he’s dead. Died of cancer. Sly’s reaction says it all. He’s now the last of his beloved platoon. All his friends are gone, and his world is completely shattered.
While walking into town for a bite to eat he’s stopped by the local sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who’s immediately standoffish. Will recognizes his army jacket, unkempt hair and quickly decides he doesn’t want ‘his type’ in the town. It’s typical of the prejudice against Vietnam veterans. The interaction between Dennehy and Sly is a well-performed exchange of dialogue with underlying subtext between the lines. In this scene, without saying it overtly, we understand Rambo’s entire painful backstory.
When Teasle pushes, John pushes back. The war of wills culminates into John’s arrest for vagrancy. At the station the other officers are even more confrontational. They push John to the limit, and when he snaps, it’s the beginning of the end for the cops and the town. John fights off the entire police station and escapes into the wilderness. Teasle and his men chase after him but John’s survival skills are too much for them to handle. The search for John grows larger and soon the State Police and National Guard are brought in to help.
John is a highly damaged psychotic. He is in complete war mode and he approaches the confrontation in the way he was taught (and likely brainwashed) by the army. The only way to stop the rampage is with the help of John’s platoon commander, Col Trautman (Richard Crenna channeling the rhythms of William Shatner). Trautman is much the same as Rambo. He’s tough and uncompromising and pushes Will as hard as John does. But when Trautman finally meets up with John at the end of film, he finally realizes that John’s actions are in due in large part to Trautman. Like Frankenstein’s monster turning against his creator, or a Terminator robot with no ‘off switch.’
Apart from a few of creative liberties, the action is mostly authentic. Shot in the forests of British Columbia, the cold, barren and uncompromising environment is real and believable. It’s remarkable, Sly hardly speaks a word in the second act. I didn’t do a running count, but he probably has under 15 lines in the whole film. When he’s by himself, he’s all action and no talk. If the film were made today, he would likely have been given “Wilson-like” character (from “Cast Away”) or a hostage sidekick to trade lines with.
If “First Blood” were made today it would be a totally different film. It was made at a unique time and place. “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” had much to say about the experience of veterans of the war returning home and fitting back in with society. Though “First Blood” is the extreme case, in my opinion, it has as much emotional resonance as either of these films.
Let me end by discussing Stallone’s final speech. The general opinion is that it repeats plainly what has been said already in subtext throughout the film. And it’s certainly not a profound statement we haven’t heard in other films either. But for this character and this film Rambo needed to say these words, and in contrast to his complete silence and repressed emotions throughout the film, the over-the-top release is cathartic and powerful. I do believe Stallone is a good actor and I applaud his performance, including his final statement. Enjoy.
Buy it here: First Blood
PS The Lions Gate Films/Maple Pictures DVD contains a rather good audio commentary by Stallone. Check it out.
This trailer, is actually funny in a Grindhouse sort of way: