Let’s talk for a minute about Rambo. Yes, Rambo, that paragon of American military might and masculine machismo. The man who can destroy entire enemy bases with ease, the man who can wield a fifty-cal machine gun one-handed, the man who can go to battle shirtless and screaming, and emerge barely scratched, the man who cries and begs his commanding officer for death. Didn’t know about that last one, didja?
You see, there’s a dirty little secret about the Rambo franchise: the first movie is not only a seriously good film, it is actually the polar thematic opposite of its sequels. The later Rambo films, including the more recent one from 2008, are ultimately about the glorification of violence and warfare. They may tack on a half-hearted “war is hell” message, but you can’t get past the fact that these films are about solving problems with violence.
First Blood, the first in the series, is actually a staunchly anti-war film that focuses on the lasting psychological damage done to combatants, not to mention the shabby treatment often heaped upon Vietnam veterans.
The tactics of our protagonist also changed drastically in later films. The Rambo of First Blood is actually a crafty devil. He mostly uses ambush techniques, sabotage, booby-traps, stealth and other guerrilla tactics to best his “enemies”. He was also, it should be noted, a deeply troubled and mentally scarred human being, reduced to a mindless animal by his training, and finally breaking down in tears at the end of the film.
Along the course of the franchise, however, he seemed to abandon these tactics and by Rambo 3 he becomes a walking tank, lumbering through battle with all the subtlety of the proverbial bull in the china shop, often attacking his enemies head on in as loud and brazen a way possible. The Rambo of later films also seems much more stable, mentally. He is still the tortured loner, but he is tortured in a more “Hollywood” way.
But something else happened, and when you look at it in the larger cultural context it actually becomes a hilariously unintentional jab at how America largely continues to fail to understand their failure in the Vietnam conflict.
Let’s rewind a bit. The Vietnam war is still regarded as one of the darkest hours of American history, arguably their first crushing, public defeat. The lives of countless American Marines were lost to Viet Cong attacks (to say nothing of the atrocities heaped upon the people of Vietnam) and those who came back usually returned with lasting psychological trauma. What changed to make this such a crushing disaster?
Well, a lot. There are many factors that lead to the defeat of the U.S, but the one often brought up is the Viet Cong’s skill at guerrilla tactics, something the US was unprepared for. The Viet Cong, though vastly outnumbered by the US, used the environment to their advantage, using ambushes, sabotage and other similar tactics to best the Marines who were largely still using conventional warfare tactics.
The premise of First Blood is that the protagonist, John Rambo, was part of a unit trained to counter this and use the tactics of the Viet Cong against them. Obviously, the formation of this unit did not help turn the tide of the war in favor of the US, though it would be no stretch at all to say that if the training and tactics of Rambo and others in his unit were more widespread, the war might have gone differently.
Flash forward to the post-war days and Rambo is a drifter, and after entering a small middle-America town, he is arrested for vagrancy
by the sheriff. After suffering abuse of the sheriff and his deputies, Rambo “snaps”, attacking them and retreating into the nearby woods. He is pursued, but uses his training to outwit (though surprisingly without killing) them, essentially putting the sheriff and his deputies into the same situation felt by the U.S Marines. They are continually trounced by an opponent who is able to use the terrain to his advantage.
At the end of the film, Rambo’s former Commanding Officer is brought in, and after a confrontation Rambo breaks down before him, weeping and begging to be put out of his misery, and freed from this world that hates and shuns him. The CO refuses, and Rambo is taken in and arrested, ending the film on a somber note.
If you’ve never seen a Rambo film, and are only familiar with the franchise through its presence in pop culture, or through the later films, this may come as a serious surprise to you. Rambo is often seen in pop culture iconography as a paragon of force and masculinity, a walking army capable of destroying whatever stands in his way.
That he began as a sneaky guerrilla fighter comes as a shock to many who never saw First Blood. But even more surprising is the tone of the film. As I said earlier, this is a staunchly anti-war film, and its protagonist is no hero. He is a thoroughly broken human being, reduced to a tool by the American military machine. He was stripped of his humanity, and was never truly able to retrieve it.
Not helping the situation was the treatment often heaped upon Vietnam veterans by many U.S citizens, something Rambo himself decries later in the film. “And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me? Who are they? Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about!”
But what about that twist I promised? Well, unfortunately I’ve run out of space. And given that next week will be my tenth column for ForgetTheBox.net, I see no reason not to make this a special edition two-parter. So come back next week, readers, as I continue to explore the often-overlooked Rambo franchise and its larger cultural context and significance.