First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)

by Douglas Buck November 22, 2019 7 minutes (1715 words) 4K Restoration J.A. de Sève Cinema, Fantasia Film Festival

“Are you telling me that two hundred men against your boy is a no-win situation for us?”
“You send that many, don’t forget one thing.”
“What!?”
“A good supply of body bags.”

-crowd-pleasing convo between the irascible Sheriff Teasle and Rambo’s own Doctor Frankenstein, Colonel Trautman

(As if anyone needs this summary…) Drifter John Rambo (or just ‘Rambo’ if you prefer the original David Morrell source novel), played by Sylvester (‘Sly’ to me and his other buddies) Stallone, just back from Vietnam, gets into it with the puff-chested small town Teasle (Brian Dennehy) who keeps pushing the stubbornly resistant long-hair to ‘just move along’… not realizing he’s poking a bear; a clandestine special units fighter that he, his fellow officers and the entire town will rue they ever fucked with.

Along with being a first-rate action film, First Blood is really fascinating as a philosophical – and aesthetic — bridge between the fatalistic, anti-authority cynicism of 70’s auteur cinema and the soon to be exploding muscular (and I mean that literally – just look at Sly…Just look at him!), weapons-fetishizing, reactionary action movies of the decade that followed (that include those kick-ass, audience cheering lines like the Trautman one above).

Sly

I mean… Teasle and his weasels may not be psychopathic super-villains (well, other than a few apples in there), but it’s their general small-minded intolerance and aggressive attitude (gee, who would think cops could be like that) that leads to them being demarcated as the fucking bad guys in First Blood… Sly’s Rambo might be being a bit bull-headed by continuing to turn back to the direction of town after the increasingly annoyed Weasel keeps driving him out, I don’t think most anyone (at least the men amongst us, and, to be clear, this is a film catering in that gender direction) would blame him for having had enough, after coming back from ‘Nam, traumatized to learn another fighting comrade came back as well… only for the war to have killed him anyway (in another example of the exceptionally keen commercial instincts all over the adaption from book to film, with a prologue added of Rambo discovering one of his fighting buddies has died, ravaged by cancer from the effects of the highly toxic – and real — Agent Orange used by the US military)

Of course, after First Blood, the machismo dicks started swinging far more wildly (including in the Rambo sequels themselves, such as that very awkwardly titled First Blood Part II), with Rambo’s further 80’s adventures taking him into far-flung countries to preserve freedom through massive fire-power, becoming a hero of conservative war mongers everywhere, referenced by none other than Ronald Reagan, that US Pres who always managed to whet the feverish whistles of ecstatic neocons with his rhetoric (if not always his foreign policies – fuck, looking back, he was a literal flower child in comparison against the damage wrought by later war criminals like W. Bush and that messenger of ‘hope’ himself, Barack Obama).

The first Rambo film isn’t that. It’s an exciting action movie, of course, with some spellbinding stunts (the great leap off the cliff being perhaps the most memorable, which led to Sly carrying a broken rib around with him for almost the entirety of the production), wild chases, both through the streets (via police cars and motorcycle) and the jungle (allowing Rambo to pull out all the violent stops in the environment he learned to be the ultimate killing and survival machine in) and lots of shit getting blown up (sometimes in impressive slow motion), with the perfect cast telling an American story, yes, but it’s also a profound allegory of a faceless war machine, one with motives never explained, using up soldiers, traumatizing them, physically and mentally, then tossing them willy-nilly back into an uncaring society to either wither and die from some ghastly toxin they never even knew they were being exposed to, or, like the metaphorical Frankenstein’s monster many had become, fracture into pieces, able to express their unspoken suffering only through violence and rage as they disintegrate.

First Blood is (along with Rocky, naturally), one of Sly’s crowning achievements, a perfect merging both artistically and commercially, even if I find his delivery in his impassioned tortured monologue at the end (one already flawed in the writing by its continued propagating of right wing misinformation that never happened, yet stubbornly remains in the American consciousness as if truth, namely, that hippies and peaceniks spat in disgust on returning Vietnam vets as ‘baby killers’) as just good enough, passable; wrought with too much hysteria, revealing Stallone as not having the carefully cultivated skills of an actor able to balance the sense of composure required when playing emotional madness (but have no fear, Richard Crenna as Trautman, the army man who helped create the monster, is there to balance out the scene, amazingly having arrived on set just a day after finding out he had the part, having replaced Kirk Douglas).

Richard Crenna

As part of revisiting First Blood (at a mind-blowingly gorgeous looking 4K restoration screening), I decided to pick up the original David Morrell book and take a peek at Rambo’s origins (something I now plan on doing for the two follow-up First Blood sequels which each have an associated Morrell adaption, which, in each case, were apparently based on the original scripts far different – and apparently more interestingly complex — than the resulting rabidly reactionary, testosterone driven films shot).

Having heard director Kotcheff, one of those prolific and yet criminally underrated journeyman directors who never gets his proper due, likely because his massively successful commercial films (like Weekend and Bernie’s and First Blood) and many artistic successes (like The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Wake in Fright are not all part of a specific genre or obvious thematic or aesthetic concern that would tie him into being an ‘auteur’, talk often about his Rambo star’s uncanny commercial instincts, and I can only surmise a lot of these kinds of changes from book to film were from Stallone.

Along with the aforementioned addition of the film’s poignant opening that immediately has us sympathizing with a humanized Rambo, as well as the addition of a first name ‘John’, the film toned down Rambo’s initial aggressiveness in his opening confrontation with Teasle. While it’s clear in both that Rambo has had enough of being pushed around by bullying small town prejudices, Rambo’s inner monologue in the novel has him admitting to himself he was looking for a fight; to get back to the comfort of the violent place he now understands best. Meanwhile, the film has Rambo ask the Sheriff ‘Why are you doing this to me?’, designed to soften Rambo’s responsibility for the carnage to soon follow from their confrontation.

The book has an interesting structure of sharing almost equal time between Teasle and Rambo, constructing them as soldiers from two different wars (Teasle a Korean War vet, Rambo a Vietnam vet), each equally bull-headed and militant, yet also recognizing the flaws that ultimately lead to their mutual destruction (while trying to refrain from going ‘full spoiler’, let’s just say Rambo’s fate in the book is quite a bit more final than in the film). Along with his diminished shared narrative time, Teasle’s military record is almost entirely removed in the film, making it really about (the much more commercially timely) plight of the unfairly put-upon Vietnam vet, as well as centering it much more allegorically around war’s creation of monsters through Rambo.

While most of the differences impressively raise the Rambo films commercial potential, they’re also perfectly justifiable artistic choices. In reading the book for the first time, the one revision I question is the one that the film has been oft-celebrated for. For all the violent carnage Rambo unleashes on screen, there are few actual deaths; only one man – an officer who is stamped as being particularly cruel and sadistic – dies… and his death is vaguely accidental and we see causes Rambo profound regret and pain.

The book, on the other hand, spares no quarter in the violence department. Morrell’s Rambo operates as a death dispenser, killing swiftly, without thought. While, of course, having Rambo slice open and disembowel a dopy officer at the station, and pick off his pursuers after him one by one, by gunshot and by slicing blade, would almost assuredly have made him less of an audience identification figure (and likely watered down its massive commercial appeal)… it had me considering if this approach wouldn’t also have made it even a more powerful, unrelenting experience… and perhaps more uncompromisingly honest. Imagine the film being directed by William Friedkin, for instance, channelling the sheer existential madness of his 1977 Sorcerer (a film, no surprise, that was a huge box office flop, but yet has been correctly recognized over time as an undisputed masterpiece — but I’ll eventually get to writing my thoughts on that brilliant Sisyphean allegory, one of these days).

That isn’t to minimize the terrific job director Kotcheff did, at all, but more reveals the rich material resting on a simple kinetic story that is the Rambo source novel (the kinda thing that makes terrific cinema).

The shared emotional connection between Trautman and Rambo is also a creation of the film. In the novel, Rambo only recognizes Trautman as one of the commanding voices that boomed endlessly over the bullhorn back in his days of relentless and savage training, as he learned to kill and survive.

Master composer Jerry Goldsmith’s score works perfectly for the film, both in creating the sense of a larger canvas being presented on war, as well as helping build the emotional connections the film vies for.

First Blood remains, over 35 years later, a great film, masterfully straddling the line between artistic and commercial. It’s the kind of film that speaks to the masses, yet has heart and soul, and important things on its mind. Now let’s see what those Ronald Reagan favorite sequels (the first two, anyway) look like today (including the Morrell adaptions). They weren’t so good when I originally saw them, but… who knows.

First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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