First Blood follows John Rambo, a former soldier in Vietnam who is now a drifter in search of one of his old army pals. The people of a small village don’t take kindly to Rambo, however, as the local police arrest and harass him. The thus far docile Rambo decides that enough is enough and uses his special forces training to escape the cells and flee to the woods, where he wages war on the entire police force.
It appears to be anti-war primarily because the character of Rambo has been ruined by Vietnam. His friends are dead, and he’s constantly reminded of the trauma he faced. It’s agnostic to the rights or wrongs of the Vietnam war, and is a more personal tale of the effect it has on a simple soldier who believed what he did was right, whether or not the conflict was. It tells the tale of a man who is shunned and branded an outcast by the very people he believed he was fighting for, and shows the difficulty of dealing with the trauma of war with no support. Rambo resorts to violence only after he is extensively harassed, and doesn’t appear to relish the concept. Violence in First Blood appear to be an evil.
While Rambo is often considered one of the greatest action heroes, First Blood is also a very sensitive look at a character and at the effects of war. It’s violent, and there’s certainly the enjoyment in watching violence that’s typical of action films, but it also doesn’t glorify it and is primarily character driven. Rambo’s emotional breakdown in the final act is particularly poignant, and a rare occurrence in the action genre.
This is why I always assumed its sequels completely missed the point of the original. The sequels are straight up action films. Rambo goes to a foreign country and shoots non-white people for a couple of hours. The Rambo of First Blood, with a code of honour and a sense of duty, would be at odds with the gun-for-hire he’s become by 2008’s Rambo, where he dispenses waves of people, shooting them until the flesh flies off their bones, for ninety minutes with little plot or point. It seemed Stallone had completely missed the point of his fantastic original film and butchered the character as his character butchers his enemies.
But maybe he didn’t, maybe I just missed the point of the original. Maybe it’s not against war and violence, only the response of America to Vietnam veterans. It may be a kind of revenge film: the police attack Rambo so he attacks them. Or it may be a warning: treat veterans this way and you might get what’s coming to you. Or it might simply be trying to show the position Rambo is forced into. Either way, this doesn’t have the same rigorous anti-war message, and would be consistent with subsequent films.
If Rambo is only traumatised through his violent urges being deprived of an outlet then he isn’t the broken soul he appears to be. He may actually just be a person for whom war has become a way of life, in which case it seems perfectly reasonable that he would return to this situation later in life. The trauma Rambo seems to have experienced in First Blood would seem to be a deterrent for him returning to conflict, as he does in the sequels, but if First Blood wasn’t saying war is generally bad, only America’s response to it, this problem goes away.
If First Blood is purely critical of Americans who were not supportive of troops, particularly those who served in Vietnam, this seems to be less politically appealing (for me, anyway). Certainly people who unduly harass someone are worthy of criticism, but so are those who go to foreign countries and shred the locals with a machine gun. Just watch Apocalypse Now! to get a sense of Rambo’s victims in war. If the only purpose of First Blood is to say “look at this hero who fought for you and how you’re treating him” it seems to be less interesting than if it were to say “look how war has destroyed this man’s life”, in which case this might also extend to the Vietnamese victims of the US invasion.
Is Rambo anti war? Comment below.