As the body count mounts up and credibility is stretched to breaking point in the Rambo sequels it is easy to forget what a gritty, down to earth movie First Blood is. Little of the silliness inherent in the later movies is on show in Sylvester Stallone’s first outing as special ops veteran John Rambo. Instead we get a brutal and visceral movie with a sympathetic lead character who could just about exist in the world we recognise.
Rambo as played by Stallone isn’t a typical action hero. When we first meet him it doesn’t take us too long to realise that all is not well in his world. He seems lost, alone and is clearly suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Now it isn’t unusual to find an action hero suffering in this fashion at the start of a movie. For another example take Martin Riggs as played by Mel Gibson in the first of the Lethal Weapon franchise. There we see him mourning the death of his wife, broken, alone and on the verge of suicide. Over the course of the movie we see him find solace as he helps defeat the bad guys and then get accepted into the family of his new partner Murtaugh. It’s a terrific film, but it follows a fairly standard action formula. With First Blood we get something very different. Rambo isn’t given some sort of grand quest to triumph over, which will see him come out the other side a winner. The battle he faces here against the local law enforcement is partly of his own making as he artificially creates a situation where he can once again feel at home. There is no great triumph at the end and there is even something slightly pathetic as the fighting stops and neither side is left satisfied despite the carnage caused. In Lethal Weapon Riggs begins broken and ends fixed. That’s the way these movies usually work. Here Rambo begins broken and ends the movie even more so and that’s an incredibly brave filmmaking choice.
There is little doubt though that while Rambo may not be typical of the type of action hero we are used to, we are still supposed to identify him as the hero. When Colonel Trautman states that Rambo did everything he could to ensure the battle happened he is of course right. Our hero is a soldier in a world that doesn’t need him anymore so he jumps at the possibility to return to a situation and a world he understands. Every action he takes, from the decision to walk back towards town when the Sheriff tries to drive him away escalates the situation and puts fuel on the fire. Where the film succeeds is in making Rambo’s motivation for his actions believable. When he is ill treated by the Sheriff’s deputies and we see the flashbacks of his previous great battle we know that this isn’t a man just looking for trouble, but someone who has suffered great trauma and is paying the mental price for it. Of course it does no harm that the local wardens are so unpleasant and unlikeable. Jack Starrett as Galt is one of the nastiest pieces of work you’ll see on camera and helps the audience to identify exactly whose side we should be on. At times he can almost come across as a little too sadistic to be believable, but it feels necessary for the development of the plot. When he ultimately falls to his death from the police helicopter it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for such a brutal character. Rambo doesn’t kill him deliberately. He throws a rock up at the chopper after Galt, ignoring the orders of his Sheriff continues to shoot at him and as the vehicle spins he is thrown out to his death. It’s the only definite death in the film and an important one. Rambo tries to give himself up here, unwilling for anyone else to die, but his chasers are unwilling to listen to his pleas that it was an accident. As far as they are concerned he has killed one of their own and in continuing their manhunt they provoke their prey into full special ops mode. The film needs that death, that reason to tip both sides into a feeling that there is only one possible ultimate ending. It seems remarkable that there is only one death given the ever-mounting death tolls in the sequels, but here it is absolutely right. While Rambo can later gun down any number of sadistic Russians and still remain the hero of the piece here the balance is much more delicate. Yes the pursuing law enforcement are painted pretty unsympathetically, but it would still make for a different film if they were treated in that same fashion. Instead Rambo uses all his skills as a soldier to disable his enemy, and they certainly suffer some horrific injuries in the process, but when he tells Teasle that he could have killed them all you are left in no doubt that he is right. Not doing so ensures that he remains a character the audience can sympathise with.
In fact it’s hard not to sympathise with all the cast in those grim battle scenes in the forest. Violent they may be, but they are certainly not glorified. There is something visceral about the scenes and while Rambo may be in control over the out of their depth lawmen he is far from invulnerable. We see him cut, bruised and exhausted in a way that again plays against the typical action hero trope of the all-conquering super human. It’s a technique that would be brilliantly used later when Bruce Willis took on the role of John McClane in the first Die Hard movie. It keeps the character more recognisably from our world and makes the carnage that surrounds him seem all the more real and horrific as a result. An effect further added to by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which fits the action perfectly to a point where I imagine if I watched it with the sound muted I would still have it going in my head as I watched Rambo sprinting through the trees.
Fortunately Stallone’s Rambo is surrounded by other excellent performances, most notably by Brian Dennehy. There is something incredibly real about the way the Sheriff becomes almost fanatical in his desire to catch and kill Rambo to the detriment of all reason and common sense. There is a look of almost schoolboy guilt when the treatment Rambo had been subjected to at the jail is revealed, but it is a rare moment of doubt in his quest as he quickly recovers himself. Whether even he believes himself when he states Rambo should have come to him if he had been ill-treated rather than waging all out war is irrelevant. He has come too far to have doubts about the righteousness of his quest and can’t allow himself to feel sympathy for Rambo. He is Captain Ahab hunting Moby Dick and it’s an excellent portrayal. He is ultimately the villain of the piece, as he sits with Trautman under the impression Rambo is dead and speaks about his dissatisfaction that he didn’t pull the trigger himself, but he is a very human villain as opposed to the more extreme Galt.
So onto Richard Crenna as Trautman. His characterisation suffers most from the sequels and ultimately his decision to brilliantly spoof his own part in Hot Shots! Part Deux. Here his screen time is limited, but effective. He has an enigmatic quality and there is a clear sense throughout that he knows more than he is willing to make explicit. There’s also a duplicity about him. When the Sheriff asks what he would do if he saw Rambo, give him a great big hug or put a bullet in his head, he replies that he won’t know until he sees him and you believe him. In his returns the Trautman character would become more of a feature, a partner for Rambo and unfortunately what works well here in short moments on screen comes across as a bit silly given more focus and with the change in tone of those movies. There is little room for being enigmatic in a film with the lack of subtlety of Rambo 3.
He does of course share one of the stand out scenes of the movie as the General talks Rambo down from killing the Sheriff. Up to this point Stallone has put in an almost entirely physical performance. Here he creates some emotional weight as he breaks down in first anger and then sorrow. The scene is very effective and Stallone’s performance though not pitch perfect sells it well. While we have seen Rambo vulnerable before it has usually been with the knowledge that his skills still give him the upper hand. Here he falls apart and after seeing his near silent, focused and professional attitude to fighting back against his enemy to see him so emotionally broken is incredibly effecting. Fortunately Stallone gives it his all. The lines about not being able to find his colleagues legs could be very silly. There’s a darkly comic edge to the end of his traumatic speech, but the performance keeps it just the right side of credibility. It also manages to feel consistent with the character we have seen in the rest of the movie. This is the extreme broken version compared to the cold, calculated professional soldier we see at other times, but we have learnt enough about the character and his experiences for it to feel like two sides of the same person. In fact Rambo’s characterisation remains mostly solid throughout. Only once does he noticeably drop out of character when hijacking an army truck. He has the driver at gunpoint who then looks down at the gun, Rambo responds “Hey keep your eyes on the road. That’s how accidents happen.” It’s a funny line but feels tonally out of place given what we have seen before. In the sequels this kind of thing would happen more and more, most notably in Rambo 3 when he and Trautman are stuck in a trench being approached by seemingly the entire Russian army and when asked what to do replies “Well surrounding them is out.” It’s a line I love for its sheer ridiculousness and in a film that is mostly ludicrous doesn’t look quite so out of place. Here it’s a rare misstep in a film that takes its simple plot and with solid direction and performances raises itself to be a different and very successful take on the action genre.