(Editor's Note: The following article about the Rambo series contains spoilers.)
Twenty years after he last sprayed bullets across America's movie screens, John Rambo has returned in Rambo, a 93-minute feature in which Sylvester Stallone's bulky soldier wields a bow, a machine gun, and his muscle-bound, 215-pound body against another army of foreign villains. If you're rolling your eyes, you're not alone: According to Rotten Tomatoes, just 38 percent of the new film's reviews have been favorable, with its critics deploying such phrases as "torture porn," "jingoistic imperialism," and "the Schindler's List of B-list butchery."
For the most part I'll have to join in the jeers. This is basically a paint-by-numbers action picture that has almost as little to say as its laconic protagonist. But I can't dismiss the Rambo franchise entirely, and even this entry shows a brief glimmer of something thoughtful beneath the monosyllabic grunts and the CGI gore.
There are three things people forget about the Rambo series. One is the original book. Before there were any Rambo movies, there was a novel called First Blood, written by a young John Barth scholar named David Morrell and published in 1972. It's about a Green Beret called Rambo—the name was inspired partly by Rambo apples and partly by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud—who has come home from Vietnam and is tramping across America. It's also about a sheriff named Will Teasle, who doesn't want the long-haired, unshaven kid bringing trouble to his corner of Kentucky. Their conflict builds until it engulfs the entire town, with countless meaningless deaths. The book is told alternately from both characters' point of view, switching back and forth until their identities essentially merge. In the end they both die.
It isn't immortal literature, but it's an intelligent thriller. It was even occasionally assigned as classroom reading, though "by the mid-eighties," Morrell later wrote, "the controversy generated by the films had caused teachers to shy away from the book." Morrell's Rambo is more loquacious than Stallone's. He is also more of a cold-blooded killer, picking off policemen who pose no real threat and enjoying the thrill of battle. He's one of the first manifestations of what would become a pop-culture archetype: the deeply damaged Vietnam veteran who can't adjust to the home front and snaps. In real life, Americans who survived that war have been more likely to be married, college-educated, and gainfully employed than other members of their generation. But in the media, they were often portrayed as time bombs waiting to explode.
You can't blame Morrell for that. His Rambo is a well-rounded character with his own motives for what he does, not a cookie-cutter copy of a movie cliché. Morrell meant his story as a metaphor for the culture war breaking out at home while another war raged in Southeast Asia. "The final confrontation between Rambo and Teasle," he wrote, "would show that in this microcosmic version of the Vietnam War and American attitudes about it, escalating force results in disaster. Nobody wins."
When First Blood became a movie in 1982, both the story and the metaphor changed. Rambo became more sympathetic: He kills only once in the film, a slaying that is both accidental and in self-defense. Teasle, in turn, grew less appealing: Brian Dennehy's textured performance keeps him from being entirely one-dimensional, but he's still a redneck sheriff pointlessly persecuting a war hero. His officers mistreat the man in jail, and the film compares their abuses directly to the torture the soldier received as a prisoner of war. It's clear that Rambo is a little crazy—by the end of the movie, he's more than a little crazy—but it's also clear that the viewers are supposed to root for him. "My intent was to transpose the Vietnam war to America," Morrell complained. "In contrast, the film's intent was to make the audience cheer for the underdog."
But there was more to the movie than that. That's the second thing people forget about the Rambo series: The first installment is explicitly anti-war and surprisingly radical.
The film opens with Rambo learning that one of his war buddies has died of exposure to Agent Orange. Right after that, when the sheriff starts to harass the soldier, Teasle tells him that "wearing that flag on that jacket, and looking the way you do, you're asking for trouble around here." The reference to the flag seems to signify an intolerance toward veterans, but the second clause implies that Teasle doesn't like Rambo because of his appearance—i.e., because he looks like a hippie drifter. When the sheriff's men finally find out that Rambo is a Green Beret who served in Vietnam, one of them exclaims, "Jesus! That freak?"
This identification of Rambo with the counterculture is a residue of Morrell's novel, which was partly inspired by a news report. "In a southwestern American town," Morrell writes, "a group of hitchhiking hippies had been picked up by the local police, stripped, hosed, and shaved—not just their beards but their hair. The hippies had then been given back their clothes and driven to a desert road, where they were abandoned to walk to the next town, thirty miles away....I wondered what Rambo's reaction would be if, after risking his life in the service of his country, he were subjected to the insults that those hippies had received."
The most jarring thing about the movie's politics comes later. Everyone remembers Rambo's much-quoted soliloquy at the end of the film, the one where he complains about "maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting on me, calling me a baby-killer." What isn't quoted as often is a conversation between Teasle and Col. Trautman, the Special Forces officer who trained Rambo. Trautman, played by Richard Crenna, describes his student's immense skills as a fighter, and he suggests the police should defuse the situation by letting Rambo escape, waiting a few days, then putting out a nationwide APB and picking him up later. Teasle refuses.
Trautman: You want a war you can't win?
Teasle: Are you telling me that 200 men against your boy is a no-win situation for us?
Trautman: You send that many, don't forget one thing.
Trautman: Plenty of body bags.
A small but committed guerilla force humiliating a larger power that doesn't comprehend the fight it's in—the comparison to Vietnam is obvious. It's also a little discomfiting, because it puts Rambo in the role of the Viet Cong. Morrell was wrong: The movie did transpose the Vietnam war to America. It just did it in a radically different way than the book did, and with radically different implications. It asks the audience to cheer for a guerilla hero.
This was surprisingly common in the allegedly right-wing cult movies of the '80s. Consider John Milius' Red Dawn (1984), in which a small group of Colorado high school jocks battle a Soviet occupation. The film outraged liberal critics, but further to the left it had some supporters. In a witty and perceptive piece for The Nation, Andrew Kopkind called it "the most convincing story about popular resistance to imperial oppression since the inimitable Battle of Algiers," adding that he'd "take the Wolverines from Colorado over a small circle of friends from Harvard Square in any revolutionary situation I can imagine." The one sympathetic character among the occupying forces is a Cuban colonel with a background in guerilla warfare. At one point he tells a Russian officer, voice dripping with disgust, that he used to be an insurgent but now is "just like you—a policeman." Increasingly sympathetic to the Coloradoan rebels, at a key moment the Cuban allows two of them to escape.
First Blood drew from the same water, and from several other genres as well: the redneck movie, the revenge movie, the war film, the western. One sequence, when the sheriff's men track the fugitive soldier through the woods only to discover that he's hunting them rather than the other way around, feels like a slasher flick, with Rambo in the Jason/Freddy/Michael Myers role. The difference—and it's a substantial one—is that unlike the villains of Friday the 13th and Halloween, Rambo has the audience's sympathy. In that, he's more like the monster in Universal's old Frankenstein series. Frankenstein was, in fact, one of the inspirations for the script: According to the feminist writer Susan Faludi, who interviewed several people involved in the Rambo sequence for her 1999 book Stiffed, Stallone "envisioned the drama 'like the Frankenstein monster and the creator,' a creator who 'understood what he made' and 'felt guilty' for it." (Stallone's role in creating the Hollywood Rambo cannot be underestimated. He co-wrote all four films and directed at least one, perhaps two of them—George P. Cosmatos, credited as director of First Blood Part 2, was reportedly a figurehead.)