The Ghost of Rambo

The vigilante soldier is back in theaters, dragging decades of cultural baggage with him.


(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.
Teasle: What?
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.)

First Blood ends with a confrontation between Rambo, the sympathetic monster, and Col. Trautman, his creator. As originally shot, it concluded with Stallone's character committing suicide, but test audiences hated to see their hero die. So the filmmakers changed the ending. The veteran was sent to prison instead, and a series of sequels became possible.

Like the monster emerging from the pit beneath the burning mill at the beginning of Bride of Frankenstein, 1985's Rambo: First Blood Part 2 starts with the title character being freed from a prison "hell-hole." Dangling the possibility of a pardon, Trautman asks if Rambo is willing to go on a covert reconnaissance mission to find MIAs in communist Vietnam. Rambo accepts with just one question: "Do we get to win this time?"

So begins the movie everyone remembers; or, rather, the movie everyone thinks they remember. If Stallone's speech about the mistreated vet serves as a screen memory that conceals the more radical implications of the first Rambo picture, then the hype and hysteria around the follow-up film has done something similar for First Blood Part 2. Yes, it's an ultraviolent story about a supersoldier refighting the Vietnam war. Yes, it implies that we could have won Vietnam the first time around if our hands hadn't been tied by liberals back home. Yes, Ronald Reagan co-opted it, joking at the end of one hostage crisis that "After seeing Rambo last night, I know what to do the next time this happens." The word "Rambo" entered the language, in phrases like "Rambo foreign policy." Some veterans picketed the picture. One vet—Gustav Hasford, author of the book that became Full Metal Jacketcalled it "Triumph of the Will for American Nazis."

All of which makes it easy to forget that this movie is as cynical about the government as any 1970s conspiracy thriller. Indeed, the POW/MIA rescue genre evolved directly from those post-Watergate pictures. The transition film was Ted Post's Good Guys Wear Black (1978), which begins by sending Chuck Norris on an ill-fated effort to free some prisoners of war; the rest of the picture is a poor man's Parallax View, with Norris and Anne Archer tracking down the conspiracy that sabotaged the mission. In First Blood Part 2, likewise, we learn that Rambo was never supposed to find any prisoners; he rescues them only by ditching the authorities' plan and setting off on his own. (I haven't read Morrell's novelization of the film, but it apparently includes a scene in which Rambo chuckles darkly as he informs the disbelieving POWs that Ronald Reagan has become president. He "couldn't bring himself to tell them that Vietnam was about to change its name to Nicaragua.") In the movie's climax, Rambo returns to the computerized command center and pumps pounds of ammo into its alienating array of machinery. It's a violent, cathartic revision of an old '60s slogan. I am a soldier. Do not fold, bend, spindle, or mutilate me.

Like the previous picture in the series, First Blood Part 2 owed a lot to the western. But where the first film resembles those existential stories where a stranger enters a corrupt frontier town, Part 2 is about a cowboy who rides deep into the wilderness to save white captives from savage Indians. Complicating the racial dynamics, Rambo is now a identified as a halfbreed, part civilized and part wild: We learn that he's half Native American himself (his other half—paging Gustav Hasford!—is German), and he has a brief affair with a Vietnamese woman. But you can still trace the core plot to the Indian captivity narratives that first flourished in 17th-century New England, and which have manifested themselves in the American imagination countless times since then.

The movie may have had a more recent antecedent as well. In the late 1970s, a self-promoting soldier named Bo Gritz staged several unsuccessful efforts to rescue American POWs from Vietnam. It is often claimed that Gritz's exploits helped inspire First Blood Part 2. Whether or not that's true, the movie certainly had an impact on Gritz, who started to bill himself as the "real-life Rambo" after the film became a hit. If you take that literally, you can chart two illuminating courses from the movie.

First we have Hollywood Rambo. He appears in another picture, 1988's Rambo III, in which he fights alongside the mujahadeen in Afghanistan. It's another bringing-Vietnam-home film, but this time Stallone is bringing it home to the Soviets. (In this one Col. Trautman—the same man who warned Sheriff Teasle about those body bags—informs the Russians, "This war is your Vietnam, man. You can't win!") Hollywood Rambo also gets his own TV cartoon (Rambo: The Force of Freedom) in which he works for a military peacekeeping unit and battles a global brotherhood called S.A.V.A.G.E. There are Rambo video games, Rambo action figures. This is the Rambo of the "Rambo foreign policy," the Rambo of popular memory; it is invoked by both the fans and the foes of Reagan's bombing raid over Libya and Oliver North's illicit efforts to aid the Nicaraguan contras.

And then there is Real-Life Rambo. In the late '80s Gritz continued to build on that suspicious post-Watergate mood, accusing the intelligence community of connections to the drug trade and speaking to audiences of both the radical left and the radical right. In 1992 he ran for president, drawing support from what would soon be known as the militia movement. His core constituency was a bunch of angry patriots, many of them veterans, who said they loved their country but feared their government. Later in the '90s, their rallying cry would be the confrontation between the Branch Davidians and federal police at Waco, a conflict that was retold in two very different ways. (*) For the authorities and most of the media, it was another version of the captivity narrative, with the ATF and FBI unsuccessfully attempting to rescue children from a sexually depraved death cult. In the alternative story, the police were the villains and the confrontation was a massacre, part My Lai and part Wounded Knee.

Which of those two Rambos prevailed? When the Cold War ended, Sylvester Stallone's movies lost their hold on the culture and decayed into '80s kitsch. But that distrust of the government didn't disappear; if anything, it intensified and crossed what used to be sharp ideological lines. (In the early '90s, it wasn't that unusual to hear left-wing radicals pondering the possibility of a POW coverup—or right-wing radicals touting the powers of hemp.) Since 2001, the balance has tipped back and forth. When the wounds of 9/11 were fresh, the outrage of the heartland populists turned outwards again; since then, the failures of the Iraqi occupation have driven many of them back to an anti-government stance.

And now we have a new Rambo movie, giving Stallone another chance to reflect some segment of that constantly shifting Zeitgeist. An early version of the script pitted his alter ego against a right-wing American paramilitary group—sort of a Rambo vs. Rambo scenario. But the finished product takes us back to Southeast Asia instead.

The fourth film in the Frankenstein series was called The Ghost of Frankenstein. The fourth film in the Rambo franchise is ghostly as well: After an absence of two decades, both the series and its protagonist feel a little undead. When we return to Stallone's character, he is a numb man hunting snakes for a living in Thailand. Vietnam is deep in his past, and the country's fresher wounds don't seem to have touched him—the word "Iraq" appears nowhere in the movie, and neither do "Al Qaeda," "Islam," "9/11," or "bin Laden." The writer/director/actor told Ain't It Cool News that he did this because "the idea of Rambo dealing with Al-Qaeda, etc. would be an insult to our American forces that are actually dying trying to rid the world of this cancer. To have at the end of a 90 minute movie the character of Rambo seizing Osama bin Laden in a choke hold then dragging him into the Oval Office then tossing him in the President's lap declaring 'The world is now safe, Chief' would be a bit insulting." I don't doubt Stallone's sincerity, though World War II-era GIs didn't seem to mind the fact that Superman, Captain America, and the rest were fighting alongside them in the comic books. Personally, I wouldn't have minded seeing some of the Afghan heroes of Rambo III return as villains in Rambo IV, but that might push the franchise into areas that Stallone would rather leave alone.

Instead the action takes place in Burma, where brutal government soldiers have seized a group of missionaries tending to Christian villagers. Rambo sets out to rescue them, arriving just in time to save a young woman—the closest we have to a female lead—from a rape.

In other words, Stallone has returned to the classic Indian captivity narrative. Here's how the historian Richard Slotkin described the archetypal captivity story in his 1973 book Regeneration Through Violence:

a single individual, usually a woman, stands passively under the strokes of evil, awaiting rescue by the grace of God….In the Indian's devilish clutches, the captive had to meet and reject the temptation of Indian marriage and/or the Indian's "cannibal" Eucharist. To partake of the Indian's love or his equivalent of bread and wine was to debase, to un-English the very soul.

That story has appeared in hundreds of guises in the last three centuries. There are movies that intelligently explore the racial and sexual anxieties that underlie the tale. The most famous is John Ford's 1956 film The Searchers, in which the captive woman does not want to leave the Indian community; her would-be rescuer, a complex antihero played by John Wayne, would rather kill her than watch her become an Indian. The new Rambo, by contrast, merely adopts those old anxieties as its own. The lady prisoner is almost comically pure, kind, white, and blonde, while every Asian character except one—a thoroughly westernized mercenary who was obviously raised in the United States—is either a victim or a savage. In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, Slotkin writes, when the original Indian captivity narratives enjoyed their peak of popularity, "It almost seems as if the only experience of intimacy with the Indians that New England readers would accept was the experience of the captive (and possibly that of the missionary)." Rambo gives us both, and little more. It doesn't seem to have anything to say about the country's scars, in Vietnam or in the Middle East. Or rather, it doesn't until the final scene, when Stallone does something unexpected.

The Searchers concludes with John Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, turning his back on home and hearth and walking into the western landscape, unable to join the civilized world. Stallone's movie inverts that: Rambo returns to civilization, hiking down an Arizona road toward the house where he grew up. In real life, the actor has endorsed the only POW in the presidential race, pro-war Arizona Sen. John McCain. His movie, though, ends on a much less belligerent note. As Rambo strides down a driveway to his family homestead, the film finally says something that resonates in the era of occupation and empire.

Come back from that violent foreign wilderness, it says. Come home.


* This sentence has been rewritten to avoid giving the impression that the Waco confrontation preceded the Gritz campaign.