How ‘Rambo’ Went From an Anti-War Book to This Current Movie Mess
‘Rambo: Last Blood’ is the fifth film in a series that even the character’s creator is now embarrassed by
The Rambo franchise has long been synonymous with gratuitous violence and spectacular explosions. On that score, Rambo: Last Blood, the latest film in the series, delivers.
Last Blood revels in all the machismo and racism that have become the series’ signature. A standard-issue, fiendish Mexican gang kidnaps an innocent, young girl for the express purpose of providing the aging hero, played by Sylvester Stallone, a pretext for righteous, hyperbolic carnage. (Oh, right: Here’s a warning that there are spoilers ahead.) In the movie’s climax, Rambo shoots, stabs, and explodes his way through truckloads of interchangeable, evil brown people before pinning the main villain to the wall with arrows and literally cutting out his still-beating heart. The small audience at the opening-night show I attended cheered and laughed in disbelief — just as the filmmakers no doubt intended.
Rambo may now mean gore and giggling, but the original source material was very different. David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood was meant as a cautionary tale. His original intention was to write a book “that shoved the brutality of the war right under our noses,” as he said in First Blood’s introduction. The novel was supposed to force Americans, safe at home, to grapple with the horror of the conflict their country was perpetrating overseas. John Rambo, Green Beret veteran and drifter, embodied American violence brought home to small-town U.S.A. War, for Morrell, was a threat and a nightmare; it’s something you want to escape.
In 1982, Morrell’s novel was adapted into a vehicle for a then-ascendent Stallone. The film version of First Blood follows the book fairly closely. John Rambo is a shaggy-haired Vietnam veteran wandering through a small Pacific Northwest town, where he’s hassled by a callous local sheriff (played by Brian Denehy.) Things escalate quickly, and soon Rambo is stalking police and national guardsmen through the forest, felling helicopters and rising camouflaged out of the mud like an angry landscape.
After Rambo is finally arrested at the film’s conclusion, he drives home the moral. “Who are they to protest me, unless they’ve been me!” he roars. People at home haven’t been in Rambo’s place; they don’t understand him. To know war and understand its terrors, they need to feel what he felt, to see what he’s seen.
The contradiction there, though, is that once you’ve really identified with Rambo, you’re unlikely to protest his extreme actions. Identification leads to solidarity and pride in his surpassing excellence at violence. By presenting Rambo’s experiences at authentic and valuable, the film also presents him as the one who knows things — he’s cool. Rambo setting clever traps and blowing up gas stations doesn’t make you say, “War is hell.” Rather, it makes you nod along when his crusty old commanding officer (Richard Crenna) boasts, “Rambo was the best.”
Rambo charges across the jungle in bandana and bare chest, murdering a staggering number of people, and rescuing the brave American soldiers from their bamboo cages.
Putting the war under people’s noses doesn’t necessarily turn them against war. Instead, it can make viewers identify more fully with soldiers and their mission.
That’s what happens in 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II. The film is a naked, wish-fulfillment fantasy, in which the United States’ defeat in Vietnam is rewritten as an adrenaline-pumping victory. Rambo is sent to Southeast Asia to bring back American POWs. “Sir, do we get to win this time?” Rambo famously asks. The answer is, unequivocally, “Yes.” Despite the iniquity of civilian command, Rambo charges across the jungle in bandana and bare chest, murdering a staggering number of people, and rescuing the brave American soldiers from their bamboo cages.
Rambo: First Blood Part II is set in Vietnam; it’s re-staging the war abroad, not at home. But it still very much calls for Americans to put themselves in the place of soldiers. The film’s climactic speech, delivered by Stallone with great gusto, is a plea for identification and empathy. “I want, what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had, wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it! That’s what I want!” In a different context, that could be a call for more veteran’s services or fewer wars. But coming at the end of an hour and a half of triumphant warfare, the plea for love functions as a plea to support the military mission — whatever it might be.
The later films in the franchise are just as bloodthirsty as Rambo: First Blood Part II, though even less inspired. Having won in Vietnam, Rambo goes on to right other global wrongs, beating back the Russians in Afghanistan in Rambo III (1988) and fighting Malaysian warlords in Rambo IV (2008). Rambo: Last Blood is probably the nadir of the series, as it tries to grab onto relevance by exploiting current xenophobic and racist fears about Mexican gangs. Little surprise that Morrell, writer of the original First Blood, tweeted that he was “Embarrassed to have my name associated with it.”
Morrell wasn’t a huge fan of the original First Blood adaptation either when it was released. “My intent was to transpose the Vietnam War to America,” he said in an interview. “In contrast, the film [adaptation]’s intent was to make the audience cheer for the underdog.”
But the history of Rambo suggests that there’s not that much difference between bringing the war home and cheering for your favorite, scrappy warrior. We need anti-war stories that don’t involve imaginatively turning civilians into deadly-effective soldiers. Because after five films and almost half a century, one thing is clear: When you identify with Rambo, you identify with killing.