There are few more evocative names in cinema than Rambo. The bandana, the machine gun, the knife; Stallone’s character has become synonymous with staggering levels of violence and machismo. There’s nothing wrong with that, bar the fact that it has barely anything to do with the first film. Those iconic elements are present, but First Blood isn’t about a one-man army. It’s about one man being alone.
Superficially it’s clear to see Rambo as an allegory for the Vietnam War. A large force underestimating and therefore being outsmarted by a far smaller and technologically inferior opponent.
But look past that and you see the story of a broken man, abandoned by all levels of a society he risked his life to protect. Rambo’s discovery that his war buddies are dying or dead, and his appalling treatment at the hands of local law enforcement, tips him over the edge. Is some food and rest too much to ask for a decorated veteran? It would seem so.
Rambo, Teasle, and Trautman (Rambo’s former Commander) form a terrific triumvirate. Stallone gives a career best performance, breaking down in despicably sad fashion as he explains how ‘out there’ he operated millions of dollars of equipment yet can’t even hold down a job at home. Teasle is an asshole, his arrogance and need for order underpinned by the tiniest slither of doubt. But Trautman is my favourite. He gets all the lines, such as the classic “A good supply of body bags”. He’s also the inspiration for Roy Campbell of Metal Gear Solid fame. He’s come to get his boy, and it isn’t always clear how that’s going to play out.
The quality of First Blood feels ignored; smothered in the blood let by its sequels. But this is a strong movie, full of great performances and a powerful message.
Far from the muscled action hero we generally bring to mind, First Blood powerfully shows us a broken man, just trying to find a place in the world. Rambo is constantly forced into fight or flight mode, and any violence isn’t gratuitous or cause for celebration. If only people would stop pushing him.
In one scene Rambo tells a guy to ‘go home’. You know he’s trying to do the same. Is that too much to ask?