You might be confused by the title, First Blood (1982). It is a movie about America’s favorite Vietnam veteran, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), and it is the first in a franchise of films that feature the character. Strangely enough, the second one is titled Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985), even though the subtitle was the main title in the first one. Hollywood is a weird place, and you can bet that there is a lot of cocaine behind most of the odd decisions they make. At any rate, despite devolving into action schlock, one gets the sense, at least early on, that the film is trying to say something serious about those who lived through the war in Southeast Asia and the problems they faced. Then it takes a left turn and we get scenes of cars flying through the air and lots of explosions. So. Many. Explosions. Read on for further details.
The one expected thing we get right away in First Blood is John walking down a road in the Pacific Northwest. He has arrived in the area looking for a former comrade. When Rambo gets to the home at the last known address, he is told that that his former unit mate died from cancer, the result of exposure to Agent Orange during the war. This is only the beginning of his troubles. He is outside of the town of Hope, and I am sure there is nothing metaphorical meant with this name, right? Before he can get far, his search for a meal is interrupted by the town’s top lawman, Sherriff William “Will” Teasle (Brian Dennehy). To Sherriff Teasle, Rambo is nothing but a drifter, an appearance that is added to by his long hair and military style coat. Despite some vehement protests, he is arrested for vagrancy and the long, deadly looking knife he carries. While in custody, he is subject to a number of mental and physical tortures, which trigger flashbacks to the captivity he endured in Vietnam. Doing so leads Rambo to affect his escape, not wishing to go through those painful memories once more. He takes to the hills surrounding the town, and he is followed by the police in a Benny Hill-esque chase sequence featuring the flying cars mentioned in the last paragraph. After dispatching a few more officers, there is essentially a stand-off between Rambo and law enforcement, and now Sherriff Teasle decides to bring in help despite Rambo’s warning to leave him alone. By “help,” I mean the National Guard. Also arriving on the scene is Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo’s former commander. Colonel Trautman informs Sherriff Teasle about Rambo’s past. Rambo is not your run-of-the-mill veteran, but rather a special forces soldier of extreme skill, and a Medal of Honor recipient to boot. Being the mustache twirling villain that he is, Sherriff Teasle decides to press on with his attack. While all this is being sorted, Rambo is setting up boobytraps all over the forest, particularly in the abandoned mine shaft he makes his base. Colonel Trautman attempts to speak some reason to Rambo, but when it becomes apparent that Sherriff Teasle will not back down, he surreptitiously helps his prize pupil. Because the National Guardsmen are not the professional troops that Rambo is used to, they inadvertently make an assault on his position that blows up the entrance to the shaft. Everyone thinks that Rambo is dead, but he has instead escaped through other passageways in the mine. Once out, he steals a military truck and makes his way back to the town to find Sherriff Teasle. He goes on to take out the electricity for several blocks, and creates a distraction by detonating a manmade explosive in a nearby building. He has Sherrif Teasle trapped alone inside police headquarters, and is about to finish off his tormentor when Colonel Trautman appears, along with all the cops and others that had previously been hunting him in the mountains. Finally meeting face-to-face, Colonel Trautman tries to tell Rambo that the war is over. This is what he is having the most trouble with, as evidenced by the trail of destruction left in his wake until this point in the movie. For Rambo, nothing is finished, and he lets Colonel Trautman know this in a tirade detailing all the troubles he has had since he came back from the conflict. For all the violence, it ends peacefully, with Rambo crying in Colonel Trautman’s arms. We close with the pair of them exiting the building together, and Rambo understandably being taken into custody for destroying half the town of Hope.
As I said in the introduction to First Blood, it starts with trying to talk about the way our society has treated veterans, namely those of the Vietnam War. Then there is action, which all crescendos to Rambo’s breakdown at the end. When I was a kid growing up outside of Chicago, I lived across the street from a man who lost both his legs fighting in Vietnam. He once saved a toddler from drowning in a pool, doing so that he had to get to by crawling across a vacant lot and up unto a raised deck. It did not involve over-the-top action and silly car chases, but it was quite the feat, nonetheless. The nature of the limitations caused by the war, be they mental or physical, are talked about in the film. As Colonel Trautman points out, God did not make Rambo. The same can be said for my former neighbor. Armed conflict does not create victors, even for those on the so-called winning side of the battles. God’s victory is something above and beyond what are essentially petty squabbles in His eyes. He calls us to love one another, and this is why war is not something Catholicism supports. Yet, that only explains part of why Rambo is so wounded that he would burst into tears at the end. The treatment he gets from Sherriff Teasle, while extreme, is meant to be a symbol for the way society had behaved towards him. He had been made into a killer, which is not God’s doing, and the nation he had been trained by had turned its back on him. It is apparent that all he is doing is looking for some place to be accepted, and is finding none. I pray that people in similar situations do not react as he does.
Would I recommend First Blood? Probably not. There is a lesson in it, though, about the importance of treating everyone, even those who do things with which we do not agree, with love and respect. That is what God created us to do, to give the other side of Colonel Trautman’s statement. Still, you do not need the silly action and, at times, appalling violence that you see in this film. There are plenty of other sources for such lessons.