You Just Don't Turn It Off: 24 digressions about "First Blood"

City Paper

1. I have a scratchy stick-and-poke on my arm that reads, "they drew first blood, not me." It's what John Rambo (played with Marlon Brando-esque mumbling aplomb by Sylvester Stallone) says toward the end of the 1982 movie "First Blood," once he has been chased into the woods by longhair-hating cops and stalked by the National Guard after a self-loathing sheriff profiles him, puts him in jail, and all the rest. I like the line not because it's "bad-ass" but because it's petulant and child-like―"they started it," pretty much. This is what "First Blood" is about: How violence and war are terrible and childish but irresistible to some and often feel inevitable to those put up against a wall. Look, "First Blood" isn't "Battle Of Algiers," but it isn't well, "Rambo: First Blood Part II," either. 

2. "Truly convinced, I'd vowed to take him back to his primal state―child of the sun―and so we wandered, fed on wine from the caves and gypsy bread, me bound to find the place itself and the code." -from Arthur Rimbaud's 'Vagabonds'

3. There's a Goodie Mob song titled 'I Didn't Ask To Come,' which is saying the same thing as "they drew first blood, not me," I think―no one asked for my input about being shoved into this world and it was fucked up long before I got here, so what do you want me to do about it?

4. Rambo's decisions in "First Blood" stop making sense. Toward the end, he steals a truck but doesn't use it to escape, he drives it into a gas station downtown and blows a bunch more shit up. He's in-the-moment, fighting because it's what he's supposed to do (and trained to do), and escalating, escalating, escalating. He's Mishima seizing that Japanese military base; he's Varg stabbing Euronymous in the skull; he's Migos rolling up their sleeves ready to kick Joe Budden's ass at an awards show; he's all stubborn flex who won't let anybody get anything over on him.

5. "I saw him as a man who had seen too much senseless killing and wanted it to stop. But by the second movie, the one referenced by Reagan in his Beirut speech, Rambo had to be regarded as a hyper-patriotic, one-man killing machine. First Blood is, in fact, a film about the aftermath of the Vietnam War, a war which I had opposed on every level. All wars are stupid, but the Vietnam was especially stupid." -Director of "First Blood" Ted Kotcheff in his memoir "Director's Cut," 2017.

6. About the only misstep in "First Blood" is the ridiculous song at the end, 'Long Road' by Dan Hill (Hill is best known as the 'Sometimes When We Touch' guy). 'It's A Long Road' sets the groundwork for the epic cheese of the other Rambos, especially "Rambo: First Blood Part II," though. OK, that part where Rambo's fighting all the rats climbing all over him's pretty goofy too.

7. "I enjoyed the movie and always thought it was sad when Colonel Trautman (played by Richard Crenna) leads Rambo to his captivity at the end while Dan Hill sings 'It's a Long Road' on the soundtrack, kind of the same morose feeling I caught every week watching Bill Bixbie as David Banner hitchhiking down the road at the end of every episode of 'The Incredible Hulk'." -Tony Monchinski, "Engaged Pedagogy, Enraged Pedagogy: Reconciling Politics, Emotion, Religion, and Science for Critical Pedagogy," 2011

8. "First Blood" is part of the rare "cops are a buncha damn fools" subgenre of big Hollywood movies; its closest analogue is "Smokey and the Bandit" or maybe "Blues Brothers," which my friend Baynard Woods observed may, weirdly enough, be the movie for right now: "['Blues Brothers'], the great movie of the moment," he slacked me the other day. "Police and Nazis are the bad guys. Music is transcendent, revolutionary, and criminal―and it doesn't pay."

9. "Until Ronald Reagan's presidency, the Vietnam War was generally seen as an American defeat, but even before taking office Reagan began rebranding the conflict as 'a noble cause.' In the same spirit, scholars and veterans began, with significant success, to recast the war in rosier terms. Even in the early years of the twenty-first century, as newspapers and magazine published exposes of long-hidden U.S. atrocities, apologist historians continued to ignore much of the evidence, portraying American war crimes as no more than isolated incidents. But the stunning scale of civilian suffering in Vietnam is far beyond anything that can be explained as merely the work of some 'bad apples,' however numerous. Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process―such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam...[They] were no aberration. Rather, they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military." -Nick Turse, "Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam," 2013

10. Notice there are barely any women in "First Blood" (Amy Alexander plays "Woman On The Street," according to the credits), which is less a critique of the movie than a directorial choice worth highlighting―"First Blood," like John Carpenter's "The Thing," demonstrates dude-ness allegedly unfettered.

11. "If you believed the Greenies, Rat said, Mary Anne was still somewhere out there in the dark. Odd movements, odd shapes. Late at night, when the Greenies were out on ambush, the whole rain forest seemed to stare in at them―a watched feeling―and a couple of times they almost saw her sliding through the shadows. Not quite, but almost. She had crossed to the other side. She was part of the land. She was wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues. She was dangerous. She was ready for the kill." -Timothy O'Brien, 'Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong' from "The Things They Carried," 1990.

12. 1985 "First Blood" sequel "Rambo: First Blood Part II" is fake news the movie, a big action movie promoting a conspiracy theory: that there were endless P.O.W.s in Vietnam years after the war and the government was too liberal chicken shit to bring them back. This was debunked by a council fronted by John Kerry and John McCain, two war heroes of the left and right, respectively, gone spineless politicians, so make of that what you will.

13. Toward the end of "Rambo: First Blood Part II," after Rambo has saved a bunch of long-lost Vietnam P.O.W.s, he confronts an American military bureaucrat by unloading an M60 into a bunch of computers―a libertarian shoot 'em up sequence that points out that the true villain of the movie's not the Vietcong, but American bureaucrats and machines replacing physical labor. The movie becomes, nearly, an art film here—all signifying. It's like the scene in the Monkees movie "Head" where Monkees drummer Mickey Dolenz punches and pounds a Coca-Cola machine in the middle of desert after it eats his change; a slippery metaphor for the evils of capitalism.

14. Here is another way to think about this: "First Blood" is Bruce Springsteen and "Rambo: First Blood Part II" is Journey. Both explore transcendent, fist-pumping feelz and both fake it through underclass concerns, but one does it more subtly and with some grit and care, while the other kind of just traces over the others' lines and then pumps it up, up, up. And like Springsteen and Journey, you'd be wise not to think of one, at least in terms of entertainment, as better than the other but as two different ways to find a reason to believe.

15. "Evil has a new name, it's S.A.V.A.G.E., the Secret Army of Vengeance and Global Evil. Today, S.A.V.A.G.E. and its diabolical leader General Warhawk threaten the freedom of everyone on the face of the earth. Can anyone stop S.A.V.A.G.E.?" -a 1985 commercial for "Rambo & the Forces of Freedom" action figures.

16. 1986 reggae oddity 'Call Me Rambo' is full of dubby percussion and the sounds of automatic weapon fire and features a vocalist, Ackie, who hums, mumbles, and croons about "The F.B.I. and the K.G.B." and lyrically reframes the character into a criminalistic authority-bucking "ragamuffin." It is not so much a cheap cash-in on the success of Rambo as it is an unofficial addition to its mythology worth seeking out and one that’s more revolutionary than the Rambo in "Rambo: First Blood Part II."

17. Oh, there is also "Rampage," an approximation of "Rambo: First Blood Part II" from Turkey. It's cinematic cosplay, powered by the peculiar, desperate creativity one drums up when options are extremely limited and one's trying to cash-in on a trend. And yet, the action in "Rampage" is brisk and kinetic and never stops, and it's full of funny, strange little things like the characters locating ammo hidden under rocks, as if it's a Nintendo game. There's also some naturalism to "Rampage," the byproduct of having barely any budget, which gives it a kind of late Sam Peckinpah quality―sweaty, mostly out-of-shape men running around in the outdoors or in dilapidated buildings desperately firing weapons at each other.

18. 2010's "The Hunter," directed by and starring Rafi Pitts―who was in effect banned from Iran as a result of this movie―continues the radically pragmatic revenge tradition of "First Blood" with better and more bleary-eyed politics: Ali (Pitts) is an ex-con working security overnight, which means he doesn't see his wife and child all that often, and then one night when he gets off work, they aren't home and still aren't home the next day. Finally, he learns his wife was shot during a protest―they won't say if the police or protesters killed her―and his daughter is unaccounted for entirely at first, and then he's shown her dead body but there's no explanation for how she was killed. So, Ali takes the family cat to his mother's, shoots two cops, and heads to the woods, where he's caught by two cops and then they all get lost in the woods. The result: a third act packed with taut silent action, stoic grieving, Beckett-esque chatting ("Trees all look the same," one of the cops says), and a creaky Radiohead soundtrack. The movie is dedicated to noted leftist Iranian author Bozorg Alavi.

19. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan, referring to the Lebanon Hostage Crisis, noted how he might have done it a little different had he seen "Rambo: First Blood Part II" before announcing 39 American hostages were being brought back. "Boy, after seeing Rambo last night, I know what to do next time this happens," he said semi-officially, on the mic but before the press conference began.

20. 1988's "Rambo III" presents a kind of hyper-fictionalized version of the war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, with Rambo siding with the Afghani freedom fighters. The movie originally ended with a dedication ("This film is dedicated to the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan"), post 9/11 changed to read "to the gallant people of Afghanistan." Do people realize that? 2008's "Rambo," the fourth Rambo movie, is about human rights violations in authoritarian Myanmar (everybody in the movie still says Burma though) but then again, Donald Trump is clamping down on Cuba and bombing Syria because of "human rights violations," so don't think the fourth Rambo installment is woke or anything.

21. The 2014 Jason Statham vehicle "Homefront" was written by Sylvester Stallone and was intended to be "Rambo V," and it's a shame it didn't happen because it's a "Logan"-esque action drift about being too old for this shit and it would've bent the series back to "First Blood" a bit. The plot: Phil Broker (Statham), a widower and former undercover cop who busted a meth ring, now lies low in a small town with his daughter until she's bullied by a boy at school, and when she kicks his ass, it leads to trouble from the rednecks who still believe in feudin' and honor and all that. Also, most of them appear to be severely addicted to meth, so they're dependent on Gator (a potato chip-chomping James Franco), who isn't so excited to have a narc in town. "Homefront's" vision of the lower class is lived-in (characters work regular-ass jobs and wear clothes from Wal-Mart and their kids have disabilities, and addiction isn't portrayed as contemptible) and it includes some moments it totally doesn't need to include, such as the only black guy in the entire movie saying "Fuckin' rednecks, man" as his dying words, and a very touching scene in which Phil's daughter says this about her dead mom: "I miss her so much that my stomach hurts."

22. "McCain got bayoneted in the groin; a soldier broke his shoulder apart with a rifle butt. Plus by this time his right knee was bent 90 degrees to the side, with the bone sticking out. This is all public record. Try to imagine it. He finally got tossed on a jeep and taken only about five block to the infamous Hoa Lo prison―a.k.a. the Hanoi Hilton, of much movie fame―where for a week they made him beg for a doctor and finally set a couple of the fractures without anesthetic and let two other fractures and the groin wound (imagine: groin wound) go untreated. Then they threw him in a cell. Try for a moment to feel this. The media profiles all talk about how McCain still can't lift his arms over his head to comb his hair, which is true. But try to imagine it at the time, yourself in his place, because it's important. Thinking about how diametrically opposed to your own self-interest getting knifed in the nuts and having fractures set without a general would be, and then about getting thrown in a cell to just lie there and hurt, which is what happened." -David Foster Wallace, "Up, Simba" 2008

23. "First Blood" starts too soon and wraps up too fast. In the first scene, Rambo learns that one of his fellow soldiers is dead thanks to Agent Orange, and while he's still mourning his friend, he gets harassed by a prick sheriff, because that's how life is sometimes or most of the time—somebody's bullshit doesn't let you mourn or grieve or clear your head, even. Before you know it, Rambo busts some heads, gets his brain stung by vivid flashbacks of being a P.O.W., escapes from hick jail, psyches out a dirt bike rider by juking like he's Walter Payton and steals the bike, and heads to the woods to fight it out with all of the police. And right as you're letting Rambo's closing monologue about seeing his friend blown to bits and being able to do nothing about it sink in, the credits roll and that bad Dan Hill song Eeyores along.

24. "I like people who weren't captured." -President Donald Trump

"First Blood," directed by Ted Kotcheff screens at the Senator Theatre July 5 at 8 p.m., July 9 at 10 a.m., July 10 at 1 p.m., and July 11 at 9:30 p.m. Parts of this essay ran in previous City Paper stories.

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