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FIRST BLOOD: a 33 year review

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Understandably, when people hear “First Blood,” they initially think “Rambo.” Rambo is this 1980s visage of the ultimate warrior, supreme bad ass, take no prisoners kind of guy. There was a short-lived cartoon based on Rambo back in 1986 called “Rambo: The Force of Freedom.” It was a short-lived series. There was also a video game, released in 1987 and a sequel, released in 1988. There were also lunch boxes with matching thermos. And let’s not forget the action figures and tee shirts with the logo “No Fear, No Regrets” written beneath these soul-glow wavy haired maniac holstering an M60 machine gun. Rambo is very much a pop icon, I often wonder if audiences really grasped the intelligence and emotional rawness of First Blood. Sometimes I feel that audiences who adore “Rambo” as the action hero pop star have abandoned if not totally ignored the character from the first film. John Rambo certainly does his fair share of ass whooping in First Blood, but ultimately, he’s a tragic character, scarred, not just physically but emotionally. He’s been traumatized and doing his best to live with the memories he carries with him. What kind of memories? Well, consider this little snippet from the end of the film (I know, I know, big bad SPOILERS…whatever, get over yourself, this movie has been out for 33 years!). In this scene, John has pretty much laid waste to the small town of Hope, Washington. Colonel Sam Trautman, his former commander, has arrived to attempt to talk John down. Confused, John tries to make sense of everything. He shares a particular memory with Trautman, who being an officer, was probably removed from most of the violence in Vietnam.

John Rambo says:

“We were in this bar in Saigon and this kid comes up, this kid carrying a shoe-shine box. And he says ‘Shine, please, shine!’ I said no. He kept askin’, yeah, and Joey said ‘Yeah.’ And I went to get a couple of beers, and the box was wired, and he opened up the box, fucking blew his body all over the place. And he’s laying there, he’s fucking screaming. There’s pieces of him all over me, just… like this, and I’m tryin’ to pull him off, you know, my friend that’s all over me! I’ve got blood and everything and I’m tryin’ to hold him together! I’m puttin’… the guy’s fuckin’ insides keep coming out! And nobody would help! Nobody would help! He’s saying, sayin’ ‘I wanna go home! I wanna go home!’ He keeps calling my name! ‘I wanna go home, Johnny! I wanna drive my Chevy!’ I said Why? I can’t find your fuckin’ legs! I can’t find your legs!”

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When a quote like this comes out of a guy, covered in sweat, grime, and blood, laying on the floor, half whimpering, half screaming, it’s hard to look at First Blood as nothing more than an exploitative action-violence movie. First Blood is more than that, despite all the lunch boxes and action figures and tee shirts. This movie has substance. First Blood was a movie about PTSD before PTSD was even considered a counterpart with war trauma. First Blood also discusses very “in-your-face” regarding the treatment of Vietnam veterans in America culture. The small mountain woodsy town is called “Hope” for crying out loud. Stallone wanders through Hope finding nothing but abuse and then so he rips the decorum off “Hope” through a series of wanton destruction, almost laying the sheriff’s office flat, the supposed symbol of justice. This all, of course, begs the question: What justice is there in any of this?

Here’s a quick-fire synopsis:

“Vietnam veteran and drifter John J. Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) wanders into the small Washington town called Hope in search of an old friend, but is met with intolerance and brutality by the local sheriff, Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy). When Teasle and his deputies restrain and shave Rambo, he flashes back to his time as a prisoner of war and unleashes his fury on the officers. He narrowly escapes the manhunt, but it will take his former commander (Richard Crenna) to save the hunters from the hunted.”

Janet Maslin from the New York Times reviewed First Blood back in ’82. She said, “The emphasis is clearly on toughness and versatility, as a battered, bloody Mr. Stallone demonstrates a wide range of scouting skills, from building traps to exploring a pitch-black cave; he is also able to slaughter wild animals and give himself stitches. He corners the sheriff’s men a number of times, and invariably he is good-hearted enough to let them go. The movie tries hard to make sure that Rambo will be seen as a tormented, misunderstood, amazingly resourceful victim of the Vietnam War, rather than as a sadist or a villain.” On this part, I’d agree with the movie critic, though understandably as a combat veteran myself, the movie affects me perhaps a little differently. There is no denying the simplistic quality to the script. There’s nothing complicated with the dialogue. Miss Maslin’s comment regarding Rambo being “the good boy scout” was interesting to me. This connotation connects Rambo to another Vietnam movie, The Deer Hunter. Yes, while The Deer Hunter is most certainly more complex in story, the character Micheal Vronsky, played by the impeccable Robert De Niro, is represented as the ultimate outdoorsman, a man’s man, the ultimate boy scout if you will, who becomes this mythological Superman of Vietnam. In a strange way, perhaps we could look at Rambo as the continuation of Vronsky’s story. Or perhaps I’m reaching a bit here! 

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To be fair, First Blood does reach a bit toward the end, despite the powerful last scene mentioned earlier in this review. While personally, I  focused on Rambo as the suffering veteran, some portions of his dialogue leave one wandering the wasteland of Hope, pondering just who cost us the Vietnam war? Rambo laments about the “hippie scum” who spit on him at the airport or the liberal politicians who “wouldn’t let us win.” These thoughts would be more fleshed out in the next installment, Rambo II, as Rambo returns to Vietnam in search of those we “left behind.” But all of this begs, even more, questions: “Just who did we leave behind?” “Who lost the war?” “How did we lose?” “Did we need to bomb more villages?” “Did we need to send more men?” etc. etc. This sadly leaves one with a very surface level understand of the war. If we were to pull back and look at John Rambo as the suffering veteran, could we even afford to send more into the hell pit that was Vietnam? Or any war for that matter? Yet, intermixed with the convoluted “stabbed in the back” attitude, there are glimpses of real problematic cultural relations with society and combat traumatized veterans. Here is another quote from John Rambo for you to chew on.

Rambo states:

“Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me, I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn’t let us win! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me, huh? Who are they? Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about! …For me civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there’s nothing! …Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars!”

As I said, very provocative. Beautifully so, I think. 

Okay. Moving beyond the social-political undercurrent. First Blood had a great pace and mood that was very captivating and entertaining. While there was some cheese-crusted acting by some of the supporting roles, I felt Stallion did a rather impressive job as a sober, traumatized character. If you haven’t seen this one yet or skipped it (FOR SHAME!), you need to watch it. Netflix recently released all the trilogy on instant viewing. 

My Review: 5/5


The Deer Hunter & the Superman in Vietnam

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In film historian Leonard Quarts article, “The Deer Hunter: The Superman in Vietnam,” the author discusses an interesting notion how the film (Deer Hunter, 1978) in itself created an American mythological figure, the soldier, living beyond conventional values and projecting heroic, almost alluring, emotional invulnerability. According to Quart, Hollywood has used this mythology to blur the argument of our involvement with Vietnam War away from the political world, away from any specific policy, and back into an introspective question regarding the human condition in Vietnam. Using The Deer Hunter as a backdrop, Quart reconstructs the main character, Michael Vronsky (Robert DeNiro), and illuminates his superman archetype as the American mythological figure for the human condition. This reconstruction can be seen in three character developments: first, Michael, as local steel-mill worker, second, seeing Vronsky as an accomplished hunter and woodmen, which directly leads into the third character development, Vronsky’s leadership ability during his stint as a Vietnam POW. These three reconstructions demonstrate two years after the Vietnam War ended (1978), how the overwhelming sense of self-confidence and invulnerability drew many American fighting men into Vietnam during the 1960’s.

The myth of the superman in Vietnam is first constructed in the persona of Michael Vronsky, as the Pennsylvanian, blue collar, working class hero. During the film, even the small factory town to which the main characters belong was glozed over with a refined middle-class shine. Men, working without complaint, nor distressed, nor sweat from countless hours of back-breaking work; even their steel-mill uniforms are absent of blemish. This image of the working class town fits perfectly as Michael Vronsky’s fortress of solitude; a town that emulates intrinsic values of church and country, indicative to middle class America. The picture perfect sleepy little industrialized town, far removed from the hustle of modern cities, gives the audience a sense of romanticism, the American Dream in its natural environment.

The second construction mentioned, was how Quart uses the development of Vronsky as the American superman through his prowess as a hunter. Vronsky can be pictured as “an outsider…[,albeit] chaste, honorable, forbearing, revering the mountains and nature, and given to a purity of purpose embodied in his deer-hunting gospel of the one-shot-kill. ”  Michael as an actual hunter, an ultimate outdoors man, he becomes the myth of a romanticized figure of American folklore and tradition who constructs his identity in conflict with nature, similar to historically famous Americana outdoorsmen, such as: Davey Crockett or Teddy Roosevelt.

The third construction Quart uses in the development of Vronsky as the American superman myth, is during his performance at the Russian-roulette table in the Vietnam POW camp. Here, Quart complements Vronsky’s characterization in notions of a Hemmingway-esk sense of heroic grace and indomitability. Vronsky’s capacity for violence is seen as calm and controlled and when he frees his fellow patriots, he becomes “the incarnation of the superman…the apotheosis of American courage and daring…a transcendent figure who seems almost immortal. ” However, this comparison also begs the question, regarding the state of the human precondition, if a person can kill without fear or constraint.

Quart’s article on The Deer Hunter as an allegory for the mythological superman in Vietnam is a convincing argument. The director obviously attempted to portray the middle-class American as both the hero and victim of the war in not only how Vronsky was developed, but also how his town changed as the people themselves changed. If film symbolizes our hopes and fears, The Deer Hunter represents our ideological need to create certainty where there is none. However, the horror of Vietnam is too ambiguous and complex to explain or dismiss away within the concept of the American superman; Vietnam is not the OK Corral or some other western motif where the Duke rides in on a white horse and justifies the atrocity of war and our involvement. The Deer Hunter is an awesome movie, a must see for any Vietnam War movie buff, but like Quart, the film lacked significant historical accountability, and, even more important, the film lacked social realism that would have allowed the movie to go beyond being just another cartoonish depiction of middle class America in the Vietnam War.

Sources:
Leonard Quart, “The Deer Hunter: The Superman in Vietnam,” pg. 160-161.