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First Blood

By Dave Best

The Vietnam War, being one of the most culturally significant events in US history, has spawned more than its fair share of classic films: Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Casualties of War (1989), to name a few. However, one film which is not only left off this list but instead often demoted to the lowest ranks is Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood (1982).  Please note that this film is not called Rambo or Rambo: First Blood; it is often packaged this way as a result of the subsequent Rambo franchise it created, but First Blood is a film which deserves to be judged on its own merit without sequel induced pre-conceptions.

First Blood is the fictional story of decorated but mentally damaged Vietnam veteran, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), returning home to America to find a country that has turned its back on him. In the opening shots of the film, Rambo is travelling through America’s heartland looking for the last surviving member of his team from ‘Nam. He is almost giddy at the prospect of seeing his friend again and his excitement is infectious. Then he receives the news that his friend is dead, eaten up by a cancer he developed as a result of the chemical warfare tactics employed during the Vietnam War. Awash with survivor's guilt, he takes to the roads and simply drifts, aimless. Soon after, we are introduced to Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) - a small town sheriff on first name terms with all the locals - as he goes about his patrols. He comes across the wandering Rambo and decides that this isn’t the sort of man he wants drifting through "his town". Teasle abruptly sends him on his way but unfortunately, perhaps seeking any human contact, even confrontation, Rambo starts to head back into town. Teasle unnecessarily arrests him, and Rambo’s descent into full on madness begins. During the booking in process Rambo is stoic (a result of his military training preventing him cracking under questioning) which some of the deputies take personal offense at. They verbally and physically abuse him and we are shown flashes of his military past, being captured and tortured by the Viet Cong, which run parallel with his current situation. These slightly violent but non-gratuitous flashbacks make up roughly thirteen seconds of the entire film but are effective in conveying that Rambo has been subjected to some pretty horrific circumstances. Eventually, after being pushed and pushed, he has a mental episode and freaks out, believing himself back in the hands of his Vietnamese captors. He attacks the deputies (non-lethally), escapes custody and heads deep into the dense forest to hide. The ill-fated manhunt to bring Rambo in, which forms the bulk of the film, begins.

Rambo (Stallone) and Teasle's (Dennehy) first encounter...it's all downhill from here
 As mentioned, when most people think of First Blood all they can see is ‘Rambo’ the invincible hero of the sequels; armed to the teeth, dripping in other peoples' entrails and shooting down helicopters full of sneering Russian stereotypes using nothing but a bow and arrow, all in the name of the good ole U. S. of A. That character does not appear at any point in this film. The John Rambo of First Blood is a sympathetic, depressed, post-traumatic stress sufferer. His enemy isn’t some racist caricature but rather America itself. This reflected the feelings of many real-life Vietnam vets who were being victimised for failures and atrocities which were not their fault and finding it hard to reacclimatise to civilian life. As Rambo poignantly states, “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!”  

The total body count for First Blood is precisely (SPOILER ALERT!) one – and, without going into too much detail, this accidental death does actually provide a positive message – always wear your seatbelt! Rambo does not kill one single person in this film; he does however slay a few attack dogs (offscreen) and blow up a couple of local businesses. So if you are a PETA member or are squeamish about mass property damage, then this may not be the film for you.

OK, so he doesn’t kill anyone, but he does commit some pretty gory attacks to disable his pursuers, right? Wrong. Due to clever use of natural light and quick cuts we are often given the impression of violence and gore without ever actually seeing it. In fact, the goriest scene in the film is when Rambo sews up a wound on his arm and frankly, it is impressive, utilising what were at the time cutting edge physical effects which still stand up against anything CGI could offer now.

John Rambo - the man who made burlap sacks cool
Stallone gives an excellent performance as an alienated and unstable man-on-the-edge who has been dehumanized by the military, programmed to do unthinkable things for the greater good and then cut loose into a society which could never accept him. It is easy to forget that Sly has these sorts of  powerhouse performances in him, but we really shouldn’t (see also Rocky, Copland).   

Dennehy too is bang on form as Teasle, improvising throughout the film and really bringing depth to what could have been a very one dimensional ‘redneck sheriff’ character. Although it is not openly explored in the film (the clues are there if you look for them), Teasle is himself a veteran of the Korean war which perhaps explains why he takes such a personal stance against the Vietnam vet, as Korea was very much overshadowed by Vietnam and left the public with a nasty perception of the military. 

Richard Crenna also provides a memorable performance as Col. Trautman, Rambo’s Dr. Frankenstein-esque former commander. He provides a sort of Greek chorus throughout the film, filling Teasle in on Rambo’s mindset and history - a clever device, as it meant Rambo could maintain his laconic persona whilst the important plot information could be brought forward through Trautman. Crenna’s effectiveness is made all the more impressive by the fact that he was a literal last minute replacement for Kirk Douglas, who left the set of the film when his unrequested and extensive script notes were ignored by the filmmakers. 

Also worth mentioning is the way that the film uses the landscape itself as a character. Shot entirely on location in British Columbia, Kotcheff utilises the unpredictable weather, claustrophobic forest and inhospitable temperatures to further isolate the central character and draw comparisons back to the alien conditions which soldiers endured during the war. Rambo is essentially forced to assume the role of the Viet Cong as he manipulates the forest and uses crude guerrilla tactics to defend himself and disable his American adversaries.

"I take it back, ferns are a good look for you!"
First Blood is part action film, part psychological thriller and an important piece of American cinema. It was one of the first to deal with the concept of America’s treatment of its returning Vietnam veterans (seven years before Born on the 4th of July) and it delves deep into the concept of post traumatic stress disorder, which didn’t really come into the public consciousness until the Gulf War in the early 90’s. It was, however, a victim of its own success, paving the way for a stream of exploitation action pictures (not restricted to the Rambo franchise) which often tarnish its legacy. It seems unfair to blame First Blood for the sins of those that followed it though. Sure there are one or two cheesy action lines, and the final sixty seconds are a little at odds with the rest of the piece, but on the whole this is a film with meaning. It bravely deals with subjects that most war films struggle to address: the effect of war on the individual, post traumatic stress disorder and what happens to a human weapon when the fighting is over. Not only that but it does it within an accessible, entertaining, mainstream context.

For further information visit First Blood's IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0083944

Suggested further viewing: Paths of Glory (1957), Predator (1987), Dead Presidents (1995)