VHS Revival takes to the wilderness with a bona fide action icon
Sylvester Stallone has had quite the career. Shooting to superstardom as boyish underdog Rocky Balboa, he would later become one of the most recognisable movie stars on the planet, sculpting his body and onscreen persona to shine as one of action cinema’s most indomitable forces. In the ’80s and ’90s, that’s where the money was for someone of his profile. Movies such as Cobra, Cliffhanger and Demolition Man would thrill action junkies the world over, and the actor had a knack for staying relevant. When it came to keeping his face in the limelight, Sly was second-to-none.
Actually, he was second to one. Through no fault of his own, the talented and ambitious Stallone just happened to share the spotlight with arguably the most recognisable Hollywood personality to ever grace the silver screen. Arnold Schwarzenegger was everywhere too, and while Sly may be able to boast the larger lifetime gross, Arnie reached his narrowly slimmer total with significantly fewer movies. Stallone may have dwarfed every other musclebound kid on the block, but Arnie was in a stratosphere all of his own. It didn’t matter that he had a thick foreign accent at a time when Cold War propaganda was running roughshod over the mainstream, America accepted him as one of their own.
Speaking to David Letterman in 2013, Stallone would say of his rivalry with Schwarzenegger, “We had a violent hatred,” later adding that he hated, “that [Schwarzenegger] was on the planet, basically.” Maybe there’s a little bias here. After all, Stallone was a bona fide hit machine, but when I was a boy it was Arnie Arnie Arnie. For every Over the Top there was a Predator, for every Demolition Man there was a Terminator 2: Judgement Day. For the most part, whatever Stallone came up with, Arnie usually topped it. As far as I was concerned, there was only one action king.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed more of an appreciation for Sly. Arnie will always be the man for reasons that are largely indecipherable, but Stallone seems to offer a little more depth and variation, possessing the kind of onscreen humility that makes characters like Balboa so appealing. Arnie got by on sheer presence and a determination to succeed, at least for the most part, but Stallone always gave the impression that he was more directly involved, and why shouldn’t he be? After all, how many other action stars have been nominated for both the Best Actor and Original Screenplay Oscars? Sly professed to having an ego the size of a Zeppelin back in his mainstream pomp, and when he began chasing Arnie he in many ways tried to emulate what made his adversary so successful, but Stallone’s finest moments came long before the two would take to the commercial battlefield.
Stallone is most recognisable as two of mainstream cinema’s most famous faces: Rocky Balboa and John Rambo. The latter of those characters is an interesting case in point. First Blood would arrive on our screens long before the majority of folk were even aware of Arnie, and in many ways he is the original lone warrior, a blueprint for the many Arnie-esque action heroes who would follow. Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III would grow increasingly caricaturistic, giving us a one-man army who would wage commercial warfare with the likes of Arnie’s John Matrix, but before the character descended into the realms of self-parody and was subjected to a serious lampooning at the hands of Charlie Sheen’s Topper Harley in spoof sequel Hot Shots Part Deux, Rambo was a much more sombre character providing commentary on a sobering real-life issue.
Teasle: [noting dirty American flag patch on Rambo’s ragged military jacket] You know, wearing that flag on that jacket, looking the way you do, you’re asking for trouble around here, friend.
Okay, so First Blood descends into fantastical action territory pretty sharply, and as a Vietnam movie it ranks somewhere near the bottom for authenticity and social impact, but Stallone’s second commercial baby eschews the self-righteousness of the Cold War struggle for the ungodly debacle of an unwinnable war. At its repudiated core, the Vietnam conflict was an attack on socialism, an ultimately unprofitable war that lingered on for reasons of vanity—an eye-opener for a civil rights generation who rejected the myopic patriotism of former conquests and began to ask questions of their government and its motives. This led to conflict at home. On one side we had a generation who clung to patriotism as millions of America’s youth fell in their droves. The US Army had moulded a generation of killers who were sent into the unexplored wilderness to die, and the atrocities they were forced to commit turned many of them into deeply afflicted citizens who were unable to integrate back into society. They were unappreciated by the young and quickly forgotten by their government. They had sacrificed everything in return for nothing.
These are the issues that are tackled in First Blood, and tackled well during the movie’s first act. A Stallone vehicle was never going to have the emotional power of The Deer Hunter or the sobering punch of Full Metal Jacket, and the movie is very much of its time rather than timeless, but it was relatively ambitious for a mainstream action vehicle, particularly since it challenged the attitudes of people who would make up a good portion of its target audience. Granted, First Blood adopts a more crowd-pleasing formula than its literary source material, the ending of which would have shut the door on the film’s inevitable sequels, but the movie is a refreshing diversion in that it at least acknowledges the uglier, less biased side of war synonymous with the genre. While other action movies championed the American Dream, First Blood was the first to feature a cinematic super soldier who had declared war on his own country.
The movie begins with Rambo visiting an old war buddy, who it turns out has died from the after effects of chemical warfare, his last connection to the real world evaporating in a figurative cloud of Agent Orange. What we find is a dishevelled patriot, a wanderer who arrives home as a stranger and who is immediately treated like one. From the very outset Rambo is painted as the victim, a young man whose sombre, un-American facade sticks out like a half-mast flag, commanding neither respect nor sympathy from a generation more concerned with his haircut than any semblance of inner character. Sheriff Teasle (Brain Dennehy) judges first and asks questions later. In doing so he represents the entire town, and by extension towns across America.
Rambo is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and every act of aggression, no matter how small, is enough to trigger the killer instincts boot camp drilled into him and the horrors of conflict that carved them in stone. After being arrested and maltreated by the hick officials of a small town precinct, those horrors quickly hit home, and Rambo flees into the wilderness with a particular set of skills that dwarf those of the small-minded folk who were somehow deemed worthy of policing the region where Rambo holes up. All they see is a stranger in a strange land, a notion that reflected the mood of a generation, who had begun to see veterans as unfortunate pawns who had left as patriots and returned as zombies.
As Stallone himself would explain in an interview for Drawing First Blood, a behind the scenes look at the making of the movie: “I had mixed feelings about the war. At the beginning I was very much behind the war, and then I felt that the soldiers were getting kind of a raw deal because around ’70 you realised there was no chance for us to win this war, and it became a different kind of war—a war of attrition—and the soldiers had no choice. I had a real problem with calling them ‘baby killers’ and spitting on returning GIs. I thought it was horrible. And I knew they’d been terribly slighted.
First Blood was a long and troubled production, but the idea of adapting it for the screen was almost immediate. Released in 1972, a whole decade before the movie, David Morrell’s thought provoking novel was picked up by Colombia Pictures, who immediately sold the rights to Warner Brothers. Vietnam Movies had already made huge commercial waves and the war had become hot property. At the time, First Blood was the most optioned script in Hollywood. 26 scripts went through 5 studios before modest, low-level producers Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar decided to take a punt on what Ted Kotcheff described as a ‘great property.’ All they needed was a marquee name, and Sly was the first face they thought of after the monumental success of Rocky, another underdog story that had captured the imagination of America, and to their astonishment he soon answered their call. “We sent [the script] to him on a Monday,” Kotcheff explained, “and by Tuesday afternoon Sylvester Stallone answered and said he was gonna do it. In the whole history of my filmmaking—forty years of directing films—this was the first time that a) I got my first choice and b) that I got it within twenty-four hours.”
Deputy Mitch: How blind are you? Can’t you see this guy’s crazy?
Deputy Sergeant Arthur Gault: Can’t you see I don’t give a shit?
But Sly was nervous about what he described as a “jinxed project”. Insecure regarding the movie’s long, drawn-out production, he wondered why so many directors had passed up on it; why Academy Award winners such as Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall had rejected the role of Sheriff Teasle; why Kirk Douglas—an actor whom Stallone had “analysed as a young man”, had quit over script disputes (ironically, he had wanted the movie to stay truer to the much less heroic novel, insisting that his vision was more ‘artistic’ and that “Rambo must die”). Of course, this was Stallone, a man with a self-confessed ego and unquenchable sense of ambition, and a suggestion from producers that he himself finish the script was enough for him to buy into the character, taking the movie even further from its source material by insisting that Rambo be a more sympathetic character who would survive events by not directly killing anyone. Stallone was savvy when it came to Hollywood, and such changes, though detrimental to all ambitions of making a serious Vietnam movie, were no doubt vital to its widespread commercial success. As the director himself explained, “Sylvester has this great popular sense. He knows what the movie public likes to see and what they don’t like to see.”
As well as his invaluable commercial savvy, Sly brought a sense of rough and tumble to proceedings, committing to approximately three quarters of the stunts featured in First Blood (many of them fairly dangerous) in little more than a tank top in temperatures of -40. Their Hollywood-friendly vision may have lacked authenticity, but in terms of action it soaks you to the bone, particularly during the movie’s second act as we indulge in Guerrilla warfare in the wilds of British Colombia. Kotcheff gives us what is essentially a forest-bound variation on the slasher flick, with a barely seen Rambo picking off his helpless prey — or at least sending them a harmless warning. The movie was also tough to shoot, Hungarian-American cinematographer Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors) weathering the storm to give us some of his best work.
In spite of its visual legitimacy, the eventual casting of Brian Dennehy and Richard Crenna as Teasle and Trautman respectively makes for a very different picture to the one Kirk Douglas and probably most of Hollywood had originally envisioned. Both are fine actors, but they slip into the more formulaic action formula with consummate ease, proving perfect vessels for a screenplay that can seem like borderline parody in hindsight, particularly following Crenna’s play-it-straight send-up in the aforementioned Hot Shots sequel, but more than a quarter of a century is a long time in filmmaking terms, and such deficiencies are expected to a degree. Perhaps the most timeless asset that the movie possesses is Jerry Goldsmith’s reflective, battle-worn score, his use of regretful, commemorative horns helping to lend Rambo the sympathetic aura Stallone craved, one the still relatively rookie actor struggles to deliver on occasion.
But in many ways the success of this picture depended on its star attraction, and for him many of the movie’s deficiencies were actually its strengths. One of Stallone’s biggest no-nos was that you never kill the hero, or as he himself put it “Rocky can’t die”. This would prove the right decision following a test screening featuring an alternate ending in which Rambo took Trautman’s pistol and shot himself after a speech involving the irreversible process of being turned into a killer. As Kotcheff would explain, “The audience were into it. We felt immediately that we had a success on our hands…they’re with him all the way, and then suddenly there was a dead silence when he got killed. And a voice said ‘If this director is in this audience, he should be strung up from the nearest lamppost.”
Rambo: There wouldn’t be no trouble except for that king-shit cop! All I wanted was something to eat. But the man kept pushing Sir.
Trautman: Well you did some pushing on your own John.
Rambo: They drew first blood, not me.
Once those wish-fulfilment cracks had been papered over, distributors across the world would take the Rambo bait, the end of the screening described by Richard Crenna as being like “The New York Stock Exchange”, an immediate bidding war punctuated by Japanese investors who were literally waving cheques in the air. So widespread was the demand that First Blood became the first movie in the United states which was able to separate the rights across different distributors: video, cable and domestic. The movie would represent the biggest October release in history at that point, and would go on to smash all expectations with its odd blend of reality-based drama and mainstream action.
By 1982, large portions of the American public were ready to accept the fact that their veterans had been used as scapegoats regarding matters that were beyond their control. As Stallone himself would put it, “We shouldn’t be so hard on the bearer of bad news”, and should instead look beyond the government’s rhetoric and the divide it caused throughout American society. For many, that acceptance was tougher to swallow. Movie’s such as Francis Ford Coppola’s unsentimental and gruellingly authentic Apocalypse Now was too much reality to stomach, regardless of a general softening towards a prickly moral subject. First Blood is like the mainstream antidote. It conveys unpatriotic truths in a quasi-patriotic fashion. It portrays the aftermath of the Vietnam War in a sympathetic light, one singed with enough feelgood fantasy for the American public to fully embrace. It is at the same time transparently leftist and oddly right-wing. It is an action movie first, a political commentary second, and as a mainstream vehicle it works wonders, with a lead character who preempted the kind of mainstream action star that rival Schwarzenegger would build an entire career upon.
Stallone would inevitably forge two Rambo-led sequels, movies that would adopt rather more spurious political leanings. Gone was the soft-spoken antihero, replaced instead by a Cold-War warrior who flew the flag for Reaganite politics, the screenplay’s modus of unwilling violence replaced by a relentless killing machine who became an emblem for the Top Gun ’80s and American ‘exceptionalism’. Were those sequels representative of Rambo’s true colours? Not in the first instance, although fiction would ultimately win the commercial battle, and in many ways the character had fascism in his blood (this was cinema after all). But you don’t forge a franchise juggernaut like Rambo based on realism alone. The majority of moviegoers don’t pay to be confronted by the world’s real-life horrors. It is much easier and less intimidating to see the world in black and white, to overlook the lies and the treachery that make it such a tenuous place, and the Vietnam War was enough reality to last most people a lifetime. Cinema is about escapism, about vicarious thrills and easy answers. Rambo may have been cheated by his government, but politics are relative, as are the various shifts in allegiance and justifications for one’s actions.
For all of our American readers, let me make something clear: I am not anti-American. I am not anti-American because I can make the distinction between people and politics. As author Mark Twain once wrote, “Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.” I rarely represent the politics of my country of origin. The fact that we as individuals are limited to such a finite spectrum of manufactured beliefs is ridiculous to me. While the character Rambo would one day grow to champion such a limited set of opinions, at his core the original character represented the individual.
As for those who see through the spurious nature of politics, or for those who have simply given up caring, sometimes it is just fun to watch people blow holes in each other. After all, civilisation was built on violence. It doesn’t matter how liberal or knowledgeable or sensible we may regard ourselves, it is woven into our very fabric, and for those of us who have no intention of partaking in the real thing, cinema is our easiest and least harmful source of purging. The world and its belief systems may change, but there will always be a little Rambo in all of us.