First Blood was not what I was expecting.
From everything that I had heard and seen over the past few years, I was under the impression that this 1982 film was the ultimate in mindless action. I figured that the film was basically just two hours of Sylvester Stallone hiding in the woods, firing a machine gun, riding a motorcycle, and eventually blowing up a small, bigoted town. It wasn’t a film that I was in any particular hurry to experience but I knew it was one that I would have to watch eventually, if just because of how many filmmakers have cited the film as an influence. On Sunday night, First Blood aired on the Sundance Channel and, for the first time, I watched it all the way through. What I discovered is that there’s a lot more to First Blood than I had been led to believe.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s definitely an action film. Stallone spends a lot of time hiding in the woods, firing a machine gun, riding a motorcycle, and blowing up a town. Somewhat improbably, only one character actually dies over the course of the film, though quite a few end up getting maimed and wounded. There’s even a close-up of Stallone stitching up a nasty gash on his arm, which totally made me cringe. But, even with all the gunfire and explosions, First Blood has more on its mind than just carnage. It’s a brooding film, one that angrily takes America to task for its treatment of its veterans and outsiders. In its way, it’s an action film with a heart.
Sylvester Stallone plays John Rambo, a troubled drifter who is still haunted by not only his experiences in Vietnam but also by the feeling that his own country doesn’t want him around. When Rambo, with his unkempt hair and wearing a jacket with an American flag patch prominently displayed, shows up in the town of Hope, Washington, it’s not to cause trouble. He just wants to see an old friend, a man with whom he served. Unfortunately, his friend has died. The man’s bitter mother says that he got cancer from “that orange stuff they were spraying around.” Even though the war is over, it’s still killing the only people who can possibly understand how Rambo feels about both his service and his uncertain place in American society.
As Rambo walks through the town, he’s spotted by Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy). Rambo just wants to get a cup of coffee and relax. Teasle, however, views Rambo as being a stranger and, therefore, a possible threat to his town. Teasle wants Rambo to leave. Rambo wants to know why, after everything that he’s sacrificed for his country, he’s being told that he needs to get a haircut. From this simple conflict — a misunderstanding really, as Teasle doesn’t know that Rambo is mourning the death of his friend and instead interprets Rambo’s sullen silence as being a threat — an undeclared and unwinnable war soon breaks out.
Technically, Teasle is the film’s villain. He’s the one who arrests Rambo for vagrancy. It’s his abusive deputies who cause Rambo to have the flashbacks that lead to him breaking out of jail. It’s Teasle’s arrogance that leads to him ignore the warnings of Rambo’s former commanding office, Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna). And yet, Teasle himself is never portrayed as being an evil man. Instead, Dennehy plays Teasle as being well-meaning but stubborn. It’s been written that the most compelling villains are the ones who don’t realize that they’re the villain and that’s certainly true in Teasle’s case. Teasle’s job is to protect the town and its citizens and that’s what he’s determined to do. If his actions become extreme, it has less to do with any deliberate cruelty on his part and everything to do with the fact that, towards the end of the film, he finally figures out that he’s in way over his head.
Once Rambo has disappeared into the woods and maimed (but not killed) all of Teasle’s deputies, he only has one request and that’s to be left alone. He simply wants to stay in the woods, hunting for food and free from a society that has nothing to offer him during peacetime. What’s interesting is that, at the start of the film, everyone wants Rambo to just disappear. He’s a reminder of not just the turmoil of the Vietnam era but also the fact that Vietnam was the first war that America lost. Rambo’s presence is viewed as being like an ugly scar that you wish would just fade away. However, once Rambo does actually vanish, people won’t stop looking for him. As opposed to the later films in the franchise, the Rambo of First Blood doesn’t want to fight anyone. Rambo just wants to be left alone in solitude and considering the way that he’s treated by the town of Hope, it’s hard to blame him.
And so, you end up sympathizing with this John Rambo. Even thought he’s blowing up a town during the Christmas season and there’s a few scenes where he’s kind of scary, it’s impossible not to feel that he has a right to his anger. You find yourself wishing that the Sheriff had just left him alone or that maybe Rambo had just taken Teasle’s earlier advice and left town. Because, as you watch the film, you know that 1) there was no good reason why any of this had to happen and 2) things probably aren’t going to end well for either John Rambo or Will Teasle.
First Blood was based on a novel that was first published in 1972. The film spent nearly a decade in development, as various directors, screenwriters, and actors circled around the project. At one point, First Blood was envisioned as an anti-war film that would have been directed by Sidney Lumet and which would have featured a bearded Al Pacino lurking through the wilderness and killing not only Teasle but also several deputies and national guardsmen. When Stallone agreed to star in the film, he also rewrote the script, transforming Rambo into a sympathetic outsider who goes out of his way not to kill anyone. The end result was an underdog story that audiences could embrace.
Seen today, it’s interesting to see how many familiar faces pop up in First Blood. For instance, a young and really goofy-looking David Caruso pops up and totally overacts in the role of the only sympathetic deputy. A less sympathetic deputy is played by Chris Mulkey, who would go on to play other unsympathetic characters in a huge number of movies and TV shows. Interestingly enough, the most sadistic of the deputies was played by Jack Starrett, who directed a several classic B-moves in the 70s. (One of Starrett’s films was The Losers, in which a bunch of bikers were sent to Vietnam to rescue an American diplomat.)
As opposed to many of the films that it subsequently inspired, First Blood holds up surprisingly well. It may be violent but it’s violence with a heart.