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First Blood (1982)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

FIRST BLOOD (1982)

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna, Jack Starrett, Bill McKinney, Michael Talbott, David Caruso

Written By: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone, David Morrell (novel)

Directed By: Ted Kotcheff

The Short Version

First Blood is the definitive Vietnam Guilt movie.

If you were born more than a few years after this film was made, if that, you’ll miss a lot.

First Blood is not a movie one watches to enjoy the ass kicking; it is not really about that.

It’s a period drama with action, not the other way around.  Actual body count = 1 man, 3 dogs.

First Blood is a classic that’s fast becoming a museum piece.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

AMERICAN.

It has a powerful name, but the alleged cheese leaves a nasty aftertaste in your mouth… which is exactly what First Blood is looking for from America as it demands that the audience reflect upon itself.


Pairs Well With...

WILD TURKEY.

When the reflective Colonel and the unreasonable lawman drink to forget, this is their All-American drink of choice.  Popularly understood to work as advertised.

“Don’t push it.  Don’t push it, or I’ll give you a war you wouldn’t believe.  Let it go.  Let it go.”


Though others came before it – go on; try to name a few without looking them up first – First Blood has come to be recognized as the definitive Vietnam Guilt flick, and that’s what it wants to be.  Indeed, though David Morrell’s original novel is built around the plight of the traumatized veteran, it’s Sylvester Stallone’s rewrite of the film’s screenplay that truly makes John Rambo into a sympathetic character and ratchets up the guilt, inviting the audience to become just as fed up as Rambo is.  Who’s guilty, you ask?  Why, everyone, of course.

If you were born more than a few years after First Blood was made and you’re not a keen history student – or if you’re not from North America, for that matter – there is a lot about this movie that you simply won’t understand.  And honestly, depending on when you started to pick up your societal consciousness, that “few years” may be a generous allowance.

And just to be clear up front: any political beliefs you or I might possess have nothing to do with the essence of what follows.  It’s all about historical and social perspective.  Yes, First Blood is “just a movie,” except that it never really was “just” that.  What’s more, it has reached a point where it truly cannot be understood or appreciated outside of its original context, which, by design, was a social statement.

First Blood takes place in an America that is utterly alien to the one we know thirty years later.  In the America of First Blood – the real one of the years during and immediately following the war in Vietnam – soldiers are reviled and often spat upon, and their actions in battle are looked upon as a source of shame and disgust not only to millions of civilians who have never known combat and to the popular media, but even to some other veterans.  Meanwhile, in modern America, it’s practically a capital offense to not treat any soldier of any era with deference that borders on subservience, and the idea that anyone, especially a government authority or the popular media (which, as George Carlin once noted, has since the early 1990s very nearly become an unpaid arm of the Department of Defense), could ever have made any public comments against any member of the military seems patently absurd.  The national consciousness has gone from one extreme to the other, and if the “other” extreme that is the present culture is all you can remember knowing, then First Blood is likely to make almost no sense to you whatsoever.

First Blood also takes place in an America where if you spouted off the initials “PTSD” to the average person on the street, he or she would almost certainly have no idea what they could stand for, though many might guess it to be the abbreviated name for some kind of hallucinogen or other.  In the America of three decades hence, not only can pretty much anyone over the age of six identify the term “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” but you’ll also have fairly decent odds that they’ll be able to name one or several different medications used to treat it.  Again, one extreme to the other.

I could go on with the comparison/contrast merry-go-round, but I think you get the point.  First Blood takes place in a world so unlike the one of today in so many respects that the film itself has become stuck in history, and again, if you weren’t there and haven’t been a good history student, you will be scratching your head.

But no matter where or when you approach it from, First Blood is not a feel-good movie, and will likely leave you feeling pissed off about something.

What would you like to be pissed off about?  There’s so much to choose from…

You could be pissed that Rambo’s last remaining war buddy died of cancer brought on by American use of the Agent Orange toxin in Vietnam.  (If you don’t know what that nasty stuff is, look it up.  Stretching your academic muscles will do you some good.)  And though it’s unspoken in the film, you could also be pissed that the government refused to acknowledge its effects on veterans for so long.  (Long after the release of First Blood, in fact.)

You could be pissed that Chief Teasle (Brian Dennehy) decides to roust a man just walking down the side of the road minding his own business.  The guy isn’t even hitchhiking; he’s just walking.

You could be pissed when Teasle tells Rambo he’s being rousted not so much for his unkempt hair and slight odor, but mainly for his Army jacket with an American flag on the front, which obviously marks him as an undesirable that the town wants nothing to do with.  (You could be even more pissed when you later realize that Teasle is a veteran himself.)

You could be pissed when Teasle loads Rambo up in his police car and drives him across town to a spot outside of town limits, refusing to let Rambo stop at a café for food – which was all the guy wanted in the first place – and making it very clear that the town of Hope is too good for Rambo’s boots to tread upon.

You could be pissed when Teasle arrests Rambo for turning right around and trying to walk back into town.

At this point, you could also be, if not pissed, a bit annoyed with Rambo for deliberately asking for trouble instead of just walking away.  Or you could cheer because the man stands up for his own rights and principles.

You could also be annoyed at how needlessly stubborn Rambo is with his resistance to being processed at the police station, until you realize that he’s having flashbacks to his time in Vietnam and his torture at the hands of the VC/NVA.  At that point, you could be pissed at the world at large for not recognizing the obvious signs of PTSD and at the US military and the Veterans Administration for not doing anything to help a war hero once he mustered out.

You could be pissed at the truly despicable way that the police treat Rambo, be it when they threaten to smash his face in with a truncheon or when they hose him down Bull Connor style rather than letting him take a shower or when they come at him with a straight razor to allegedly shave him while implying something else entirely.  (Sadly, you could also be pissed that even now, it’s not hard to imagine the police treating someone randomly rousted off the street that way if one just switches the light skin and Army jacket for dark skin and a sweatshirt.)

You could be pissed at the deputy who aims to flat out murder Rambo against orders, just because he doesn’t like the guy.

You can take your pick as to whether to be pissed that the National Guardsmen are portrayed as a bunch of blithering morons or that the National Guardsmen act like a bunch of blithering morons; either way, the idea that the Lieutenant in charge opts to disobey orders and tries to blow up Rambo with a rocket launcher just so he can be back to his day job at the drugstore the next morning is likely to piss you off somehow.

You could be pissed that Rambo takes out his anger against the entire town, even though most of the people whose stuff he blows up never did anything to him.  Or, you could agree with Rambo and decide that everybody’s guilty, because ultimately…

You could be pissed at all of America circa the immediate post-Vietnam era, from the government to the media to the population at large, for being so ashamed of what became an unpopular war that they took it out on the men who came back by shunning them, treating them like dirt, and just wishing they’d go away, and for doing nothing to heal the scars they came back with, and for refusing to draw the difference between the politicians who made the mess and soldiers who had no choice but to slog through it.  In other words, though the story of First Blood is ultimately over the top and implausible, you could be pissed that John Rambo is a far more realistic character than most people of his day wanted to admit.

So you see?  There are lots of things you could be pissed about, and I haven’t even listed half of them.  But I think you get the idea now.

Sylvester Stallone sure wanted you to, anyway.  That’s why he retooled the script to make Rambo more accessible as damaged goods that the average person on the street could still relate to.  In the book, Rambo kills sixteen people and decides that he’s so far removed from society that he’d rather either get killed or off himself.  In the movie, Rambo’s still got some humanity, and never deliberately kills anyone, despite the dire warnings always given to the cops by his former CO.  (The body count here is one man and three dogs; whether or not Rambo directly caused the man’s death is debatable, and the dogs are definite self defense.  Oh; he also kills a wild boar for meat.)  And as long as Rambo isn’t really on a murder spree, it’s easier for the audience to catch on to his inner suffering, and to listen when he tries to explain where it comes from, and maybe, just maybe, to think about all of that when the movie’s over.

Apparently, the audience did, because thanks largely to the awareness raised and conversations started by movies like First Blood and other popular works, the attitude was different the next time America went to war, and way different the time after that.  And yes, I did just declare Sylvester Stallone an agent of societal change, because if you don’t realize the major impact that movies had on altering the national consciousness, you just weren’t/aren’t paying attention.

As for the part of First Blood that really is “just a movie…”

For an action movie slammed by some for its violence, First Blood has, as mentioned, no real body count, and even by the standards of the time, the “blood and boom” shots, while not dull by any means, are certainly nothing to get worked up over.  Modern audiences may even find them tame, but overall, the movie still stands up well, and the chase and stalk sequences definitely have held up over time.  (Just don’t expect much from the sound mix, which was pretty awful the first time around, too.)  The casting is also first rate across the board, even if none of the leads were the filmmakers’ first choice.  No real complaints with the direction, either; the action flows, the drama is given its due, and the overall pacing works.

However, decent as First Blood may be as a film, it can’t shake being a product of its time, and as such, some modern audiences may have a pretty difficult go of relating to it now.  It really never was a standalone action film per se, even though that’s how it’s come to be packaged and sold as time has passed, and just can’t be separated from its deeper social message.  When all is said and done, First Blood is a period drama, and I seriously wonder if “fresh blood” is ready for that.

In any case, you may want to close your ears when the end credits start to roll.  It turns out that the kickass theme music that would carry on after First Blood to all of the Rambo sequels (and which would even be co-opted as the overall corporate jingle for the Carolco production company) has lyrics… and you get to hear them.  Unfortunately, those lyrics are being whined by Dan Hill, he of “Sometimes When We Touch” fame, who even supersedes Michael Bolton as a poster child for why old school Adult Contemporary radio sucks.  It’s like someone decided that once Rambo let out all of his feelings and frustrations in his final speech (which, no matter what anyone says, is brilliantly delivered by Stallone), it was okay to turn First Blood into a simpering chick flick.  Seriously, folks, unless you want one more thing to be pissed off about, do not listen to the closing theme music.

Bottom line, First Blood is very much a product of its time, and like Rambo himself was never really removed from his experiences in Vietnam, so too is the character’s first film firmly entrenched in the “Vietnam Guilt” era.  For Stallone fans, this movie still counts as a must-see, but if you’re expecting a regular action flick, you won’t get it.  Yes, there’s action, but it’s really just dressing for a period drama meant to expose a terrible scar on the nation’s soul, and a window to a world that was but is no more.  First Blood is anything but a feel good flick, and since many action fans pick movies as a way to escape reality and feel good for a while… well, you do the math.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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