John Rambo makes his dramatic entrance in First Blood

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John Rambo makes his dramatic entrance in First Blood

First Blood
First Blood

With A History Of Violence, Tom Breihan picks the most important action movie of every year, starting with the genre’s birth and moving right up to whatever Vin Diesel’s doing this very minute.

First Blood (1982)

John Rambo was supposed to die. In David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood, the source material for the 1982 movie, Rambo dies at the end. In a few different versions of the movie, in the scripts that bounced around Hollywood for nearly a decade before getting made, Rambo dies. Filming the actual movie, director Ted Kotcheff shot a scene in which Rambo, exhausted after laying waste to a small Pacific Northwest town, convinces Colonel Trautman, the father figure who trained him, to shoot him, so he wouldn’t have to be shot by the police and National Guard surrounding the police station where he’s trapped. But the movie didn’t use that scene. And instead, Rambo went on to become the great iconic cartoon action hero of the ’80s. Life is funny.

The First Blood rights were a hot potato for a while there. At various points, something like four production houses owned the rights to Morrell’s novel. Different producers approached a laundry list of ’70s stars about playing the Rambo role: Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, John Travolta. Try to imagine any of them with that bandana tied around their heads, carrying that knife or that assault rifle. You can’t. It’s almost impossible. The role needed Sylvester Stallone—still hunting for his first real non-Rocky hit in 1982, still eager to prove that he really knew how to act. He was the only person who could’ve played it.

If you grew up in the ’80s, with the omnipresent image of Rambo everywhere you looked, it’s still striking to go back to First Blood and to behold what a small, cynical vision that first movie is. I owned a Rambo Halloween costume before I ever saw a Rambo movie. But before the character became a perfect Reagan-era American avenger, he was a haunted, destroyed man. The villain of First Blood isn’t from Vietnam or Russia. He’s from Hope, Oregon. Driving through his town one morning, Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) sees a pathetic figure, dirty and bedraggled and longhaired, trudging down the side of the highway. With perfect asshole-cop fake-pleasantry, he drives the pathetic figure out of town, letting him know, in no uncertain tone, that he is not welcome there, not even to get a meal at a local restaurant. At the edge of town, he drops the drifter off and sends him on his way. The drifter, angry and defiant, turns around and walks right back toward town. And everything that happens in First Blood proceeds from that fateful decision. Within a few days, that sheriff’s town will be exploding around him, and he’ll still be convinced that he was right.

Of course, what Teasle doesn’t realize is that the drifter is John Rambo, war hero, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, a traumatized killing machine who does not respond well to that kind of pressure. There had been plenty of post-traumatic Vietnam veterans in movies before Rambo. Jon Voight and Christopher Walken had won Oscars for playing them in Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, respectively. They’d made for great action antiheroes, too; in Rolling Thunder, William Devane’s character went through POW-torture flashbacks a lot like the ones that Rambo suffered in that Washington police station, where asshole cops beat him up, hold him down, and try to shave him. But First Blood gives us our purest look at a great cinematic trope: the expert soldier who’s been set adrift in a homeland he barely recognizes, who’s been sent on his way with no help and with a head full of terrible memories.

There are still people, even after the Oscar nominations, who think that Sylvester Stallone can’t act. I would like for all of those people to give First Blood a long, hard look. As a physical presence, Stallone is hard and intimidating and powerful. The scene where Rambo breaks out of the police station, crumpling cops to the floor or sending them flying through windows, is thrilling to watch partly because Stallone moves with such confident, violent grace. Just before he snatches a driver off of his motorcycle, Stallone does this little shoulder shimmy, as if trying to time his grab exactly right, and it looks so badass.

But he also has this intense, lost vulnerability in his eyes. You can see that he’s been damaged; he doesn’t have to say anything about it. After he loses it in the police station, he finds ways to tell the police, over and over, that he wants to be left alone. That vulnerability is what keeps us sympathizing with Rambo, even after we’ve seen him killing cops and dogs. That’s acting.

Stallone also had good instincts about the storyline, too. It was his idea to keep Rambo as sympathetic as possible, only killing that first cop by accident, when he was trapped up against a wall. And it was Stallone’s idea to let Rambo live at the end of the movie, a decision that allowed one of our stranger, more awesome movie franchises to exist. Other actors had other ideas. In negotiations to play Colonel Trautman, Kirk Douglas reportedly insisted on the idea that Trautman should kill Rambo and that he should walk off with Rambo’s headband as a trophy. Stallone knew better.

First Blood is hard and fast and merciless. The entire first half of the movie is essentially one long, escalating action scene. It starts subdued and heavy-hearted, with Rambo learning that Agent Orange has killed the last surviving member of his unit. But then there’s the arrest, the jailbreak, the motorcycle chase, the wilderness hunt. Through all of it, Rambo remains mysterious; we only learn scraps of information about him, the same way Teasle does. Pretty soon, Teasle and his cops become Rambo’s prey, getting caught in his booby traps and threatened at the edge of his knife. Rambo has almost become a horror-movie slasher, though he’s just barely managed to restrain himself from killing most of them. And then we finally find out who he is.

The moment when we learn about Rambo is one of the movie’s two greatest scenes. Trautman (Richard Crenna) gets a great entrance, appearing in silhouette at the door of Teasle’s tent: “God didn’t make Rambo. I made him.” And because Rambo, being a stoic action hero, doesn’t really talk, it falls on Trautman to let Teasle know exactly who he’s fucking with. He does it in grand, theatrical detail: “A man who’s the best with guns, with knives, with his bare hands. A man who’s been trained to ignore pain, ignore weather, to live off the land, to eat things that would make a billygoat puke.” Trautman loves Rambo; that much is immediately apparent. He also wants to avoid a situation where Rambo kills everyone in this little town. When it looks like a group of National Guard dorks have killed Rambo, both Teasle and Trautman are pissed. They know this is a grander struggle, and they want a better ending. But only Trautman knows that Rambo is probably still alive.

Trautman is also right there at the heart of the movie’s other best scene. After Rambo has absolutely laid waste to this town, shooting up storefronts and blowing up a gas station, he and Trautman finally come face to face. And Rambo just crumples. Everything he’s been keeping inside finally comes out—all the horrors and traumas of war, all the confusion of being back at home and unable to find a place in the world. By the end of the scene, Rambo is a blubbering mess. That scene is a rare thing: An action-movie climax that’s nothing more than a conversation between two men, one of them absolutely falling apart and the other trying to keep him together. It might be the best acting of Stallone’s entire career.

First Blood is the movie that made an iconic action hero out of Stallone. He’d been in action movies before, and of course he’d also been Rocky Balboa, which is a different thing entirely. (I haven’t been writing about the Rocky movies in this space because I consider them sports movies instead of action movies, though Rocky IV does toe the line a bit.) But his portrayal of Rambo as a trapped-animal super-soldier is what essentially defined the Stallone archetype: a tough, wounded, taciturn fighter, one who always seemed to be on the run from something terrible in his past.

First Blood is also just a beautifully made action movie. The stunt-work—the motorcycle jumps, the falls from trees and helicopters—is incredible. It’s simple and lean and focused, and it keeps building, becoming more explosive and absurd. But even as it escalates, it keeps its heart intact. If Raiders Of The Lost Ark blew action movies out to new heights of cinematic grandeur, First Blood served as a reminder that these big, ridiculous action movies could still be stories about human beings. Many of the best action movies of the ’80s would remember that lesson. The Rambo movies themselves would sometimes forget.

Other notable 1982 action movies: In terms of pure importance, the runner-up for 1982 has to be 48 Hrs., which established a rough version of the buddy-cop formula and which gave Eddie Murphy his first movie role. (He was already a star thanks to Saturday Night Live, but 48 Hrs. made it all the more obvious.) Walter Hill, one of the greatest action filmmakers of all time, directed the movie, but the things that we remember about it aren’t really the action scenes, even if the fistfight between Murphy and Nick Nolte was pretty raw. Instead, it’s the interplay between these two opposite types, both of whom can talk a whole lot of shit (though Nolte’s intense racism has not aged well) and both of whom hate each other with a rare fire. Many, many movies would try to replicate that chemistry. Only a few would succeed.

And with Conan The Barbarian, 1982 also marked the real arrival of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’d been famous as a bodybuilder but who only really arrived as a screen hero when John Milius handed him a loincloth and a sword. Conan belonged more to the fantasy genre than to action, and I’m not going to discuss the fantasy stuff too much in this column, though I should probably also mention that Don Coscarelli’s beautifully weird The Beastmaster also came out in 1982. But Schwarzenegger’s hulking presence, and Milius’ muscular direction, gave the movie a whole lot more grisly intensity than we usually see in those movies.

Cheap, exploitative B-movies were all over the place that year, and the best of them was probably Class Of 1984, in which a vengeance-mad teacher takes on a gang of teenage punk-rock nihilists. It’s one of the nastiest, most entertaining examples of the genre you’ll ever see. And Charles Bronson, clearly no longer giving anything resembling a fuck, returned to the role of Paul Kersey, as the great schlock-house Cannon Films got the rights to the Death Wish franchise and made it into something truly and deeply ridiculous. Look out for a young Laurence Fishburne, attempting to use his boombox to block bullets and still getting shot in the face. (Speaking of aging American action stars, Clint Eastwood stole a hyper-advanced Russian fighter plane in Firefox, but that’s not really an exploitation movie.) And then there was MegaForce, the fantastically shitty futuristic vision that failed to make a movie star out of Barry Bostwick.

Hong Kong kung fu movies had a great year, especially with movies involving ninjas. Shaw Brothers’ Five Element Ninjas pitted the Poison Mob, the group of actors from movies like Five Deadly Venoms, against a whole cadre of silent masked assassins. It’s great and bloody and strange. And then there was The Shaolin Temple, which looks like a John Ford Western. It earns its place in history because of its debuting star, a breathtakingly graceful 19-year-old Chinese wushu prodigy named Jet Li.

Next time: Jackie Chan elevates the antic slapstick martial-arts spectacular to new heights with Project A.

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