“I could have killed ’em all, I could kill you. In town you’re the law, out here it’s me. Don’t push it. Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe. Let it go. Let it go,” John Rambo tells Sheriff Will Teasle.
It’s hard to believe that its been 30 years since Sylvester Stallone first portrayed Vietnam vet John J. Rambo on the big screen. The film was based on the 1972 novel of the same name by David Morrell. The book’s tone was a lot more grim and the character of Rambo was not as sympathetic as in the film (it was the casting of Stallone that led to a re-write that made Rambo more of an underdog like Rocky Balboa that would make Rambo more sympathetic to audiences).
Sylvester Stallone stars as John Rambo, a former Green Beret and Vietnam vet who discovers at the beginning of the film that he is the last surviving member of his unit. He soon crosses paths with small-town sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) in Hope, Washington, who has a strong dislike of drifters. Escorted to the edge of town, Rambo turns back in defiance, hoping to just get a meal somewhere close by. Arrested and jailed by Teasle for vagrancy, Rambo soon starts having flashbacks to when he was a POW, and he escapes the jail. Teasle sends his department into the mountains to hunt down Rambo, only to discover that Rambo is the one hunting them. As Rambo wages a one-man war against them, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo’s former commanding officer, soon shows up to try to diffuse the situation before any more harm is done.
Sylvester Stallone is just terrific as the physically (and mentally) tortured Rambo. He perfectly captures the nuances of a killing machine that survives instinctually. It is somewhat surprising to find that his performance in this film was polarizing to a number of critics, particularly his monologue in the finale. Some felt that his inarticulateness killed the scene, but the inarticulateness was the whole point of that monologue. Here’s a man who’s been pushed to his limits (physically and mentally), has seen the horrors of war, lost all of his closest friends, and can’t readjust to civilian life. His mind was in a fluster as he went from one topic to the next, sounding almost incomprehensible at times. That was his current state of being, and Stallone nailed it.
Brian Dennehy is terrific as Teasle. He captures the overzealousness of Teasle but also the integrity of the job he holds. At one point in the film, there’s a shot of Teasle in his office, and a plaque with some medals is clearly shown. This is in reference to Teasle having served in the Korean War, something that the book went into a lot more detail about. Teasle being a Korean War veteran was actually one of the biggest reasons that he disliked Rambo so much. The Korean War is often referred to as the Forgotten War, whereas the Vietnam War was a huge attention-getter. In the film, when Teasle finds out that Rambo is a decorated Vietnam vet and some of his deputies make a big deal about it, he loses his cool, and grabs and yells at one of them. It is this jealousy that drives Teasle, and Dennehy really delivers the goods.
Richard Crenna (a last-minute replacement for Kirk Douglas) brings the right amount of ambiguity and charm to the character of Col. Trautman. He wants to see the situation resolved, but he still cares about Rambo. Even late in the film, he tells Teasle that because Rambo still trusts him it is the only edge he’ll need if he comes face-to-face with him (implying that he might have to kill Rambo if necessary, something a lot of people missed). Crenna brings subtlety to his performance as a man torn between loyalty and duty. Col. Trautman actually became Crenna’s most famous role (one that he reprised in 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II and 1988’s Rambo III, and spoofed in 1993’s Hot Shots- Part Deux).
I find it fascinating that Teasle and Trautman are, in a way, competing father figures for Rambo. Teasle is the father figure who’s jealous of Rambo’s “success.” Rambo is a fully decorated Vietnam vet, a former Green Beret, and winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor while Teasle is a Korean War vet who has won a couple of medals for his service but not much more. Trautman is the father figure who’s still looking out for Rambo after so many years. He recruited Rambo and trained him to be the best. He goes to Hope, Washington, ultimately for Rambo’s sake, not the military.
In addition to Stallone, Dennehy, and Crenna, the terrific actors that make up the sheriff’s department include Bill McKinney, Jack Starrett, Michael Talbot, Chris Mulkey, Al Humphreys, and David Caruso. The well-rounded screenplay was written by Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim (with a credited re-write by Stallone). Andrew Laszlo’s cinematography was excellent, as was Ted Kotcheff’s outstanding directing. And then there’s the classic Jerry Goldsmith score, which stood out in a year that saw him score six films (including The Secret of N.I.M.H., Night Crossing, The Challenge, Inchon, and his Oscar-nominated Poltergeist).
The resulting box office success of First Blood was good enough to green-light a sequel (1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, itself followed by an animated series, 1988’s Rambo III, and 2008’s Rambo (aka John Rambo — director’s cut). The film also inspired several poor imitators, notably the Missing In Action franchise starring Chuck Norris. In the wake of First Blood‘s success also came a string of Vietnam-themed (or inspired) films: 1986’s Platoon, 1986’s Aliens (a Vietnam allegory set on another planet), 1987’s Full Metal Jacket (in director Stanley Kubrick’s defense, he actually started working on that film long before the others were even thought of), 1987’s Hamburger Hill, 1989’s Born on the Fourth of July, and 1989’s Casualties of War.