“Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe.” – John J.Rambo
It could easily be described as ‘a tale as old as time’ or a collection of proverbs that serve to remind, (let sleeping dogs lie, never judge a book by its cover etc.) but First Blood is a film that immediately secures its place in movie history despite appearing as a shallow kill frenzy designed to glorify violence. Dig a little deeper than the knuckle-and-teeth clenching and what you find is a tale of camaraderie, brotherhood and one man standing up for his right to exist beyond the misguided aggression that discrimination fuels.
When I first saw this celluloid vengeance vehicle I absorbed absolutely none of those virtues, rather I revelled in the ‘fuck you’ sentiment John Rambo stood for; yet as mother time rolls by and as with many films of its genre, I have wound up looking past the gung-ho brawling and into the eyes and hearts of the men involved.
Lets start with John Rambo, (Sylvester Stallone) the protagonist in this mountainous skirmish. This is a man who after returning home from the hell we now call Vietnam, learns that one of his few remaining friends and brothers-in-arms is now prematurely dead through chemical weapon exposure on the battlefield. With little or no time to process this unexpected loss, he sets off on foot to find a place to rest, refuel and think about what just happened.
Enter Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), a man who never got the memo when virtues such as manners, integrity and tolerance were handed out. Basing his entire judgment on a facial expression and haircut, this contemptuous buffoon sets about denying an innocent traveller food, shelter and a place to sit; blissfully ignorant to the fact that the visitor in question served his country and risked his life to protect the same liberties he is now being stripped of.
Completing this circle of karma is one Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) the only man capable of helping John Rambo regain his place in civilian life. He is sequestered to this small back wood town not long after events unfurl, only to discover that for absolutely no good reason or justifiable doubt, Sheriff Teasle has both managed to start all manner of trouble (despite his assignment to prevent it in the first place) and jeopardise the lives of everybody within a ten mile radius.
These three narrative elements alone make First Blood compelling to watch, but what really manages to punctuate the underlying message is witnessed in the final moments of the film. Delivering more impact than anything preceding it, a scene of incredible vulnerability between two military figures plays out; a pseudo father-and-son relationship that defies American male culture and achieves more than was perhaps appreciated back in 1982.
It is the power of this closing act that always manages to bring a lump to my throat, as I am sure it does many other men of my generation, and yet that power has nothing to do with bravery or strength, but everything to do with the human condition; to reach out when we need help and to admit defeat when it all gets too much. Those are the moments when we get to grow, flourish and live that little bit longer, and John Rambo may not have been a man of many words, but his character represented many men such as I when it came to the need for understanding and being understood.