Who drew first blood?
So this last week, I addressed an odd quirk in my movie experiences regarding the Rambo franchise. Namely, that while I have over the years watched Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and even the more recent (just plain) Rambo, I never had viewed the original First Blood. I knew the gist of it: Sylvester Stallone’s Vietnam vet character freaks out after mistreatment by corrupt small town law enforcement and a big manhunt ensues… but since John Rambo turns out to be a green beret, who is hunting whom?
I don’t know quite what I was expecting. The sequels aren’t exactly thought provoking, although they’re certainly entertaining as long as you’re in it for the gunfire and the explosions. I wondered if First Blood would have anything different on the table, before all the formulaic violence was established and John Rambo became more of a jingoistic cartoon (and I do mean that literally).
So here’s the thing: the climax of First Blood does indulge itself in the sort of over-the-top, almost laughable action that came to define the franchise, as John Rambo wields an M60 from the hip to blow up cars and gas stations. Prior to that, though, it’s surprisingly low key. Rambo’s opponents aren’t trained soldiers, and the script respects that… even the National Guardsmen are “weekend warrior” types who have never really been shot at and react appropriately when it happens (ducking for cover and being very reluctant to move from it). The actual body count is incredibly low, and I’ve said before that when you keep it that way it makes each actual death mean more. First Blood could in fact be said to have only one “confirmed kill”, and it’s more of a tragic accident than anything, born out of desperation on one side and the darkness of human ego on the other.
Now there’s a police car later on which is inexplicably made of explodium and thus it’s difficult to imagine the cops inside surviving its crash, but that moment happens to be my dividing line between all that goes before and the aforementioned M60 rampage, the moment where the movie goes somewhere entirely different (and less interesting to me because I’ve seen it before).
But up until that division, there is this fascinating film of a situation spiraling out of control despite efforts on both sides to defuse it. Maybe in that sense the climax isn’t totally out of place, because as a small town goes up in flames you remind yourself every last bit of this happened because the Sheriff didn’t want a “drifter” stopping for a bite to eat in his city limits. On the other hand, calling the Sheriff corrupt might be simplifying the issue, because there’s also a moment where a different John Rambo swallows his pride and moves on after the Sheriff drops him off (closer, it must be said, to his intended destination). This John Rambo turns around and comes back.
Both decisions are made out of pride and perfectly justified from the points of view of the characters involved, but from these small beginnings, these nothings, comes catastrophe. Stallone often gets short shrift as an actor, but every time someone grabs at John Rambo you can see the reflex for him to defend himself barely held in check, even as his expression remains numb… the symptoms of PTSD in action back when that was barely recognized as a thing. Of course, eventually it becomes too much and the freakout begins, but even then once a man lies dead there’s a sad moment where he tries to turn himself in, horrified at what’s happened. But a stray(?) trigger pull ends any hope of things being resolved. The bullets whine around him, cutting his cheek as he flees. First blood is drawn, and that’s when Rambo really starts getting mean.
Brian Dennehy turns in a great performance as the Sheriff as well. He’s nominally the villain, but if you walk in his shoes, with what he knows, well, he’s probably thinking he’s the hero. He doesn’t seem like a bad guy, or a corrupt one. In fact, he and most of his deputies seem like decent enough sorts in their daily lives. But his all-too-human ego won’t let him rest once things start escalating. There are many people who just really end up hating him, but I suppose I didn’t really, I just felt sad for everyone. I mean, heck, I wrote Muriel as someone convinced she was the hero as well, and her actions were much less sympathetic.
So, yeah, that first arc of Zombie Ranch I wrote was sort of my own study of a catastrophe that could have been avoided (or at least minimized) but for circumstance and ego, even with an unseen hand nudging things along. That’s probably why I’m a sucker right now for fiction that does similar things.
Who drew first blood? When the dust settles and the sun rises on the wreckage, the most tragic truth is that destruction doesn’t care about human justifications. But time and time again, we find ourselves unable to just walk away.