In the harrowing climatic moments of First Blood (1982), we see John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), raving like a lunatic over the ill-treatment of war veterans. “Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war!” he screams at his former commanding officer played by Richard Crenna.
Rambo is a Vietnam War veteran — a soldier with 59 confirmed kills and a Medal of Honor that, one presumes, is stashed somewhere in the tattered jeans he is wearing.
In his last stand at the local sheriff’s office (one he’d decimated, along with a local gas station), Rambo yells that he’s had enough. His speech is incoherent as he screams about being labelled a baby killer. In a fit, he calls Vietnam war protestors ‘maggots.’ They don’t know what soldiers went through, he wails.
“Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of a million-dollar equipment, back here (in the US), I can’t even hold a job parking cars!” he grunts between anguished sobs — as if, for him, war was a better option, even if it is mentally damaging and inglorious.
Such was the character created by novelist David Morrell. A killing machine with a fractured mind. A living breathing anti-war statement, disillusioned by the state, but still patriotic, choosing to live like a vagabond, wandering aimlessly from one freeway to another.
Every film in the Rambo franchise is governed by the need of the times. And as the latest instalment, Last Blood, shows, the need of the time is desperate nostalgia
In the first scene of the film, he learns that one of his brother-in-arms succumbed to cancer — a reference to Agent Orange, a chemical warfare agent used by the American government in Vietnam that seriously affected three million people. Reliving nightmares of his prisoner-of-war days, Rambo was already ready to boil over when the first film started — all it took was the harassment of a local redneck sheriff to finally set him off.
First Blood was an unpretentious action film with subtle messages, but Rambo himself was not made out to be a hero.
That changed immediately after First Blood made $125 million on a $15 million budget.
Rambo: First Blood II (1985), was co-written by Stallone from a first draft by James Cameron (who was also writing Aliens (1986) at the time) — and like everything Cameron does, it turned Rambo into an unstoppable super soldier — a one-man army who could take down a military regime. Tasked to return to Vietnam and take pictures of a POW camp for military intelligence, this Rambo was someone else.
With exception to one lone sentence at the very end, where he wants the country to respect and love war veterans, First Blood II didn’t want to raise pertinent issues or tell layered, emotionally harrowing stories. It was just loud enough to test one’s ear-drums and bloody enough to appeal to the sensibilities of the typical hot-blooded male.
Intellectually, a low-point in the franchise — Part II proved a point. Audiences, especially on a mass-level, want escapism. The $25 million film ended up grossing $300 million worldwide (in comparison, James Cameron’s Aliens, a global hit as well, grossed $131 million).
Rambo had transitioned into a sellable commodity that fuelled men’s imagination. The refined iconic theme from Jerry Goldsmith was tinkered with militaristic overtones; in fact, it even featured in the opening theme of Rambo: The Force of Freedom (1986), a Saturday morning action cartoon that ran for 65 episodes and which turned Rambo into a G.I. Joe clone. Like First Blood II, it appealed to its target audience, young children who wanted action figures (I was one of them).
Cinematically, things continued to become simpler — especially for the adults. Two years later in 1988, Rambo III, forced the hero into another unwilling mission, where he was to rescue his former commander from the clutches of the Russian military in Afghanistan.
Pushing right-wing politics of the then-ruling Republican party, Rambo III glorified local Mujahedeen into courageous freedom fighters. Rambo, now less grim, in an uncharacteristically happy mood, even befriends a young boy and plays Buzkashi (a native polo-like game, where horse mounted players attempt to place a goat carcass in a goal).
By that time the world had already forgotten the damaged origins of the character; he had been altered from a complex individual, into a near-immortal action hero out of a comic book. It was a fine path to take, especially for a growing franchise… until everything went south.
Even though it was a hit, Rambo III was met with bad reviews, and it took 20 years for Rambo to make a big comeback.
Indecisively, the last two entries — Rambo (2008), a gritty slaughter-fest set in Burma with a one-line story, and Last Blood (2019), which could stand in for any Liam Neeson revenge movie — force the character to return to his emotionally jagged roots in a last ditch attempt at salvaging the brand.
These titles, and the elapsed decades, do not help the image of the character, nor make him relevant for today’s audience. In fact, they barely function as a means to keep the title character alive.
But then again, the same can be argued for every title in the series.
Interestingly, every film in the Rambo franchise is governed by the need of the times. The early ’80s needed a statement, the mid-’80s needed an iconic action hero, and the late 2000s needed a platform for an aging star. The creatives working on the film never thought of long-term goals, or the audience.
Like the character, the franchise was always in a state of war, whether with itself or with changing times and circumstances. The situation is uncannily similar to Stallone’s other well-known character Rocky Balboa — except, Balboa had a more streamlined flow of story.
Rambo, given the state he’s in today, is a casualty of a half thought out, constantly evolving war; a character that lost its legitimacy years ago, and whose one sole reason for existence is nostalgia.
Published in Dawn, ICON, September 29th, 2019