Wednesday, 28 November 2012

First Blood (1982)

Dir. Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy, Bill McKinney

I had always thought that the Rambo series of films was the apogee of dumb ‘80s action movies, the U.S. fighting on screen the wars it was not fighting in real life (see also the aerial duel with Soviet MiGs in Top Gun). My memory is of Rambo, stripped to his vest and with a red headband, swinging through the jungles and killing the Vietnamese – revenge for a war which America lost. This may have been true for the sequels but the original Rambo film, First Blood, is a very different beast indeed. There is action, and lots of it. But this is no testosterone-fueled wet dream of American potency. This looks at how America deals with – or fails to deal with – defeat. 

John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a hero of the Vietnam war, a survivor of a crack Green Beret special forces team. Only two of the team made it back alive from ‘Nam. At the start of the film we meet Rambo as he makes his way to find the other survivor. He is told that his friend is dead from cancer as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. “Got himself killed in ‘Nam, didn’t even know it.” Now he is alone, the last of an almost-extinct breed of super-soldier. Walking down the road into the holiday town of Hope he is picked up by the local sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy). Teasle regards him as a vagrant and a ghost at the feast – he tells Rambo that his Stars-and-Stripes emblazoned army jacket will arouse hostility in his quiet little town. Teasle picks him up and drives him to outside the town limits before dropping him off. When Rambo turns and starts walking back into town the sheriff arrests him. Whilst being imprisoned Rambo is mistreated by abusive deputy Galt (Jack Starrett); his mistreatment brings back unpleasant memories of his captivity at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Rambo flips; he busts out of gaol, steals a motorbike and heads for the mountains with the entire sheriff’s department on his tail. But Rambo has been trained in unconventional warfare; the forested mountains are his domain. “In town you’re the law”, he warns Teasle; “out here it’s me. Don’t push it! Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe…”  

And yes, there is action – a jail break, a motorcycle / police car chase, a literal cliff-hanger during a helicopter attack, a guerrilla war in the woods, rocket launchers, an escape from a caved-in mine, another car chase, explosions throughout town, and then the final reckoning between Rambo and Teasle. And these scenes are good. There is plenty of punch and pow to them. The drama rollocks along and gives the audience no time to get bored.  

But the film is about more than that. It is about the consequences of action. Rambo justifies his actions with the simple phrase “They drew first blood.” But really it wasn’t Teasle who drew first blood: it was Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), the Green Berets former commanding officer, acting on behalf of the state, who drew first blood. He trained Rambo to be a super-soldier with only one function: to kill in order to win the Vietnamese War. But with that war lost Rambo has no place in society. He is obsolete. Everything he went through was no no avail, the sacrifices of him and his team-mates was to no avail. And now American society wants to forget that period of its history. America has turned its back on those who fought in the name of America. “It wasn’t my war! You asked me, I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me ‘baby-killer’and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me? Who are they? Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re talking about!” He complains that “Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million-dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars!” This is why Teasle’s warning that “wearing that flag on your jacket, looking the way you do, you’re asking for trouble around here” hurts so much. He sacrificed everything for the flag and now the flag doesn’t want to know him any more. No wonder Rambo comments that “There are no friendly civilians!”  

Sylvester Stallone, to be fair, gives a bravura performance. He doesn’t have many lines. He speaks in the first couple of scenes. He shares a few words with Teasle in the woods and then to Trautman over the walkie talkie. But he is mostly silent until the dramatic last scene in which the human cost of the war to Rambo is brought home. What becomes clear is that it is not just the covenant made with America that was damaged in the war. He was very badly damaged too. He may have scars upon his back and chest, but the deepest scars are psychological. Confronted by Trautman the words come tumbling out of him as he describes the death of his friend Joey in a Saigon bar: “There’s pieces of him all over me, just like this, and I’m tryin’ to pull him off, you know? My friend that’s all over me. I’ve got blood and everything and I’m tryin’ to hold him together. I’m puttin’… the guy’s fuckin’ insides keep comin’ out! And nobody would help! Nobody would help! He’s sayin’, sayin’ “I wanna go home! I wanna go home!” Sayin’ my name: “I wanna go home Johnny! I wanna drive my Chevy!” And I said “With what? I can’t find your fuckin’ legs! I can’t find your legs!” Handled poorly those lines could have been hilarious. Here they are deeply moving as an unarticulate man finally lets everything out. Rambo has felt alone because there was no one he can share this with. He has been unsuccesfully trying to speak to Trautman at Fort Bragg (Trautman evasively replies that he has not been at Bragg much – true or just an excuse for the fact that until Rambo went rogue he did not care about him?). He came up to Washington in the first place to find the other remaining member of his troop.  

There is a nasty side to all this. Dwell on Rambo’s words: “I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win!” But of course. There was no way the Vietnamese could have legitimately defeated the United States. They only won because the brave boys over in Asia were betrayed. They were betrayed so that they could not win the war, and then they were betrayed by society when they returned home. This is exactly the sort of myth of a ‘stab in the back’ that grew up in Germany after the First World War; traitors at home betrayed the cause. In that instance we know what it led to. In this case it probably leads on to the sequels. Incidentally, the only Vietnamese shown are sadistic torturers – exactly the same depiction as in The Deer Hunter 

First Blood flipped my preconceptions about the movie on its head. Yes, it is a violent action movie. But it has a soul, unveiled in the last scene by Rambo’s emotional outpouring of words. It subverts the genre. The protagonist is maybe not the hero we expect; instead he is a deeply damaged individual. This adds more depth and character to what I thought was just going to be another dumb ‘80s action movie. 

The chopper crew saw their chance
to finish off Coldplay for good
What have I learnt about Washington?
The biggest thing to see is the mountains – huge, craggy, thick with trees and riven with sheer gorges. They look impenetrable, but it is clear that men have been exploiting them for decades. Rambo surprises a hunter, he stumbles over a junkyard strewn with forgotten machinery and vehicles, and he takes shelter in an abandoned mine. The town of Hope, at the foot of the mountains, advertises itself as ‘Holidayland’. Outdoor and hunting equipment can be bought there. These are not remote and untouched peaks. These are well touristed. 

It therefore falls to the Sheriff’s Department to keep that Holidayland “boring”. Drifters and vagabonds are not welcome – particularly those who might remind the fun-loving holidaymakers of a tragic and forgotten war. In the event of a real emergency they can call upon backup from the State Police and even the National Guard. 

Can we go there?
The town of Hope is fictitious. Or sort of. Hope does exist and filming took place there, but the real Hope is in British Columbia, Canada, rather than Washington. It can be found about 150km east of Vancouver. Searching the web has revealed that there a hell of a lot of fans who want to see where the action really happened. There are quite exhaustive details on all the specific locations used. The bridge where Teasle drops Rambo off crosses the Coquihalla River on Kawkawa Lake Road on the eastern outskirts of Hope. The police station was located on the north-east corner of Wallace and 3rd Avenue (the downstairs cell block was actually filmed in the old BC Penitentiary in New Westminster however). The Hope Vistor’s Centre on Water Street can provide a map detailing all the principal locations in town. The gorge scene was filmed in the Coquihalla Canyon. The exact spot can be found by walking through the first of the ‘Othello Tunnels’. The general mountain scenes were filmed in the Golden Ears Provincial Park. 

Madly, the junkyard where Rambo gets his canvas and rope still exists. I had assumed that it was created for the movie, but no. It can be found north of Port Coquitlam and up the Monroe Trail. Also near Port Coquitlam, Delmar’s cabin was up the Pitt River from Pitt Meadows. 

I’m having more difficulty trying to place where Hope was meant to be. Captain Kerns of the State Police (Bill McKinney) says that he can bring some men up from Monroe; Monroe is about twenty miles north-east of Seattle. Wherever they are it is an outdoor sports centre backed by tall wooded mountains. 

Overall Rating: 4/5

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