It’s a trying time in American politics, what with the White House having fallen under the control of the Orange Menace. But, even though this Trump situation is beyond all bounds, political tension is nothing new in the United States. Without it, a film like First Blood wouldn’t exist. That’s right. The progenitor of the Rambo film franchise, films that became icons of the mad, excess-filled action film style of the 1980s, was as much a political film as it was an action film.
Released in 1982, about five months after Rocky III, First Blood sees Sylvester Stallone take on the second of his most recognizable roles — John Rambo.
Rambo is a veteran of the Vietnam War who has fallen on hard times. Combat has left Rambo with a nasty case of PTSD. The only jobs he can get are minimum wage, and he can’t keep those for long. He’s become a drifter, his most recent wanderings taking him somewhere in the Pacific Northwest to the home of an old buddy from the war. He is greeted with bad news, but bad news and bad things are pretty typical in the life of John Rambo, as viewers will come to see.
Back on the road, Rambo has the misfortune to wander into the jurisdiction of Sheriff Will Teasle, played by Brian Dennehy. Teasle is one of those small town cops who doesn’t hold with either longhairs or drifters, and Rambo is both. Cops like Teasle used to show up a lot in cinema in the second half of the 20th century. It was an easy shorthand to set a protagonist in conflict with the law, without actually having said protagonist break the law. This trope fell out of fashion once the Greatest Generation retired and the Boomers took over.
Teasle abuses his authority, escorting Rambo out of town for no good reason other than not liking the way Rambo looks. This should raise the audience’s hackles, but that’s by design. The movie had to get going somehow. For his part, Rambo might have been wise to just take the free ride out of town and continue on his way, but the man is damaged. Who knows how many times he’s been given a hard time by cops in the past when he was just minding his own business? Who knows how much resentment has been building up in his mind as the transgressions to his dignity pile up? John Rambo is a decorated combat veteran, a war hero, and maybe all it took was one more stuffed shirt of a cop for Rambo to feel he had had enough. No matter the cause, Rambo returned Teasle’s pigheaded behavior in kind, and found himself in the local jail. There, he was stripped, beaten, and sprayed with a fire hose. Rambo was hardly a cooperative prisoner, but his treatment at the hands of the local deputies was felonious. The mental stress of the treatment was too much, triggering flashbacks to Rambo’s time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and he loses it, beating the deputies in the station to a pulp and fleeing to the forest.
Teasle and company then make it their mission to hunt down Rambo like a wild animal. They do this against the advice of Rambo’s former field commander, Colonel Sam Trautman of Special Forces, played by Richard Crenna. How did an army colonel find out about Teasle’s little dustup with John Rambo? Well, things escalated a bit after Teasle and his deputies got a taste of asymmetric warfare in the forest. Teasle, doubling down for about the fifth time in his dealings with Rambo, called in the aid of state troopers and the National Guard to help find Rambo. One can only assume that as soon as that happened, an emergency switchboard lit up at Fort Bragg to let Trautman know one of his boys was in trouble, I guess. Either way, Trautman is on hand to give necessary exposition regarding Rambo’s history and possible motivations, and to deliver dire warnings to Teasle regarding his chances against Rambo. And he does all this in an acting style that can best be described as Shatnerian.
Crenna received some critical praise for his performance, enough so that Trautman became his signature role. I enjoyed his performance, but not because I thought it was great, or even good. I enjoyed it because it was absurd. Crenna’s unique blend of overacting and deadly seriousness is as indispensable to the idea of a Rambo film as Rambo himself. I loved Richard Crenna in this film, but that’s not the regular film critic in me speaking — it’s the guy who does the Shitty Movie Sundays reviews. If I owned a company that made canned hams, one of my brands would be called the Crenna.
As for Stallone and Dennehy, both did quite well in their roles. Stallone has never had the skill as an actor to be an award winner, but he did a fine job conveying Rambo’s stresses and tensions. His eyes boggle with insanity at points. Meanwhile, Dennehy was just solid. He was an aspect of the film that director Ted Kotcheff didn’t have to fret over.
So, Rambo is at war with a local sheriff’s department, a state police force, and a company of weekend warriors, and he’s winning. All this leads to denouement back in the town, as Rambo unleashes all his pent up destructiveness against the town’s storefronts and used car dealerships. Afterwards is the inevitable comedown from the adrenaline high, both for Rambo and the audience. Now it becomes time to remember that all this happened because John Rambo was failed by the system. He did his bit in the military, and it ruined him for life. Rather than find succor back home, he was shunned, abused, and eventually pushed over the edge. That’s why this is a political film.
This film is 35 years old, and it’s still a relevant tale today. We have fought wars all over the globe since this film was released, and we still haven’t gotten a grip on treatment of veterans with PTSD, nor have we dealt with the problems of law enforcement and the mentally ill. There was nothing odd or unique about the way Rambo was treated early in the film. This still happens.
Of course, a film from 1982 couldn’t intentionally speak for today. It had Vietnam vets as its focal point, and was also an affirmation of the politics of Ronald Reagan, who still had that new president smell at the time. This film reflected the swinging of the pendulum from a more liberal American society to a more conservative one. The politics can be a little heavy-handed at times, but it’s easily ignored. That’s because, despite some less than stellar production values, First Blood is an incredible action film.