There are some who dismiss First Blood on account of its sequels. It is too violent, too rote, and too simple, they say. Still, I’ve met more who haven’t seen First Blood and yet have seen the three films that followed it. They enjoy any combination of First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and Rambo, but have no desire to see the first in the series. Both of these characters are committing grave errors—I cannot understand why someone would watch numbers two, three, and four, and then not seek out number one, but I know at least three individuals who have followed this track. I say this because it has always struck me just how unappreciated First Blood is. Years ago my high school history teacher recommended David Morrell’s original book (upon which the film is based) to me and detailed some of the interesting things the film adaptation does, and only since then have I appreciated how proficient and affecting a production First Blood is.
First Blood is completely unlike its sequels. Those are startlingly different films. First Blood was charged as grossly violent upon release in 1982, but its sequels are positively gratuitous and, in that way, rather vacuous. John Rambo only kills one person in First Blood. Compared to the three films that followed, this one comes off as tame. It begins with Rambo (Sylvester Stallone)—a Vietnam veteran, ex-Green Beret, decorated with the Medal of Honor—being arrested for vagrancy by small-town sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy). Rambo breaks out of jail and flees into a mountain range. Teasle sets out on a manhunt with an ungainly posse of officers, but soon their expedition to capture Rambo escalates, culminating in the involvement of state troopers, and eventually the National Guard, assisted by Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), a highly decorated soldier, and Rambo’s ex-commanding officer.
We read this film differently today than we would have in 1982. In fact, time has had a tremendous effect on First Blood, certainly more so than it has had on other films from that era that deal with a similar subject matter. As it happens, I find it a little difficult to parse the critiques the film received upon release. Roger Ebert took issue with the film’s ending, arguing that it didn’t work (I will suggest the opposite shortly), while other reviewers focused on its action which, as aforementioned, was then perceived as violent. We might start there. I’m not sure First Blood qualifies as even mildly violent today. Its sequels certainly undo it, and there’s only one grisly sequence in this entire picture, when one of the officers pursuing Rambo sets off one of his booby traps and is impaled on some spikes. It’s an extremely troubling sight, and that’s putting it mildly, but save for that the film’s action is unadorned. There’s plenty of blood but no real gruesomeness.
Not enough is said of how well First Blood is filmed, particularly its action sequences, which are superbly done. The trick to this picture, I think, is the long shot. Director Ted Kotcheff returns to the long wide angle so frequently that it eventually becomes essential to the picture. You might say the setting forced his hand—because the film spends most of its time in a forest, the natural thing to do is to shift the camera back and reveal the scale of the environment to the audience. There’s so much in the way of the action—trees, plants, rocks, and even weather effects—that by necessity the director must give the actors some breathing room, and as a result the camera is further back than how we might be used to. But the result is certainly positive, and credit must be given to Kotcheff for blocking and planning the scenes so proficiently. One of his better techniques is the foreground/background contrast. For instance, in scenes where Rambo is being pursued, Rambo will be in the foreground while the pursuers will be somewhere in the distance, typically quite far behind him. The open forest decides how the film’s action plays out, and those long, sweeping panoramas give us a palpable sense of the world the characters inhabit. Consider the effect the spacious environment has on Rambo: the only time Rambo’s enemies come close to harming him is when they are far away: atop a gorge when he is down by the river, in a helicopter when he is hanging off a cliff, outside a mine entrance that he is hiding in. By contrast, when the battle becomes close-quarters Rambo is a virtual lock to win. Space is very much Rambo’s enemy, and the distance at which the film is shot reflects this tension.
The initial hunt sequence (when the officer falls to his death from the helicopter and the Sheriff and his deputies chase after Rambo in full, bloodthirsty force) is one of the most impressive parts of the film. It begins with Rambo very much on the back foot, and ends with him demolishing the four- or five-strong cadre of officers. The sequence plays out like a nightmare—in fact, it’s almost completely fantastical. Remarkably, in what feels like just a few minutes Rambo manages to construct an array of traps that the officers promptly fall into, as if each of them were being lead on a leash. Rambo attacks by coming out of nowhere and promptly disappears into nothing; they can’t get a bead on him, and even if they could they wouldn’t stand a chance. The most surreal part of the battle is when Rambo suddenly appears before the Sheriff. There’s a flash of lightning, the Sheriff opens fire, but Rambo ducks out of the way and fades into the scrub; standing directly behind Rambo is an officer, and the Sheriff’s bullets cut into him instead of their intended target. The battle borders on the horrific, and it is masterfully captured by Kotcheff.
That and the ending rate as First Blood’s greatest moments. There is some debate about the ending—plenty of people find it to be trite—but I think it is a suitable conclusion worthy of praise. Might it be too blatant? Certainly, none of Rambo’s difficulties are new. We’ve seen the struggle veterans go through when returning home in the likes of Deer Hunter and Rolling Thunder. But I believe that Stallone has a good handle on the material he’s given, and here he puts an appropriately somber cap on this tension-laden film. Rambo barely talks throughout, and yet he starts talking here, and I think that is the key to it. He behaves like an animal for most of the film—leaping about the forest like an animal in some primal, frenzied state—and here, for the very first time, he speaks openly, and at some length too, revealing precisely who he is within. And there’s an irony to it all: he doesn’t prove to us that he’s human. Instead, he demonstrates that he has clearly lost his humanity. His mind has become soluble; he is, in a word, incoherent, for not only are his sentences illogical and completely unconstructed but his speech (in trademark Stallone fashion) is completely slurred. We can barely make out what he’s saying. It is a shocking contrast: we’ve seen Rambo as an incredibly strong character for the entire picture, yet here he breaks down, and we don’t find what we expect. We think we’ll see a dead, empty, soulless man. We find that there is something inside, but it’s a twisted, ruined wreck, unrecognizable and likely unfixable. That is harrowing—it is a worse state than being dead.
My favorite reading of the film is an outlandish one, but I thought I’d share it as a small note to end on. I’ve heard the suggestion that the events of First Blood are essentially a reflection of Rambo’s mental state, which is not to say that didn’t happen, but rather that they are exaggerated like a nightmare (to reapply a metaphor I used before). So much of the film is like that: he is constantly running but he never dies, and he can never get rid of his enemy, and everything that happens has a strange, fantasy element to it, like the chase sequence that ends up working perfectly in his favor, and the tremendous pirouettes of fire that engulf the town when he sets the gas station ablaze. There’s no evidence for this contention, and I don’t think it’s intended to be taken seriously. It’s just a neat observation that reflects Rambo’s instability. His character was turned into a prosaic action hero in the films that followed. Here, Rambo is real, a broken man. And this picture is a resounding success because of it. It is superb, and I don’t think it gets enough credit for it. Next: the twenty-fifth anniversary of Full Metal Jacket.