It feels like I should’ve seen this a long time ago. I can imagine a thirteen-year-old me stuck at home during winter break with nothing to do other than glue my eyes to a television screen and my Dad—in his ever obsession with war movies and any type of military-related media—would turn on First Blood so we could watch Sly Stallone use his Green Beret skills to pick off hapless, spiteful, and overwhelmed deputies one by one in the Washington wilderness.
I’m really glad I didn’t watch this when I was thirteen. I already know I would’ve seen the silent and brooding John Rambo as a human weapon capable of defeating anything and anyone. I would’ve wanted to watch him set booby traps and evade capture until the somber day I had to return to school. There would’ve been a poster of Rambo tacked to my wall in a week’s time. And more importantly, the underlying statement this film makes would’ve gone right over my head, passing through yet another terrible haircut I had at the time, and eluding me as it seems to do with many others.
Watching this now helped me realize that John Rambo is more complex than a man forced to defend himself against an entire local police department and national guard. Sure, he’s a badass. And sure, like most action movies, there were countless instances where Rambo should’ve been plastered to the side of some sheetrock or buried deep underneath the remains of an old mine, but we can’t have that. John Rambo is fighting much more than all of those outside forces. He can be stabbed and shot and fall fifty feet through a tree, but that’s nothing compared to what’s truly plaguing him. Rambo’s battling post-traumatic stress disorder and the film is a clear indicator of the disease’s delayed identification.
Is this shocking? No. He was in the military. He was in Vietnam. Rambo is less the embodiment of the killing machine created by the United States military and more a vestige of what the military leaves behind to the soldiers they’ve created and utilized for their endeavors.
I found Rambo to be sad. And I’m not sure thirteen-year-old me would’ve had the capacity to comprehend how his violence isn’t a giant display of his skillset, but a 93 minute cry for help to a country he swore to protect.
Rambo’s a drifter. For the majority of this film he doesn’t speak unless necessary. A solid fifteen minutes of screen time is used showing Rambo walking down the road, bordered by the scenic mountain walls as traffic passes him by without a second glance. Until he reaches the town of Hope, Rambo is all but invisible. But this town Rambo rolls into and the sheriffs guarding the town from drifters like Rambo are clear examples of how perpetrators of the war in Vietnam were quick to change their appreciation for the soldiers involved when the war didn’t end as the United States had imagined. Rambo is their enemy, a bulky, feathered hair reminder of a country’s failed fight.
The distinctions made between Rambo and the deputies that give chase are obvious. They’re excited to have some action. They’re gun-ho and can’t wait to kill so they’ll be home for dinner. But then Rambo starts Rambo-ing. He makes a helicopter pilot lose control with only a rock. He crafts punji sticks and camouflages himself. Rambo says his classic line, I didn’t draw first blood. He shouts it, admits innocence, and is still pursued. But the deputies and national guard soldiers enter his realm. The forest sequence where Rambo picks off each deputy one by one feels reminiscent of a war film, a complete departure from the town of Hope and the concept that this could be happening in Washington of all places and not a jungle in Southeast Asia.
It’s chaotic. Sure, the film is messy and a little redundant when droves of soldiers are sent towards Rambo as if he’s indestructible. The action really simmers down when Rambo has his gun pointed at an injured Sheriff Teasle. He’s just decimated Hope; outsmarted every single man in his vicinity. The audience wants him to pull the trigger. Teasle sucks, he was mean to Rambo, didn’t even let him get a meal in town. Enter Colonel Trautman again, the man who essentially molded Rambo into the man he is.
Now, I was always in the realm of thought that Sylvester Stallone wasn’t a good actor. Sure, maybe he’s typecast as the badass and his Hell’s Kitchen accent is often too thick to overcome, but when Rambo breaks down and delves into the trauma he still harbors from his time in the war, it’s incredibly believable. It’s raw. The points he brings up about the country he fought for not wanting anything to do with him, his post-military life and how he was great at his job in Vietnam but now can’t even hold down something simple is revealing of the trove of problems soldiers returning from war often face. And there isn’t any more action after this. Nobody else dies. Rambo is taken out under the guard of Trautman and the credits roll. For an action movie this seems like director Ted Kotcheff left a lot on the table. One more shootout? Somehow Rambo stops a tank with just a handgun?
Thirteen-year-old me wouldn’t have really understood the weight behind Rambo’s breakdown. I would’ve thought it was a lackluster moment that should’ve been filled with Rambo getting his revenge on everyone from Hope who pushed him over the edge. There was supposed to be more blood! More action! More destruction! But the action being ripped out from the outlet was a turn I didn’t see coming and revealed PTSD in a way that I hadn’t seen before.
PTSD first became a mental health diagnosis in 1980. First Blood was released in 1981. PTSD has affected soldiers for as long as war has existed. First Blood wasn’t the first film to convey the issues of PTSD, but it certainly wasn’t one that I was expecting to be so heavily influenced by the disease.
When I think of Rambo I don’t think of a man who is reacting poorly to his trauma, I think of the subsequent sequels and how he’s still portrayed as half man and half machine trained to kill. It’s sad, certainly, but makes sense if PTSD hadn’t even been recognized for hundreds of years, after countless wars and many not identifying the disease veterans returned with. Seeing First Blood and all of John Rambo’s badassery as nothing short of a man vying for help from the country he was trained to protect may take more viewings too, but all of his sequels aren’t required to understand the basis for the real war going on involving John Rambo.