Monday, 2 October 2017

Drawing First Blood

Director: Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Denehey, Richard Cenna
Release: 22 October 1982
IMDB User Rating: 7.7
Rotten Tomatoes User Rating: 85%

It has been years since I have seen the first of the Rambo movies, and while the second one - Rambo - had regularly been shown on television, the first one seemed to have drifted somewhat to the wayside. That was a bit of a shame, particularly since I always thought that the first movie was the better film. There was a time when I was scouring video shops for a copy of it, but it always seemed to be out of reach. In fact there was one time that I saw a copy of Rambo for rent, so I hired it only to discover that it was the forth incarnation of the film where the producers decided to resurrect him and send him into Burma to fight the Burmese army. Needless to say that it was rubbish, and if you really want a more detailed opinion there is always my review on IMDB.

Anyway, the second film appeared on television one week, and I decided to record it to watch it at a later time (I know, recording television shows to watch at a later time is actually illegal, and while I could use the excuse that everybody does it, I know for a fact that that defence generally doesn't hold up in court - actually, there is no generally about it - it doesn't). So, since I generally don't like watching movies out of order, my only resort to actually seeing the first one again was to resort to the ever faithful Youtube, and sure enough it was there, for me to see, for a price of course. Needless to say that my memories of the film were entirely justified.

The Story

First Blood is a film about a Vietnam Vet, John Rambo, who is wandering around the United States as a drifter. At first we don't actually know all that much about him, except that he served in Vietnam and he is attempting to find one of the remaining members of his troop, only to discover that he had died a year earlier from cancer thanks to the indiscriminate use of Agent Orange to clear the jungle. So, realising that he is basically alone in the world he decides to head north, and arrives at the town of Hope hoping to get something to eat. However, not long after he walks into the town the local Sheriff turns up, pretty much makes it clear that he doesn't want people like him wandering through his peaceful town, and proceeds to escort him to the bridge. Well, Rambo decides that he really doesn't want to be kicked out of town, particularly since he is not interested in causing any trouble, so he turns around and walks right back it. It is at this point that the Sherriff decides to arrest him for vagrancy.

Well, that is a mistake, not a huge one, but a mistake nonetheless. The thing is that the Sheriff, and the rest of the police, basically treat him like a homeless bum, and decide to rough him up - a lot. That includes beating him with the batons, hosing him down with a high powered hose, and giving him a shave. Well, giving him a shave doesn't sound all that bad, except they are using a cut-throat razor, and are restraining him by using the baton as an arm lock. 

Now that was a big mistake.

Needless to say he has some flashbacks, and finally snaps, beats up all of the police in the police station (single handedly, and bare fisted as well), and disappears into the surrounding mountains. The police decide to pursue him, and grab some dogs, and a helicopter, and attempt to track him down. Well, even though they are familiar with the area, it turns out that John Rambo isn't your ordinary soldier - he is a highly trained special forces operative, and one by one takes out all of the police (though only one dies, and that is by accident because he is leaning too far out of the helicopter when Rambo throws a rock at it - even then, this gives the Sherriff even more of an excuse to hunt him down).

Well, since it turns out that it is not going to be all that easy to capture him with a handful of small town police officers, they end up calling in the State Troopers and the National Guard. The problem with the National Guard is that many of them aren't trained for proper warfare, so when Rambo starts shooting back at them, they pretty much decide that taking cover, and remaining under cover, is probably the best way that they are going to get out alive. As for Rambo, well, after leaving a trail of destruction through the town, he is finally convinced to give himself up (though apparently the original ending had him committing suicide, while in the book the Sheriff kills him). 

Anyway, here is a trailer for the film.

The Vietnam Film

Sorry if I gave away too much of the plot, but I feel that since it is such an old film, it is probably okay as opposed to some of the more recent releases that are hitting our screens. Anyway, it isn't really one of those plot driven films, and I have held back on a number of details so that you can still watch the film even if you do know what happens in the end. The other thing that I should touch on is that it is an eighties film, which means that it has a different feel about it, probably because the equipment that they used back then is vastly different to what they use today - for instance the movie was probably shot using film, which is generally not the case today.

Anyway, First Blood came out around the time that quite a few Vietnam War films were starting to hit the screen. While the war officially ended in 1973, it felt as if for a period the whole messy experience was swept under the carpet and basically ignored. Sure, we had a John Wayne film that was released during the war, but that was basically more of a cowboy film than a proper Vietnam War film. Then there is Apocalypse Now, which deserves a post all of its own, and even then as of this writing I haven't seen it (recently that is), so I will leave it at that. However, come First Blood, we suddenly seemed to have a number of similar films hit our screens, and Vietnam started to become acceptable to talk about. This seemed to culminate in the film Platoon (which also probably deserves its own post).

I guess it was time for our society (at least Australia and the United States - the two major Allied powers that were involved in the war) to start to come to terms with what happened over there. In a way our experiences are fairly similar, as was our treatment of the vets. America wasn't alone in basically ignoring the plight of their returned soldiers as in many cases it seemed to happen here in Australia as well. I remember seeing some films produced and filmed here in Australia about the disconnect that our own troops faced when they returned home, and in a way these films were no doubt helping us come to terms with not only what happened, but with what our vets experienced.


I've read a couple of books by Jonathon Shay: Achilles in Vietnam, and Odysseus in America, with deals with the struggles of the Vietnam Vets by looking at how the Ancient Greeks handled war and homecoming. I won't go into too much details, and I have provided links to the Goodreads reviews (mine are here, and here), however the thing is that the Greeks lived in a world where they were constantly at war, and developing strategies in handling the psychological impact of battle, and readjusting to society was vitally important. As such Shay, who is a psychiatrist who works with returned veterans, uses these techniques with his own patients.

The major theme of First Blood is the psychological impact of returning from war, and not just returning from war but returning to a home that no longer wants you. There adjustment disorders that were faced by the Vietnam Vets were in part similar to the struggles faced with World War I vets, as is brilliantly explored by Ernest Hemmingway and his contemporaries, however there was something much more with Vietnam - despite what the media said, people viewed Vietnam as a defeat, and in a way we simply could not adjust to the idea that we lost a war. As such it seemed, in part, that the blame for the defeat was laid squarely on the shoulders of the veterans.

What First Blood confronts us with is how the Vietnam veterans had so much difficulty returning to society. Vietnam wasn't a total war - only a small segment of the population was affected, and when they returned home they returned to a home that simply was not able to comprehend the horrors that they faced. Okay, unlike previous wars, Vietnam appeared on the television nightly, and in fact was considered to be the first televised war. However, there is a vast difference between watching something and actually experiencing it first hand. The other problem was the growing opposition to the war, and many of the people who opposed the war weren't able to distinguish between the leaders who conducted the war, and the soldiers who fought it.

In a way what we have are a group of battle hardened soldiers returning to civilian life, and the problem is that war are peace are two vastly different states. We are also seeing that with the veterans of Iraq, who, like the Vietnam vets, are unable to adjust to the realities of peace time, and in many cases still jump at shadows, believing that their enemies still lurk around the corner. However, there is also another disconnect, one that I will deal with next - World War II.

The Generation Gap

The thing with World War II was that not only was it a total war, where all of society was geared and focused toward fighting, and winning, the war, it was also a war that was fought in a traditional sense - armies against armies, and soldiers against soldiers. In another sense it is seen as being a 'just war', a war against an enemy that needed to be opposed, an enemy that was capable of some incredibly barbaric acts. Further more, when the vets returned home, they not only returned to a heroes welcome, they also returned to be helped by the government to readjust to civilian life.

There is a movie (and a pretty bad one at that) called Dead Presidents, that clearly illustrates this point. The film is about a young African American who goes to Vietnam and fights. When he returns home he not only returns as a Vet, but also returns as a member of the underclass. After trying, and failing, to readjust to society, he and his friends decide to rob an armoured car full of money, which goes horribly wrong. However, it is the court scene that illustrates the point I'm trying to make - the judge proclaims that he is a veteran of World War II, and he not only proudly served his country, but he also successfully readjusted to society, and has made something good of his life. He then looks on scorn at the younger generation and, without mercy, sentences them to gaol.

What he seems to miss is that these where two different wars, and the world was a different place. I suspect that many Vietnam vets were scorned by the elder generation, and in fact here in Australia weren't even allowed to march in the ANZAC Day parades. It is only in recent times that they have now been admitted to the Returned Services League, been allowed to march, and even have their own memorials at the various war memorials dotted around the country. In fact the memorial in the suburb where I grew up was actually moved to accommodate plaques for the other wars that have been fought since,

Another thing about the generation gap is that this was also a war that was being opposed, and the longer the war dragged on, the more opposition the leaders faced. The thing with the older generation was that they had proudly fought against the Japanese and the Germans, and now the threat of Communism was raising its ugly head. The thing was that in their mind the marauding forces of Uncle Joe, and his Chinese counterparts, were just as much of a threat to them, and to their liberty, as were the Nazi's and the Japanese. In a way they were probably right, and intervention in Vietnam no doubt prevented other South-East Asian countries from becoming communist (well, Thailand and Malaysia at least). However, what they didn't understand was the opposition. They had proudly gone to war, why didn't their children want to do the same? Okay, the war was conducted pretty badly, but that is not really the point here, it was the failure to understand that this was a generation that once again began to question the need for going overseas to fight somebody else's battle.

The Confession

A part of me feels strange suggesting that the end of a Sylvester Stallone action movie was powerful, it is actually was quite powerful. The thing is that this is no ordinary film because it is not strictly your typical Hollywood action movie where we have a clearly defined good guy fighting against a clearly defined bad guy. Okay, the initial testing of the audience found that they had a huge amount of sympathy towards Rambo, which is why the changed the end of the film from him dying to him being arrested, and the Sheriff is clearly a dislikeable character, but in reality he doesn't strictly fall into the category of villain.

The thing with Rambo is that while the movie is in many cases a battle between Rambo and the Sheriff, in many ways the Sheriff is against Rambo in most part because of the mistaken belief that Rambo killed his friend (where as the death was actually quite accidental). Secondly, Rambo is clearly a dangerous person, and he is definitely out of control, so while we might sympathise with him, we also know that he simply cannot walk away scott free - it simply would not do the movie justice. In a way there needed to be an honourable way out, which apparently doesn't happen in the book.

However, it is that closing scene, the one where Rambo is sitting alone in the police station with Colonel Trentam, that really brings out the plight of the Vietnam veteran. Here he is, having the Sheriff under his power, and Trentam steps in to warn him that he definitely doesn't want to go down that path. Sure, the Sheriff drew first blood, and he probably deserves everything that he gets, but the reality is that he isn't in Vietnam, he is in the United States, and in the United States one simply cannot take justice into their own hands. Despite having turned the town into a warzone, this is still a country that rests under the rule of law.

Yet what Rambo tells us hits home - in Vietnam he was somebody: he was needed by this government, he flew helicopters and he was in charge of millions of dollars worth of equipment, In short he was somebody, but when he returns home he is forgotten, discarded. He cannot even hold down a job. He has gone from being somebody to being nobody, he is no longer respected, he is spat on, scorned, and treated like a common criminal for simply looking unwashed and smelling bad. Yet it is when he breaks down in tears that we see that even then there is no comfort - Trentam is a military man, he doesn't know how to deal with grief, and that is what Rambo lacks, and in a way desires, a simple shoulder to cry on.

The Forgotten Soliders

Interestingly there has been an ongoing debate as to whether there were any left behind. The American Government claimed that there weren't, and in fact established a number of committees to prove that this was the case. The Republic of Vietnam also denied that to be the case and that any American soldiers, mostly airmen who were shot down over North Vietnam and Laos, were no doubt killed during the crash. However, there was been an ongoing belief amongst certain activists that men were actually left behind, and that there was been an ongoing conspiracy between the two governments to keep this hidden. Mind you, is has now been 44 odd years since the conclusion of the war, so anybody that was left behind are either well into their fifties, or dead.

However, this probably wasn't helped by a series of films that were released dealing with these so called missing in action. Mind you, it was the Sylvester Stallone film that seemed to dominate the 80s as opposed to the somewhat superior Chuck Norris films (though the second Chuck Norris film dealt more with him as a POW, and escaping from the camp as opposed to him going into Vietnam and rescuing prisoners as he had done in the first film). As for the Stallone film, it was sort of a cross between a rescue film and a prison escape film, that basically degenerated into a massive bullet fest at the end (which is why I gave it such a low rating in my IMDB review).

Yet what the film does confront is the issue of the missing in action, if there in fact where any. Honestly, I'm not sure if we would ever know the truth, though I wouldn't be surprised if it eventually comes to light. However, what we have in the sequel is fuelling this idea of the government conspiracy, especially since Rambo is led to a camp that was supposed to be empty, but it turned out that they had miscalculated and that when they dropped him off some prisoners had actually been moved into the camp. As it happens the prisoners were actually being used as slave labour, and it was quite fortuitous for them (and Rambo), that they were there.

Yet the existence of these prisoners is actually quite a political hot potato because not only would they prove that the American government had left men behind, but it would also create a diplomatic problem in that there are Americans not only trapped in a hostile country, but in a country that happens to be the ally of their big, bad enemy. However, what it also would mean would be the domestic pressure to repatriate these soldiers, which would have inevitably cost the government a lot more money. However, it does raise the question as to whether there were any men left behind, and whether the constant denial was only made by a government attempting to cover up their tracks.

Reflecting on Vietnam

As I think about what I have written now, I feel that these types of films are important, and were particularly important at the time. What was happening was that we were beginning to realise that the Vietnam vets were in fact forgotten, and as a society we were being challenged to not only remember them, but to also appreciate the horrors that they experienced. I suspect that many of the homeless that I would walk past as a kid an a teenager, sitting on park benches drinking cask wine, were probably the unsung victims of this war.

Creative Commons License

Drawing First Blood by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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