Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Film Appreciation - A War You Won't Believe

Cody Hamman has had Film Appreciation for 1982's First Blood for a long time.

It was 1968 when author David Morrell started writing a novel titled First Blood, inspired by deeply troubling real world events. Images he saw on the news of the Vietnam War and of National Guardsmen responding to rampant crime in the cities of America, along with the fact that authority figures would frequently harrass hippies for having long hair, mixed together in Morrell's mind to spawn the story of a disturbed, long-haired Vietnam veteran being harrassed by authority figures to the point that it kicks off a new war in a small American town. It took Morrell a few years to complete the novel, then when it was published he sold the film rights... And the project then spent a decade in development hell, passing through three studios as eighteen different screenplay adaptations were written. Directors who considered taking the helm of the First Blood film included Richard Brooks, Martin Ritt, Sydney Pollack, and John Frankenheimer. There were thoughts of casting the likes of Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, and Michael Douglas in the lead role.

First Blood eventually made it into production with Ted Kotcheff directing and Sylvester Stallone starring... And when it was released in '82, a story that began in 1968 became one of the most popular films of the 1980s.

The winning approach was to tone down elements of the novel. In Morrell's version of the story, Vietnam veteran Rambo was a living time bomb that was inevitably going to go off at some point after he returned to the United States. He was a killing machine who had already murdered people who crossed him in the U.S. before he gets treated unfairly by a small town cop, and once that cop pushes him over the edge he murders nearly everyone who crosses his path. As played by Stallone (who also polished the screenplay by Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim), the cinematic John J. Rambo is a sympathetic character who snaps after being treated unfairly, but never purposely kills anyone. He does do things that are frowned upon, but for the most part he's the straightforward hero of the film and the audience roots for him to get revenge on those who have wronged him.

I've been watching First Blood regularly ever since I was a young kid, and I can clearly remember being fully on Rambo's side during my earliest viewings. I felt for him in his very first scene, which finds him walking up to a house where an Army buddy of his is supposed to be living. Sadly, this soft-spoken guy finds out that his friend has died due to cancer caused by Agent Orange. Everyone Rambo fought with has died, even though who survived the bombings and gunfire in Vietnam, and now he seems to be alone in the world.

Rambo walks off aimlessly into a small town called Hope and is almost immediately spotted by Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who gives him grief over the pairing of long hair and an Army jacket. Teasle doesn't want this drifter in his town, so he has him get into his squad car and drives him out of the city limits. As a kid, I couldn't understand why Teasle was picking on Rambo and didn't want him around just because he was traveling on foot and had long hair. Especially since Rambo's hair isn't even extremely long here. This was my first time seeing the sort of harassment men with long hair faced in previous decades.

As soon as Teasle drives away from dropping him off outside of town, advising him to "get a haircut and take a bath", the defiant Rambo starts walking back into town. Not the smartest move, but it's tough to fault him for it. Unfortunately, Teasle sees what he's doing, gets pissed, and arrests him. Rambo is booked for vagrancy, resisting arrest (he pulled his arm away when Teasle tried to grab him), and carrying a concealed weapon - a large knife that he says he uses for hunting.

Teasle is a jerk, but Rambo meets someone even worse at the police station. Deputy Galt, played by Race with the Devil director Jack Starrett. Galt is rough, antagonistic, quick to threaten violence. Rambo is not a compliant prisoner, which makes Galt act even worse. While enduring indignities like being sprayed with a firehose while naked and shaved against his will with a straight razor, Rambo begins having flashbacks to his horrific experience in Vietnam. Being captured by enemy forces. Tortured. Strung up and slashed with a knife. Rambo snaps, knocks around a few police officers - including Galt and cops played by David Caruso and Chris Mulkey - and escapes from the police station.

The war has begun. The one-man army of the highly skilled soldier / survivalist Rambo against the police and the National Guard. Rambo escapes into the wilderness that surrounds hope, and the majority of the film's running time centers on the authorities pursuing Rambo through a mountain forest, attempting to capture or kill him and getting thwarted at every turn. Rambo is just one man, but he was a war hero, a Green Beret who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Anyone who goes against him  is completely out of their league.

Rambo injures a lot of police officers during the manhunt, shooting some, beating them up, catching them in booby traps, but there's only one confirmed kill and that's an accident. When Galt tries to gun him down from a helicopter, Rambo throws a rock at the helicopter, busting the windscreen. The pilot reacts, and Galt falls from the helicopter to his death. Rambo is remorseful and tries to surrender in after that, but the pursuit continues when the cops he tries to communicate with open fire on him. I don't feel sorry for Galt and don't care about the people Rambo injures, but it does make me sad that he kills some dogs that are set loose on him.

Another attempt Rambo makes to end the manhunt early is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. After immobilizing all of the men Teasle has with him, Rambo confronts Teasle directly, pinning him against a tree with that hunting knife to his throat. Rambo tells him, "I could have killed them all. I could have killed you. In town you're the law, out here it's me. Don't push it. Don't push it, or I'll give you a war you won't believe. Let it go. Let it go!" Great, chilling, badass lines perfectly delivered by Stallone, all while Teasle whimpers in fear and discomfort.

Teasle doesn't heed Rambo's warning. Things get even more out of hand. Soon an expert on Rambo arrives on the scene - Colonel Samuel Trautman, played by Richard Crenna, who really chews the scenery while spouting his dialogue. Much like Doctor Loomis in Halloween was always taking about how scary slasher Michael Myers was, Trautman's main purpose in this film is to serve as Rambo's hype man. He's the person who knows Rambo best, as he's the one who recruited him, trained him, and commanded him in Vietnam for three years, and he's always going on about how amazing and capable Rambo is. Much to the annoyance of Teasle, who aims to prove Rambo isn't so special.

Crenna was a last minute replacement for the originally cast Kirk Douglas, who was let go over creative differences. Apparently, according to Stallone, Douglas was writing his own draft of the script in which his version of Trautman was going to kill Rambo and then, in an odd final moment, be seen driving away while wearing his headband. That idea didn't go over well. It is interesting that Michael Douglas was considered for the role of Rambo at one point, and then his father Kirk was briefly cast to play Trautman. If things had gone differently, First Blood could have been a Douglas father and son collaboration.

Douglas's idea that Trautman should kill Rambo isn't entirely outlandish, since that's exactly what happens in the book - Trautman ends up blowing Rambo's head off. But that was the novel's version of Rambo, a murderer who had to be put down for the safety of the public and to be put out of his misery. That wouldn't have worked for the cinematic Rambo, an innocent man who has been pushed into a terrible situation by bullying cops and PTSD. We don't want to see Stallone's Rambo die, we want to see him find a way out of this.

The film does still build up to a final confrontation between Rambo and Trautman - a confrontation that comes after the ordeal in the woods has gone so far that Teasle believes Rambo has been killed with a rocket launcher, and after Rambo brings their war right into the heart of Teasle's town, disturbing the peace with gunfire and explosions. And while the idea of ending the film on a tragic note was given some consideration - an ending was shot in which Rambo kills himself with a gun Trautman is holding - First Blood doesn't end on a violent note. Instead, it ends with an emotional purge, Rambo pouring his heart out to his team leader, discussing the horrors he saw in the war and the heartbreak he has endured since returning to the states. For me, this scene is one of the greatest things Stallone has ever shot in his career.

It's odd to watch that alternate ending now, knowing where the Rambo character went after this. It seems crazy that they would have thought of killing him off, since he has gone on to carry a franchise. But figuring out exactly what sort of movie First Blood should be was a process, and a lot of people expected the film to be a total disaster for some reason. All these years down the line, it feels like it should have been obvious to everyone that First Blood was going to turn out to be a great film.

There are some awesome sequels in the Rambo franchise and fans can pick and choose which one is their favorite, but the more low-key and emotionally engaging First Blood has always been my favorite pf the bunch. This is my top choice to turn to when I want to watch some Rambo. It's one of Stallone's best films, and one of the best action movies ever made.

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