TIFF Bell Lightbox Presents The Rise of Beefcake Cinema: ‘First Blood’ is a cogent Vietnam analogy, but ultimately compromising

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First Blood

Directed by Ted Kotcheff

Written by Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim and Sylvester Stallone

USA, 1982

For time immemorial, Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood carried the notorious, if apocryphal, reputation for being overly violent. A closer autopsy of the film would reveal this to be untrue. In fact, there’s only one death – about the same as in Pixar’s Up.

Kidding aside, this misinterpretation of First Blood is symptomatic of its deceptive storytelling acumen. Along with its nominal death count, the film’s ability to conceal a lucid polemic of the Vietnam War under an avalanche of ample entertainment and bloody good fun is a testament to its legacy as a formative pillar in action film lore.

Sleek, economical, and unquestionably gripping, First Blood is also a film with surprising substance and smarts, which are all but undone by the film’s final few minutes.

First Blood introduces us to the ever-enduring John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone). Trained by the military to be a quintessential killer, he struggles to reintegrate back into society following the end of the Vietnam War. In a real sense, Rambo is a Frankenstein of sorts.

While trying to get back in touch with his comrades, he finds himself in Hope, Washington, where he is unceremoniously picked up and arrested by a cop named Teasle (Brian Dennehy). As he is interrogated, Rambo experiences post-traumatic flashbacks, which eventually lead to his breaking out of prison and his escape into the sylvan confines of Hope, with the authorities hot on his tail.

The Vietnam analogy is immediately discernable from Rambo’s first encounter with Teasle. While wandering into town, he is accosted by the officer for wearing the American flag on his shirt. In a colloquial context, the American flag has long been used to represent liberty and democracy. Is the officer against these ideals?

No, he is not. Ironically, he also wears a shirt with the flag on it. What he has qualms with is Rambo’s countenance. Unshaven with unruly hair, his distaste is merely superficial. He believes in the same ideal as Rambo, but Teasle doesn’t show solidarity with someone that doesn’t ‘conform’ to his parochial, narrow-minded perception of how people with such values should be.

Teasle uses this arbitrary distaste to meddle into the life of Rambo. Is it hypocritical? Surely. Is it perfectly analogous of how the US treated Vietnam? Definitely.

This scene is only one example of how First Blood seamlessly integrates action with substantive commentary. While other movies have obligatory action scenes with cursory attempts at critical undertones, First Blood makes them interchangeable and necessary.

Rambo is provoked and outnumbered by a wanton, overbearing, dogmatically deontological, outside force. He is forced to retreat to the forest and use guerilla warfare tactics to overcome his seemingly insurmountable odds. This is not only perfectly relatable to the experiences of the Vietnamese during the war; it also provides a premise of enthralling expectations, which it easily achieves.

But for all of the finesse and panache First Blood uses in telling its story, it eventually succumbs and acquiesces to the spirit of the Reagan 80’s, betraying its initial message. For those that haven’t seen it, Rambo, in his closing monologue, basically has a capricious change of heart (also, don’t read the next paragraph). For those that have seen it, observe the following excerpt:

“It wasn’t my war. You asked me, I didn’t ask you. And I did what I had to do to win. But somebody wouldn’t let us win. Then I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport. Protesting me. Spitting. Calling me baby killer. … Who are they to protest me? Huh?”

A précis of this quote points to a message that is drastically different from the rest of the film. Rather than being anti-war, Rambo quite literally suggests that Vietnam was winnable, that if politicians hadn’t capitulated to the demands of protesters, whom he also despises, they would’ve succeeded.

All of a sudden, First Blood goes from being anti-war to being pro-military. It’s not that Vietnam was a pointless, pyrrhic misadventure that was the source of suffering for millions and predicated on the whims of politicians, it’s that Rambo and his team were not given the chance to win it, to be war heroes.

Worse still, for him at least, they were spat upon and deprived of the positive recognition for being apart of the misadventure. He makes it seem like the failure and lack of opportunity to win the war was the main source of his emotional and psychological problems, not the conflict itself. This speech entirely betrays the rest of the film that precedes it.

Altogether, First Blood is a cogent Vietnam analogy, but ultimately compromising. It’s breathtaking to watch a political commentary unfold and intertwine with an equally dexterous action movie, but, in one of the few instances where Stallone has any dialogue, the film self-immolates. Now that is symptomatic.

– Justin Li

For tickets and more information, please visit the TIFF website.

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