America had become deeply divided by its war in Vietnam by late 1968, and this division – nominally along pro- and anti- war lines – carried class, racial, and regional connotations with it into the ‘70s and beyond. On one side, the war was generally understood to have been an error of liberal arrogance and hubris, a world historical crime which, like a forest fire that grows so big that it creates its own weather system, had spun wickedly out of control. On the other side, the war was understood as a failure of political will, a winnable war that was ineffectually organized by craven intellectuals in Washington who refused to do what was necessary as they kowtowed to hippies and peaceniks. Even for those who believed that the war was worth fighting, by the final years of the conflict, amid the revelations of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, it had become difficult to remain wholly committed to the cause.
Patriotism no longer meant unquestioning support for the government; it was instead about something more elemental, more essential, and the government was just as likely to stand in its way as was the anti-war activist or the student revolutionary. (Here we might find the genesis of today’s Tea Party activists.) In this confusing climate, soldiers returned home to an ambivalent reception, and they grew embittered, disillusioned, wounded in body and mind. Some civilians foolishly took out their frustrations on these men, infamously accusing veterans of crimes for which they were merely the proxy perpetrators.
Rambo: The Complete Collector's Set
(Studio Canal; US DVD: 27 Jul 2010)
Overcome by depression, suicides, drug addiction, and homelessness, so many once-proud veterans of this problematic war fell into a no man’s land of pity or, worse, denial. By the late ‘70s, the dominant theme was neglect – Vietnam veterans were swept under the rug, pushed aside, silenced by an America desperately trying to move on from the trauma of total defeat at the hands of an much less powerful enemy.
When First Blood appeared in 1982, a year into Reagan’s first term, it struck with the force of a hammer. A brutal and deeply unsubtle film, it was nevertheless a fascinating and moving depiction of a nation that was trying, and failing, to forget the disaster of the war. The genius of the film was that it confounded any simplistic expectations about the cultural rift at the heart of this post-Vietnam psychodrama.
The action begins as Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo, a highly decorated war hero, is arrested for vagrancy by working class small town blue state-types because they mistake him for a hippie due to his shaggy hair. In other words, the film takes as its point of departure a misunderstanding about identity which exposes the complex political crisis that undergirded the post-Vietnam era.
While in jail, Rambo is beaten and humiliated by the local police, for some reason, until he begins to suffer flashbacks to his time in a POW camp, which causes him to snap. He then battles his way out of the prison, makes a run for it into the nearby mountains, and holes up in an abandoned mine. The remainder of the film involves successive attempts by the local police, the National Guard, and his former Colonel from “the ‘Nam” (Richard Crenna), either to kill him or to talk him off the ledge.
When nothing works, Rambo goes back into town – which town is ironically called Hope – and blows the hell out of it in a fit of cathartic rage. In the final scene, he wails to his beloved Colonel about the horror of having fought a war “someone wouldn’t let us win”. It’s an amazing scene, and perhaps one of the most important in any film about the American War in Vietnam, precisely because it speaks for the people who are so often left out of the story, the forgotten warriors who were built up and then abandoned.
Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! 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! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me? Who are they? Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about! […]
For me civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there’s nothing! […] Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can’t even hold a job PARKING CARS!
If only it had ended there, John Rambo might be remembered today as the troubled anti-hero he was, the embodiment of the complexity of post-Vietnam guilt. Instead, as though everyone involved in making the film caught a collective case of greedy Cold War patriotism, all of the intellectual and political subtext which made him worth studying was jettisoned in an effort to turn Rambo into Rambo, the shirtless He-Man who, for the next three increasingly violent films, was used as a means to exploit rather than explore American guilt over Vietnam.
Rambo: First Blood Part II
In the first sequel – Rambo: First Blood Part II, the most iconic of them all – Rambo is offered a chance to perform the ultimate revenge mission. It seems that, despite there being absolutely no conceivable reason for this to be happening, a bunch of American POWs is still being held by the Vietnamese. Rambo is to be given a presidential pardon forwaging war on a few dozen American citizens, police officers, and National Guardsmen (not to mention destroying all of that public and private property) if he will go back to Vietnam and help to free these abandoned soldiers. “Sir,” goes his famous response, “do we get to win this time?”
The answer: sort of. It turns out that no one really believed that POWs would actually be there – since, well, it would make no goddamn sense for the Vietnamese to be holding them – and this was all supposed to be an exercise designed to placate the families of those soldiers who had been designated MIA. However, when Rambo finds a half-dozen Americans, the powers that be decide that this would be too big a scandal to expose – since it would likely mean going back to war – so they abandon Rambo and the POWs in the jungle.
It’s Vietnam all over again, see? Since Rambo appears the only one with any will to “win”, damn the consequences, he single-handedly pulls out those POWs and kills a ton of Vietnamese as well as the Russian soldiers who are there contrary to any likely political scenario I can imagine.
Also, along the way, he trades some pithy dialogue with a Chinese-American actress with a laughably fake Vietnamese accent. In fact, none of the Vietnamese characters are played by Vietnamese (as far as I can tell by names and faces). Perhaps since they’re being rather completely dehumanized here in order to enable the plot to move forward – which moving forward necessitates the systematic widespread killing of dozens of Vietnamese – it makes sense that we aren’t being invited to think of them as anything other than “the enemy”.
The film ends with another cathartic bit of violence, a kind of dark mirror to the first, as Rambo returns to the base in Thailand, shoots up all of the equipment, and threatens the egghead bureaucrat within an inch of his life, before delivering these iconic words: “I want, what they [the POWs] want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had, wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it! That’s what I want!” This politically irresponsible piece of wish-fulfillment was such a huge hit with audiences that another sequel was in the works within months of its release.