Never Forget, Just Don't Think About It Too Much
Rambo III, which really should have been called First Blood Part III but whatever, is the most awkward entry in the series. At the time of its release, it made a certain degree of sense: put Rambo into the field in Afghanistan, which was at the time mired in a decade-long stalemate with the Soviets, and have him help the Muhajadeen to defeat the vile communist aggressors.
The fact that Afghanistan was widely considered to be “Russia’s Vietnam” was clearly a factor here: and the uncomfortable political meaning behind drawing this comparison is made decidedly stark in Stallone and Sheldon Lettich’s script. Impressively, it acknowledges the fact that this analogy positions the wicked and disproportionately violent Soviets as the Americans, and the calm, simple, hard-hearted and impoverished Afghans as the Vietnamese. In other words, though this film wants to be about how the Russian campaign against Afghanistan was disgusting and unfair, it couldn’t help but be sort of about how the American War in Vietnam was said same. Check out these bits of dialogue:
Mousa: This is Afghanistan… Alexander the Great try to conquer this country… then Genghis Khan, then the British. Now Russia. But Afghan people fight hard, they never be defeated. Ancient enemy make prayer about these people… you wish to hear?
Mousa: Very good. It says, ‘May God deliver us from the venom of the Cobra, teeth of the tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan.’ Understand what this means?
Rambo: That you guys don’t take any shit?
Mousa: Yes… something like this.
There won’t be a victory. Every day you’ll have war machines lose ground to a bunch of poorly trained, poorly equipped freedom fighters. The fact is you underestimated your competition. If you had studied your history you’d know that these people have never given up to anyone. They’d rather die than be slaves to an invading army. You can’t defeat people like that. We tried. We already had our Vietnam and you will have yours.
It’s hard to know what to make of this. Is Rambo III, then, an argument against the idea that Vietnam was a worthy war? It seems to be. Rambo is clearly moved by the plight of these no-shit-taking villagers and their rag-tag army, and becomes a kind of folk hero to them. Imagine if a Russian had acted like this on behalf of the Vietnamese? Surely he would have had moral outrage on his side. Chilly, huh?
The fact that this film did so well at the box office, despite its clearly uncomfortable message about America’s disastrous role as aggressors against an underequipped but undefeatable people is remarkable. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, when it was released, this film had the most “onscreen kills” of any movie ever, with a then-astounding total of 108.
Anyway, the fact that this was a movie about Rambo helping the Muhajadeen to defeat the Soviets may have made sense in the era of the Cold War – though, by the time it was released the Cold War was decidedly winding down – but when many of the freedom fighters of the Muhajadeen morphed into the factions which eventually comprised and supported the Taliban a few years later, the film began to look a bit uncomfortable. Like The Living Daylights, the similarly-themed James Bond film of the previous year, Rambo III has become a victim of History. It’s impossible not to listen to the two passages quoted above without recognizing that our own present misadventure in this unyielding country suffers from the same errors in judgment, the same assumptions about American superiority.
Twenty years after Rambo III, Stallone decided to resurrect the franchise. This was a sound decision from a box office point of view. In every other way, and by every other measure I can think of, though (aside from body count) this was a terrible idea. First of all, the annoyingly-named Rambo – it’s the fourth film, and everyone called the second one “Rambo” anyway, so why be confusing for no reason at all? – has no political subtext at all. It’s just… gone.
The Cold War is over, Vietnam is long forgotten, and Rambo is a silent, broody, ex-pat who lives in Northern Thailand and traps snakes for a living. He has nothing to say, and no one to say it to. When a few American Christians show up asking him to take them into Burma in his boat, he refuses in monosyllables and grunts. Then, Julie Benz persuades him to comply (somehow – this is unclear) and he drops them off upriver where they immediately get into trouble, and are eventually captured by the Burmese army. Before long, Rambo is conscripted in a round-about way to mount a mission to spring them.
The backdrop to all of this is the Burmese campaign against the Karen people, a Christian minority under heavy persecution. Since this is literally the only thing we ever learn about them – apart from one guy with limited screen time, they don’t even get speaking roles here, so we are forced to see them as the unfortunate pawns the film wants them to be – we are never asked to understand anything of the complexity of the political situation in Burma. It’s all starkly black and white, good and evil, with Rambo representing the one thing the poor Karen people need to help them to overcome the wickedness of their overlords.
An extraordinarily violent movie, Rambo actually holds the distinction of being the most brutal film ever made, with a disgusting 236 onscreen kills. Since it is devoid of plot, twists of any kind, meaningful dialogue or character development, it relies on bloodlust to sustain its 80-minute runtime. After we are deeply appalled by a gore-soaked massacre sequence, we await the final carnage of the revenge sequence.
It’s all very mathematical: the Burmese army kills a hundred villagers, and Rambo, almost single-handedly, rips apart at least as many of them in response. Then the film ends. That’s it. No summary, no sense of where we go from here, no discussion of what has just transpired. The film’s message is, unhelpfully: Burma=Hell.
Most unaccountably, there’s no reference to the actually ongoing wars being waged by the American army while Rambo is off fighting the Burmese civil war. Missing an obvious opportunity to bring Rambo into the era of the “War on Terror”, Stallone seems to have been unable to position his hero on sturdy enough ground in this most shifty of all global wars.
Seeing in Burma a conflict which is deemed reassuringly black and white, Stallone opted to sidestep any commentary on the actually existing American political situation. Indeed, like many Americans, he chose to ignore the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to avoid difficult political discussions, to refuse nuance. When one of the Christians admonishes him that, “It’s thinking like that that keeps the world the way it is”, Rambo’s response is curt and instructive: “Fuck the world.”
Rambo is seen in the final shot of this (perhaps) ultimate installment in the quadrilogy walking up the driveway of his family ranch, finally going home. However, if the essential point of this series, muddy as it has been made by this hateful fourth entry, has been that Rambo represents the failure of the American people to come to terms with their mistakes in Vietnam, what do we do with this pat ending? Has he exorcised his demons from Vietnam? Is he ready now to embrace the world? Can America move on from the trauma of defeat? Has his conscience finally been cleared? Has America’s?