In All His Glory

by Marco Lanzagorta

4 December 2008


Ronbo 2 (partial) by Dark Black from SmartPolitics.tribe.net

When Rambo was first announced, it appeared to be a smart move that the return of Rambo coincided with America’s overwhelming struggle to win two brutal wars. Unfortunately, from an ideological context, Rambo disappoints in its clear disconnect from the current geopolitical environment that is of relevance to US audiences.

Nevertheless, Rambo is an important movie because it brings to a closure the franchise’s discourse on the American experience in Vietnam, arguably one of the most important features of the saga of Rambo. Indeed, the book and subsequent films ultimately capitalize on the sentiments of a nation that was defeated in a difficult war that nobody understood. However, perhaps because of the many historical and cultural complexities associated to the Vietnam War, such discourse has not been consistent, but contradictory and paradoxical.

As First Blood begins, Rambo is presented as a veteran trying to heal the trauma of the war. Rambo returns home to find a nation oblivious to his emotional and psychological aches. He is confronted with ordinary American citizens who do not appreciate his sacrifice, and fail to understand his pain and suffering. At this point, First Blood is not that different from other Nam Veteran flicks of the 1970s such as The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978), and Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979).

As the film progresses and Rambo is wronged by the abusive Teasle, Rambo returns fire on a fierce battle against America itself. As such, First Blood brings the horrors of the Vietnam War to American soil, but turns upside down the bases of the conflict. That is, the American war hero is the primitive-looking guerrilla warrior that fights an oppressive conventional army. This way, Rambo stands as an allegory for the Vietnamese soldiers, while the American authority institutions are showcased as villainous and decadent.

However, in Rambo: First Blood II the Vietnam discourse of the original is practically reversed in an attempt to rewrite history. Less grounded in real events, Rambo: First Blood II promotes an alternate reality that avoids and negates the US trauma due to the Vietnam War. This film basically reenacts the Vietnam conflict and forces America to emerge victorious. Ironically, Rambo defeats his communist enemies by using the guerrilla tactics that in real life were used by the Vietnamese to defeat the US conventional forces.

Furthermore, Rambo: First Blood II suggests that the US war machine could not have been defeated in a fair conflict. After all, the American soldiers as represented by Rambo are too strong and too noble to be beaten by such a petty country. As remarked by Rambo, treacherous US politicians and disloyal civilians were the real reason behind the American defeat in Southeast Asia. That is, Rambo: First Blood II equally condemns the authority institutions who failed to support the American soldiers, and also those who stood against the war.

If you think about it, this problematic ideology that attempts to revise the history books is reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s rhetoric. Indeed, the German dictator hated the politicians that had offered the capitulation of Germany during World War I and went on to sign the Treaty of Versailles (referred to, by Hitler, as the “Traitors of 1918”). According to Hitler and many other Germans, the Army had not been beaten in the battlefield, but had been back-stabbed by the country’s political leaders.

For Rambo III, once again the Vietnam discourse is turned 180 degrees from its predecessor. Going back to the same ideological posture found in the first film of the series, Rambo is aligned on the side of the rebels and he gives fierce battle to the oppressors. In this regard there is a telling scene in the film, where Trautman tells the Soviet commander that Afghanistan is destined to become the USSR’s Vietnam.

Perhaps because of their shifting ideological content, the Rambo films present a telling geopolitical contradiction. In First Blood, Rambo returns home, the US, only to find hell. In Rambo: First Blood II, Trautman remarks to the treacherous government official: “What you call hell, he calls home”, referring to Rambo being on his own in the Vietnam jungle. But paradoxically, Rambo rescues the POWs to bring them back to the US.

Rambo’s complex love-hate relationship with his country is continued in Rambo III, which finds him living in self imposed exile in Thailand. It is only at the end of Rambo that the hero gives proper closure to his conflicting sentiments and returns to America. In a scene that obviously resembles the opening of First Blood, the ending of Rambo finds him walking a solitary American road in search of his family.

Nevertheless, in spite of being strongly contextualized to address American politics and history, the Rambo franchise has been extremely popular all over the world. Clearly, the Rambo films appeal to a wider audience because of their uncompromising showcase of explosions, gunfights, fistfights and other acts of aggression. Full of visual excesses and unbelievable situations, the Rambo flicks celebrate the use of weapons and violence, and glorify armed conflict as the best and only way to overcome a crisis.

Not well known to the general public, Rambo is also a prodigious chiropractor (scene from Rambo)

Not well known to the general public, Rambo is also a prodigious chiropractor (scene from Rambo)

Similarly to Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese), Vietnam has turned Rambo into an unstoppable killing machine. However, in the case of Rambo his aggressive behavior is always justified onscreen by being tortured or wronged by an evil adversary. Therefore, the Rambo films align their politics of violence and vengeance along the lines of vigilante movies such as Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971) and Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974).

In his films, Rambo is constantly portrayed as judge, jury, and executioner in the national and international spheres. Obviously outside the scope of American law, Rambo holds an incorruptible sense of morality and justice. Furthermore, in the world of Rambo there are no moral conundrums, and everything is black and white, with no shades of gray.  For instance, in Rambo: First Blood II he obliterates an entire Vietnamese village in the process of rescuing the POWs, and there are no considerations as to the collateral damage that he may have caused.

It’s worth noticing that, as the Rambo series progressed, their violent content increased exponentially. In the first movie, Rambo is indirectly responsible for the death of a single character. And quite amazingly, in the sequels he purposively kills 69, 132, and 236 bad guys respectively. At this point it would be safe to predict a death toll of about 500 in the upcoming Rambo V.

The overwhelming progression of violent acts in the Rambo films is only comparable to the increase in the size of his knife and muscles as the sequels evolved. Arguably, these films eroticize Rambo’s muscular body and his phallic weaponry. As a consequence, the Rambo movies took the concept of masculinity to new limits that had rarely seen before. In this context, masculinity is strictly related to muscular mass and aggressive behavior. Indeed, in the Rambo films the exercise of violence is seen as manly and as the only possible solution to any type of crisis.

Furthermore, First Blood confronts Rambo’s revolutionary rendition of masculinity against the more traditional image of the “Marlboro Man”. Indeed, Rambo battles a town of gun happy weekend hunters that look just like the mythic Marlboro Man. As such, the film appears to suggest that mythical cultural constructions are often disconnected from real life. That is, the small town folks in First Blood believe that they are tough men because of their guns and plaid jackets. However, Rambo made evident that their toughness pales in the context of real warfare.

In this regard, the Rambo films also set the trend that characterized most of the ‘80s, where the perfectly muscular body of the hero embodies nationalistic, gender, cultural, social, and moral ideologies. In all of the Rambo movies, it is his muscular body, rather than his intellect, which ultimately offers a triumphant resolution to a critical situation.

As a consequence, Rambo’s body is constantly under attack and the films tend to eroticize the male body through its wounds. Most tellingly, in First Blood he sutures his arm and in Rambo III he cauterizes his abdomen. Furthermore, as Rambo’s body is an emblem to national ideology, the scenes where he attends his wounds metaphorically represent historical redemption and the healing of national traumas.

Interestingly, the injuries that Rambo receives, in conjunction with the state of his clothes, not only reflect the brutal action and the relentless progression of the films, but also have an important metaphorical representation. Indeed, these changes in his appearance suggest that Rambo is progressively reduced to some primal state of savagery, which is necessary in order to confront the evildoers.

Therefore, by combining a strong sense of morality along with a perfect body, Rambo becomes invincible, even if he uses “primitive weapons”. Indeed, Rambo’s favorite weapons are his knife, bow, and arrows, while his enemies usually carry more sophisticated armament. In this regard, the films of Rambo also bring to mind the archetypal victory of the American underdog (a role that Stallone played with bravura in the many films of the Rocky franchise).

Because of all these considerations, it is undeniable that the Rambo films defined the basic narrative and visual ingredients of the action genre during the 1980s: excessive violence, exaggerated reality, and an invincible muscular hero. Providing a true renaissance period for the action genre, Rambo paved the way for films such as Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988), Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987), Missing in Action (Joseph Zito, 1984), The Delta Force (Menahem Golan, 1986), Commando (Mark L. Lester, 1985), and Raw Deal (John Irvin, 1986). And to tell the truth, even if the Rambo flicks are not as good as Die Hard, they remain emblematic of the entire genre.

All the action and ideological complexities that characterize the four Rambo films can be appreciated as never before in their recent release in the Blu-Ray format. Typical of the high definition format, the image quality is superb and the audio is awesome. Because of their age the first three films of the franchise do not look as shinny as Rambo, but by far this is their best ever home video presentation.

In addition, all discs come with extensive extra features, such as audio commentaries, documentaries, and deleted scenes. Most notably is the enlightening audio commentary by Morrell on First Blood, where he discusses the genesis and evolution of his creation. Equally important, this disc also features a bleak alternate ending which is more faithful to its literary source.

Clearly, the Rambo films highlight the many ideological complexities and contradictions of American culture. Most dramatically, these movies swiftly embody many unresolved social and psychological issues regarding Vietnam and the Cold War, and they also question the role of America as an international police force.

Furthermore, Rambo stands as the most perfect metaphorical unification of political ideology, masculinity, violent behavior, and popular culture. By embracing the aggressive rhetoric of Reagan and the militarism of Bush Jr., the four Rambo flicks are clear products of their turbulent times. But nevertheless, the character of Rambo has ascended to another plane altogether, achieving truly mythical proportions.

Without a doubt, and in spite of their exaggerated reality, the Rambo films have clearly struck a chord with American audiences. Indeed, these movies have been consistent with the political ideology of the nation and offer a simple solution to difficult political and economical problems. But then again, as the Iraq War has painfully shown, sometimes the Rambo solution is no solution at all.

Rambo: First Blood II - Trailer

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