Rambo’s Hold Will Never Let (Us) Go

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.

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.

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:

Like many Americans, Stallone chose to ignore the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to avoid difficult political discussions, to refuse nuance.

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?

Rambo: Um-hum.

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.

Later:

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?

Rambo III

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.

Rambo

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?

PopMatters