Rambo: In All His Glory

It is nearly impossible to objectively assess the overwhelming impact of Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) in popular culture. All four movies of the franchise, First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, 1982), Rambo: First Blood II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985), Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, 1988), andRambo (Sylvester Stallone, 2008), appealed to international audiences, were huge successes at the box office, and continue to be popular titles on video shelves. In addition, the first films of the Rambo series defined the narrative and visual structure of the action genre during the 1980s and beyond.

Love him or hate him, Rambo has become the quintessential representation of America during the Reagan years. And believe it or not, President Ronald Reagan referred to Rambo in public speeches to exemplify his ultra-right political ideology and aggressive foreign policy. Quite memorable, towards the end of the 1985 Beirut hostage crisis, President Reagan stated at a press conference that: “Boy, after seeing Rambo [First Blood II] last night, I know what to do next time this happens.”

Perhaps more crucial from a cultural perspective, Rambo is a word that can be found in the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary. According to this source, Rambo is “a Vietnam War veteran represented as macho, self sufficient and bent on violent retribution.” As well, it is widely popular to use adjectives such as Ramboesque, Ramboid, or Ramboism, to denote an ideological position that resembles Rambo’s attitude and behavior.

If you think about it, very few cultural products have had such a wide and deep impact in our world. While it is true that the Star Wars or Star Trek sagas have a stronger fan following than the Rambo films, their cultural penetration have been more limited. In spite of being ignored, maligned, and despised by a number of critics and academics, the Rambo franchise emerges as an important building block in the history and characterization of American popular culture.

Rambo was created by the prolific David Morrell in his outstanding debut novel First Blood (1972). As the legend goes, in 1968, while working on his doctoral dissertation at Penn State University, Morrell was motivated to write a book about the American experience in Vietnam. According to Morrell, he wanted to write a book “in which the Vietnam War literally came home to America.”

As Morrell has stated multiple times, he found it unnerving that the newscasts reporting the war in the Southeast Asia jungles were disturbingly similar to the footage of social unrest across the US. Morrell also recalls feeling deep indignation while reading about a group of hippies that had been harassed by an abusive sheriff from a small southwestern town.

Combining these real life events, Morrell envisioned the story of John Rambo, a decorated Green Beret that returns home after fighting in Vietnam, only to find a deeply polarized American society. Suffering from nightmares, survivor’s guilt, social alienation, and post traumatic stress disorder, Rambo brings to US soil the harrowing experience of combat in Vietnam.

At this point it is worth mentioning the possible literary origins of Rambo. By presenting the struggle of a gallant warrior returning home after a brutal war, First Blood recalls Homer’s The Odyssey. And because a terrible trauma is used as a catalyst for the transformation of Rambo into a hero of superhuman dimensions, First Blood brings to mind Batman and many other comic book superheroes. As such, even though he was an innovative character, Rambo carries a lot of cultural baggage with him.

Resentful and rebellious against authority institutions, Rambo decides to wander the roads of his home country, only to be hassled by Wilfred Teasle, a despotic police chief. However, Morrell’s First Blood is cleverly structured as a study in duality: Rambo and Teasle are decorated war veterans with extensive combat experience. Nonetheless, they are separated by a generation gap because Teasle was an honored Korean War hero and could well be Rambo’s father. As such, the ensuing conflict between Rambo and Teasle is pretty much a battle of equals.

An excellent allegory to the social polarization found in that period of American history, Rambo and Teasle are constantly unable to reconcile their different perspectives and convictions. As a consequence, a simple disagreement turns into a scorching conflict with devastating consequences.

The duality/polarization represented by Rambo and Teasle is reinforced with the skillful structure of the book: every chapter that deals with Rambo’s perspective is immediately followed by a chapter that portrays Teasle’s point of view. Therefore, for the entire length of the book, the reader clearly perceives how both characters are right, and both are wrong; they are both heroes, and they are both villains.

As such, First Blood is not simply a moralistic tale of good vs. evil, but a complex discourse on the failures of human communication and the ill effects of intolerance. Clearly, for Morrell, the conflicting viewpoints that divided America during that period of time were the product of well-meant convictions.

The success of First Blood is undisputable: it has been translated to 18 languages and continues to be in print. Furthermore, Morrell’s book was the genesis of four motion pictures, animated series, comic books, and a line of toys and action figures. On a side note, it is a real shame that except for First Blood and The Brotherhood of the Rose (Marvin J. Chomsky, 1989), Morrell’s outstanding books continue to be ignored by Hollywood.

In any event, the cinematic adaptation of First Blood was not very faithful to Morrell’s book. As noted by Morrell in the introduction to a recent reprint of his book, it is perhaps ironic that while First Blood was intended as an allegory to the social polarization in the US during the Vietnam War, the subsequent film versions became metaphors for the social polarization that troubled America during the Reagan years.

The major difference between the book and the movie resides in the character of Teasle (played by Brian Dennehy). While the book presented Rambo and Teasle as equals, the film places a strong emphasis on Rambo and regards Teasle as evil, weak, foolish, and ineffective. In addition, the violence in the book is severely toned down to make Rambo appear as a victim rather than a victimizer.

In this regard, the cinematic adaptation of First Blood resonated with Reagan’s political ideology that urged the nation for a return to the heroic values that characterized his beloved Hollywood War World II flicks of the 1950s. Indeed, by removing Teasle’s substantial combat expertise gained in Korea, the film is reduced to the story of a disaffected war veteran who single handedly defeats the National Guard, the fundamental backbone in the US military structure. Thus, First Blood can be seen as an allegory to Reagan’s political rhetoric that blamed the Carter administration for producing a fragile, unprepared, and ill-equipped nation.

If First Blood is an allegory to what Reagan alleged were the failures of the Carter administration, then Rambo: First Blood II would become a metaphor to Reagan’s goals, values, and political ideology. In the sequel, Rambo is sent back to Vietnam on a top secret mission to photograph Prisoner Of War (POW) camps. When the authority institutions backstab Rambo when he attempts to rescue the POWs, he takes matters into his own hands. As expected, the Ramboid solution to the problem results in the total annihilation of all the Vietnamese and Soviet advisors that conspired against America. In addition, by film’s end Rambo also violently confronts the treacherous government official that abandoned him in the jungle.

Perhaps that fateful morning Rambo just had too much caffeine …

In spite of his obvious loyalty and devotion to his country, Rambo’s attitude is representative of the postmodern action hero archetype that surfaced during the late ’60s and ’70s. The postmodern action hero reflected the torrid political climate of the era, and he did not symbolize the attributes of authority institutions. On the contrary, police and military forces are shown as weak, inefficient, decadent, and bureaucratic, often creating more trouble for the hero than help to solve the crisis at hand. As such, the postmodern hero is usually portrayed as an outcast and the victim of a social crisis.

It is important to note that this cinematic representation is in strong contrast with the one found in most flicks from the ’50s, where the military and the police were effective and trustworthy. Arguably, such a shift was a reaction to the popular general discontent and frustration felt towards authority institutions following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Furthermore, let us recall that one of the major domestic accomplishments of the Reagan administration was to attack the welfare state as incessantly bureaucratic and utterly incompetent. Just as the postmodern heroes of the era, Reagan had to fight Congress and skeptical citizens to carry out his political agenda. Therefore, it is undeniable that Rambo swiftly embodies the national strengths and conservative political ideology promoted by Reagan.

More explicitly, Reagan often referred to Rambo: First Blood II as a model for his domestic and foreign policies. For instance, in his 1985 Labor Day speech, Reagan stated that he would clean the federal tax system “in the spirit of Rambo”. Reagan also used Rambo to exemplify his attitude towards the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Nicaragua. Quite amusingly, Reagan was so deeply linked to Rambo, that he was often called “Ronbo”. Such an intriguing relation was made visual in a humorous doctored image of Reagan with the body of Rambo, which was quite popular during the 1980s.

As such, Rambo stood not only as an exemplary American, but also symbolized the entire political, ideological, and military might of the nation under Reagan. Even at its most awkward moments, Rambo provided a context to understand the Reagan administration. For instance, during the Iran-Contra affair, Colonel Oliver North was often compared to Rambo, in the sense that both were patriotic heroes that had been let down by the American government. As a consequence, Rambo truly became an internationally recognized national emblem, just as the flag and the anthem.

The second sequel, Rambo III, also embraced Reagan’s ideology and took it one step further. In this memorable film, Rambo travels to Afghanistan to rescue his mentor, Colonel Samuel Trautman (Richard Crenna), who was captured by the invading Soviet army. By far, Rambo III has the most narrative and visual excesses of all the films in the franchise. Rambo not only defeats the entire Soviet detachment, but in the process he drives a tank and knocks down a flying helicopter. Unfortunately, these impossible situations undermined the film’s credibility as a cultural product conveying relevant ideologies, which impeded critics and academics to provide a serious assessment of Rambo III.

Nevertheless, Rambo III remains the most ideologically heavy entry of the entire franchise. For instance, even though Rambo had an opportunity to fight the Soviets in Rambo: First Blood II, in Rambo III the Cold War conflict is far more explicit. Indeed, Rambo joins ineffective and untrained freedom fighters, and then leads them to fight Soviet expansionism. Therefore, Rambo III boils down to a militaristic fantasy where a single man, embracing the noblest American ideals, is able to destroy an entire invading army.

As such, Rambo III overtly embraced Reagan’s rhetoric of America fighting the “Evil Empire”. As with many films of the ’80s, the popular representation of the Cold War was intimately tied to a wrestle between the forces of good and evil. Then, Rambo III deeply resonated with Reagan’s rhetoric that urged the nation to develop a mightier military force to battle a formidable enemy. Furthermore, in a circular process, as much as Rambo informed Reagan’s policies, the presidential rhetoric influenced the American people to cheer for a fictional hero that defends his country against a terrifying adversary.

Rambo: First Blood II and Rambo III presented a very abrasive national ideology that reflected Reagan’s attitude towards foreign policy. That is, by demonizing the USSR, demeaning Third World countries, and presenting military action as the only solution to political problems, the ideological inclination of the series is evident.

Similarly to First Blood, Rambo III appeared to support Reagan’s criticisms to the previous administration. That is, one could argue that Rambo III exposed the failure of Carter to prevent the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

It’s ironic that by the time Rambo III got released in theatres across the nation, the USSR had already announced the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. Furthermore, Gorbachev had already shattered the Soviet Union with his perestroika and glasnost reforms. As a consequence, the success of Rambo III was not as overwhelming as it had originally been expected. As Stallone once remarked, of all people, Gorbachev is the only one who managed to defeat the seemingly invincible Rambo.

It’s very telling that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Reagan administration, Rambo would pretty much disappear from the predominant cultural sphere. However, after a 20 year hiatus, the gallant war hero returned to the big screen in 2008 with Rambo, perhaps the movie with the most unimaginative title in the history of motion pictures.

In this movie, Rambo travels to Burma, a country engulfed by a ravaging civil war. His self imposed mission is to rescue a group of American missionaries that have been captured by a brutal war lord. By any means, this is the most violent and gory Rambo film in the series. Indeed, when Rambo gets his hands on a high caliber machine gun, heads, limbs, and torsos fly apart all over the place.

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)

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