Friday, April 04, 2014


Whiskyprajer” AKA Darrell Reimer has been a steady reader of this blog for a long time.  He got me reading “Conan the Barbarian” and now he’s tempted me into watching “First Blood,” the beginning of Sly Stallone’s Rambo tales.  You might want to read what he says first.  

“Two extended riffs on Sylvester Stallone's most misunderstood (*especially* by Sly) film character, John J. Rambo:”

This is an archetypal “stand-down” movie, in the same way that the post-WWII Westerns can be interpreted as arguments for “standing down” from war (reframed as wild frontier) and exploration of the problems with that, which are mostly a matter of trying to figure out what to do besides using violence.  But this is a “Vietnam” stand-down, which means that there are psychological dimensions and degrees of horror and torture that just weren’t there in WWII.  

Darrell’s most interesting idea -- and the one that will arouse the most resistance -- is that Richard Crenna’s character is a kind of mother (understanding, protective, teaching) in contrast to Brian Dennehy’s sheriff/father who demands respect and obedience by using violence in both language and action.  Dennehy spends no time trying to understand Rambo himself -- either as a stray passing through town or as a Green Beret with a Congressional Medal of Honor -- or the larger situation.  He just identifies fiercely with his small town and insists that it be obedient to him and his values -- cleanliness, short hair, employment.  He is small-town xenophobic.

I don’t know how a black woman manages to raise her family on the margins of this kind of place -- or actually I do.  It’s by accepting bad treatment, the status of someone less than human.  But the story of her massive son, reduced to bones by cancer from Agent Orange, is just a sub-plot.  She’s the only woman in the movie but merely a shadow.

The main thing is that Rambo is the last survivor and continues to fight to survive.  But this director, Ted Kotcheff, was Canadian and the film was made in Hope, BC. rather than Hope, WA.  Rambo is neither killed nor commits suicide in the end, though the darker endings were in several of the many scripts produced after the book was optioned.  Nor was the Rambo part written for Stallone in the beginning -- a whole panel of famous actors in a range of “styles” were mildly interested but never really committed for one reason or another -- wanted it to be crazier, didn’t want so much personal risk, were too old, etc.

Stallone has an interesting “vibe,” very much responsive to Darrell’s idea about the family trinity.  He’s childlike with his curly hair, droopy eyes and rosebud mouth -- but his body is strictly Charles Atlas.  Next to Brian Dennehy, a bear of a man who sometimes seems stupid, just a bully, his resistance is appealing.  The deputies do indeed seem like sons, including that scrawny redhead with the soft heart, David Caruso.  The vicious buddy of the sheriff is the kind of mean-dog uncle who somehow manages to bond with a bigger, more important man.  A hyena shadowing a lion for scraps.

Stallone doesn’t curse, doesn’t even talk much.  Dennehy throws GD around in the way more recent movies put the f-word everywhere.  In this movie no one says “fuck” until almost the end.  The National Guard are incompetent children.  Stallone is not sexy in the way some actors would have been and the way Dennehy is in other movies.  He’s not looking for women and doesn’t use sexual language.  He doesn’t kill his own kind. 

Richard Crenna was also a default casting.  The knee-jerk tough “generals” all declined.  Crenna’s quiet, mournful, understated warnings makes him the guy who “gets it,” who is powerful -- in fact, set the tragedy in motion by training Rambo -- but now is not able to avert catastrophe.  Never thought about what would happen when the war was over.  But he DOES save his boy.  Too bad about the others,  

The movie is shot in what is a rain forest ecology quite comparable to a tropical rain forest.  If you can stand being wet all the time, there is never a shortage of materials, esp. if you have a good knife.  (They say cutlery sales took a nice uptick because of that knife of Rambo’s.)  The compass on the match-storing hilt is pretty useful.  Throughout the NW there are generally abandoned ghost structures left from the early surges of exploration and exploitation, with their handy petrochemical leftovers.

I did NOT find this story unlikely, but that’s because of Steve Solovich, a veteran of WWII who slid through the forest in southern Oregon, including places near my uncles’ ranches.  We found his little hooches and the dried, smoked deermeat he stashed in old oil drums.  We stood in the little clearings he made in order to plant beans.  Plenty more veterans have refused to “stand down”, having learned to live on the margins, maybe using marijuana as a cash crop, partnering with other renegades or even half-wolves.  

Steve finally kind of aged out.  He began to slip into barns before dawn to milk cows for breakfast, to stand at the usually uncurtained country houses' windows watching TV over the shoulders of the farmers (who could feel him there and would find his footprints in the flower borders), and finally (his undoing) to steal dynamite in order to clear his bean gardens.  He was captured and confined to a Veteran’s Hospital, rather like Liver-Eatin’ Johnson, an earlier case of a guy who was geared for extremes and risk, not civilization.

A long section of “First Blood” is underground in an old mine, echoing the classic labyrinth and catacomb stories that are such powerful metaphors of struggle to understand and cope "underground," to escape blundering attempts to destroy problematic people.  The rats should have been bats, but okay.  Bill Chambers, a critic, brought up Joe Campbell and both Darrell and I agree this is useful.  At no point did anyone bring in the Vietnamese practice of creating elaborate underground tunnels and chambers.  Stallone’s small size (he’s 5’7”) could have been framed as an advantage.  Flashbacks in enemy tunnels would have been powerful.

Nor was any alliance with drug culture or other undergrounds mentioned.  Rambo is an innocent, a solitary -- not a street rat or political rebel as Dennehy takes him to be.  Nor is he a psycho or diseased in any way.  He’s an innocent guy who has been taught a particular way to cooperate with a guerrilla team, who has been traumatized by extreme torture, and who has never been re-calibrated for ordinary life.  Maybe it would be impossible.

As the plot unwinds, the steady upgrading of weapons and damage rising to near-nuclear proportions are de rigeur for Hollywood movies.  An interesting but irrelevant detail is that much of the film company’s major collection of weapons was stolen halfway through the "shoot."  They had been brought in on special permits since Canadian society in general resists firearms.  It would be interesting to find out how and where they surface since they are probably numbered and recorded.

Bottom line:  I liked the movie.  Isn’t anyone ever going to resolve the problem of what to do with warriors after war?

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