Who? Rambo! If you at all had a pulse back in the 80’s then you don’t just know who Rambo is. You lived through Rambo. An 80’s movie and political icon, Rambo came to represent all the best qualities of the US during that decade. Rambo was loud, invincible, strong, took no prisoners, kicked ass, and looked like a boss doing so. There’s a reason his movies were a favorite of Ronald Reagan. Just the name Rambo itself has transcended the character to become an adjective in it’s own right. A solider who takes off on his own, or a lone wolf is often called a “Rambo”. But there is more to Rambo which sets him apart from other cliche actions stars. Well, at least initially because there is no denying he ended up becoming nothing but cliche towards the end of his movies. What makes Rambo different and so memorable? Rambo wasn’t afraid to cry.
What? John James Rambo was born in Arizona in 1946. The son of a Navajo father and Italian American mother. Life was hard for John growing up in the hot Arizona desert and so he enlisted/was drafted in the army at age 18. Like most enlisted young men at the time John was deployed to fight in the Vietnam War in 1966 but returned home to attend special forces school at Fort Bragg in 1967. The special forces were still in their infancy at this point in American history as Washington increasingly relied on unconventional forces and tactics to combat the guerrilla warfare employed by the Viet-Cong. It was here John was trained by Col. Sam Trautman with who he would develop a close bond and friendship with.
Upon graduation from Fort Bragg John was redeployed To Vietnam as a member of Trautman’s SOG (Studies and Observations Group) team. Together they would deploy deep into the jungles of Vietnam on dangerous LRRP (Long range reconnaissance patrols) missions were Truatman’s team waged a guerrilla war of their own ambushing, capturing, and killing as many enemy soldiers as they could. In a team of special and elite soldiers, John Rambo stood out from among them as “the best” with guns, with knives, with his bare hands. Trained to ignore pain, ignore weather and live off the land. His whole job was to dispose of enemy personal. To kill! Period! And he did until captured and severely tortured by the NVA forces in a mission gone awry. He eventually escaped prison and asked to be immediately returned to active duty where he continued fighting until discharged in 1972. While in Vietnam he was awarded the Medal of Honor, 2 silver stars, 4 bronze stars, 4 purple hearts and the Distinguished Service Cross.
Rambo returned home to a country he didn’t recognize. The unpopularity of the war combined with the anti-war movement made Rambo an outsider in his own nation. Where in Vietnam he regularly operated million dollar equipment he was unable to hold a job flipping burgers back home. So he drifted as he tried to find meaning to his life once again. While passing through the town of Hope, Washington he was picked up and taken in by the local power tripping sheriff who took Rambo in for vagrancy. Tortured at the hands of the police Rambo suffers from flashbacks of his time as a POW and, well, goes Rambo on everyone. He escapes and goes into hiding in the woods as the town sheriff vows to bring Rambo in for breaking the law. Now in his element, Rambo wages a one man war against the police as he evades and ambushes them with deadly efficiency. Eventually he infiltrates the town and brings the war home as he proceeds to destroy the town to get revenge of the sheriff for drawing “first blood”. Luckily Col. Trautman appears at the last second and talks Rambo down from his destructive spree of PTSD.
Rambo ends up doing hard time for his actions in Hope breaking rocks and getting buff. One day he is visited by Col. Trautman who offers a presidential pardon if Rambo would help rescue missing POWs still held captive in the exact prison he escaped from while serving in Vietnam. It’s better than slinging a sledgehammer so Rambo agrees. During his debriefing Rambo is given strict orders not to engage enemy soldiers or even attempt a rescue as this is to be paparazzi mission only. Soon he is flying back over Vietnam ready to begin, when things go very wrong. While parachuting into the jungle Rambo is dragged behind the plane like a ragdoll when his line catches on the door. With all his strength he manages to cut the line and tumble into the thick canopy below but finds most of his equipment has been lost and he is way off target. Luckily he still has his bows and arrows to hunt NVA game with and heads off to find his contact, a woman and American sympathizer named Co-Bao who will lead him to the camp. Rambo defies his orders and rescues the tortured POWs as they escape by river boat to the extraction point with the help of some pirates. Afraid of the political shit storm that would ensue from the news that Rambo rescued American prisoners the pick up is called off inciting Rambo.
After surviving an attack from an enemy patrol boat Rambo is taken captive by the Vietnamese and their Russian helpers. They want Rambo to broadcast a message to his superiors to call off any further rescue attempts and beat the hell out of him until he complies. They even hang him into a pit of leeches! Hardcore! Rambo reluctantly agrees but only because it gives him the opportunity to threaten the bureaucrats in charge of the mission before breaking free and escaping to extract his revenge. Co-Bao helps him tend to his wounds and they share a brief moment before she is mercilessly gunned down in front of Rambo by pursuing soldiers. You can only push a man so far and Rambo is a man who doesn’t like to be pushed. Ever. Soon Rambo is going all Rambo on the Vietnamese as he blends into the jungle and systematically picks his attackers apart one by one. He then attacks an enemy camp with explosive arrows, for hunting, and hijacks a helicopter which he flies into the POW camp to rescue the trapped Americans, M60 in hand. They load up and fly away but are chased by the Russian commander in a Hind gunship. Rambo hits the deck and gives chase through a winding canyon but is hopelessly outgunned. Somehow Rambo manages to make an emergency landing and play dead long enough to shoot a freaking rocket launcher through his shattered cockpit window and blows up the Russian Hind. Still not done blowing things up, Rambo flies back to home base where he shoots up a room full of file cabinets in another fit of PTSD before simply walking away to live day by day.
Years later Trautman once again seeks Rambo’s aid to help to help with the great idea of resupplying a group of sympathetic Mujaheddin rebels in some country called Afghanistan. Rambo declines as he’s too busy amateur stick fighting and rebuilding temples to care. Trautman proceeds regardless, but gets captured by Soviet forces in a move nobody but Rambo and Trautman saw coming. Once more Rambo dons the red headband as he takes off to the graveyard of empires to rescue his old friend. With the help of a rebel leader and a young boy Rambo is able to find Trautman but is unable to save him. Wounded in the attempt, Rambo burns his wound close and sends his guides away to free Trautman solo. With more explosive arrows, for hunting, Rambo returns the next day and frees Trautman along with more POWs and hijacks a Hind helicopter of his own. Forced to abandon the damaged helicopter Rambo and Trautman take refuge in a series of underground caves and own a group of pursuing Soviet Spetsnaz special forces.They hike out only to be confronted with a small army of Soviet tanks, soldiers and helicopters. At the end of their line the pair are saved by the heroic Mujaheddin as they selfishly charge the Russians on horseback. A huge lopsided battle begins as Rambo mounts a horse then later mounts a tank and begins screaming, driving, and shooting everything as his PTSD kicks in again. Flying above the battlefield in his Hind, the Russian commander singles Rambo out and proceeds to play a game of high speed chicken with him as he charges the tank. Rambo hits the gas and literally drives the tank’s cannon into the Hind’s cockpit as they collide in a massive explosion. Tank – 1, helicopter – 0.
Twenty years after his Afghanistan experience Rambo lived in the jungles of Thailand to disappear and live a simple life as a boat ferry man and snake seller. Age has caught with him by now, but he agrees to ferry a group of missionaries into war torn Burma against his better judgement. When the missionaries fail to return and are taken as hostages by the local warlord a group of mercenaries are hired to bring them back and ask Rambo to guide them to their last known location. At first mistaken for a simple ferryman, Rambo gives his true self away when he annihilates a group of enemy soldiers single-handily with his bow and arrows. Joining with the mercenaries Rambo helps to rescue the hostages and lead them to safety from the pursuing warlord army. Once again Rambo goes Rambo as he single handily kills the pursing army with high caliber machine guns, a daisy cutter landmine and a simple machete. The hostages saved, he finally returns home, after all these years, to a small farm on a dirt road in Arizona.
How? The original movie was originally based on a 1972 book of the same same by David Morrell. The rights were bought by Columbia pictures and spent years in development hell as the script was passed on actors such as Clint Eastwood, De Niro, Paul Newman, and John Travolta because it was too violent. Luckily Sylvestor Stallone became attached after the success of Rocky and rewrote the script to make Rambo more human. Rambo was even more of a killing machine in the book and original screenplay it seems. With Stallone onboard Rambo became a sympathetic veteran lost in the anti-Vietnam backlash that still gripped the US in the early 80’s. Originally Rambo was supposed to die at the end but Stallone wisely changed the ending to let Rambo live and kill another day. The original cut of the film was said to be over three hours and was bad enough to make Stallone sick and fearful it would kill his career. The film was re-cut and did extremely well at the box office helping birth an American icon.
Why? First Blood is one of my favorite movies. It’s just so 80’s I love it! From the simple music, to the cheap bullet ricochets sounds, to the wardrobe, the old cars, the sleepy town, everything, it makes me feel like living back in time when I watch it. And the movie’s plot is by far the best of the four Rambo films even though it’s the least violent. I don’t think Rambo directly kills anybody in the entire movie, cause you know, killing police isn’t very sympathetic or heroic. But the message is so simple. As a country we sometimes mistreat our soldiers like crap when we haven’t walked in their boots, sacrificed what they’ve sacrificed. Rambo isn’t just any solider, he was one of the BEST soldiers from Vietnam and we find him wandering around the country aimlessly at the beginning of the movie because our country wants nothing to do with him, characterized by the town sheriff. It’s no wonder Rambo goes off the deep end when he gets pushed too far and reverts back to his training just to survive. The best part of the film (the series) comes in the middle of First Blood with Rambo, presumed dead and alone by the fire in the middle of the woods, breaks radio silence and cries out to his only surviving friend, Col Trautman. That’s right. Rambo, one of the baddest men in all cinema breaks down and cries because all his friends are dead from the war and he’s the only one left. In an instant we know and understand him. He’s a killing machine because our country needed him to be, but he’s still human underneath and in tremendous pain. We know what Vietnam was like for him and yet we really don’t know anything. Rambo is best when he’s at war, not with the Russians, or Vietnamese, but with himself.
Rambo part II and III delved into action movie cliche but I’d say the second best film in the series is the last one, Rambo. The message of the movie is dead simple. As my brother told me, a former Ranger himself, sometimes…..sometimes violence is the only way to get things done. In the fourth film Rambo should be retired and living a quiet life, and he is, until violence creeps it’s way back into his life one more time. You can tell his violent past is something he’s still trying to deal with as the movie plays out. But when he is called back to duty Rambo doesn’t complain, doesn’t drag his feet, doesn’t hesitate to fight. At his core Rambo is a soldier. Violence is his profession. It’s what he does. It’s who he is. And as cliche and cheesy as the earlier movies may be with the violence 2008’s Rambo atones for this in spades. Enemy soldiers just don’t dance a little jog when shot by machine gun fire here. Instead body parts explode when hit by high caliber rounds. Explosions rip limps away, bones shatter, intestines spill out, flesh burns. Violence is truly an awful thing.
But sometimes it’s necessary.
Stallone may be getting up there in years but that doesn’t mean Rambo has to go away. There has been talk since Rambo’s release of a filth sequel which has turned into further talks of a TV series. But I’m here to argue for neither. What the charterer needs is a fresh reboot. An origin story in the likes of James Bond and Casino Royale. We all know who Rambo is and what he is capable of. But how did he get that way? That is a far more interesting story. The man was the grim reaper incarnate back in Vietnam so let’s see what he was capable of in his prime. Where does he come from? How do you turn a boy from small town Arizona into an unstoppable killing machine like him? Vietnam made Rambo. I want to see how. There are precious few films these days dealing with America’s experience with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan anyways. A Rambo parable in Vietnam today would help bridge that missing gap in film just as nicely today as the original did back in 1982.
But I don’t want to see Rambo man ripping out throats. I want to see him cry again.