Six observations and an unexpected message from the Hollywood of my youth.
My childhood memory of Rambo is of a machine gun-wielding maniac, hell-bent on destruction. Popular cinema from that time was considerably more violent than what gets put on Netflix, today. Watched anything from the 80s, even a PG movie, recently? Some big content surprises.
Times change, but themes remain consistent. One I observed when I recently watched the first Rambo film surprised me.
I won’t be commenting on any of the Rambo sequels. I’ve never seen them and I’m pretty sure they are where my false impression of the character comes from. I will focus on the movie in which he was first introduced, the one based on the David Morrell novel, both titled First Blood.
Here are some surprising observations.
- Rambo comes in peace. The movie opens with a sweeping vista of a hillside home by a sun-reflecting lake outside of Hope, Washington. John Rambo stops to appreciate the picturesque beauty of the view. He notes children playing. A dog runs about barking, playfully. Rambo smiles. He’s there to seek out a buddy from his time serving in Vietnam. When he learns that this friend has died of cancer from exposure to Agent Orange, he does not overstay his welcome. He continues along the road into town for a bite to eat and, perhaps, to ponder the loss. This is where Sheriff Will Teasle begins to suffer the wrath of his own pride.
- Rambo is passive. He is silent upon arrest for vagrancy. He remains docile despite multiple taunts. He only fights officers in the police station once he is physically attacked. Even then, he escapes the situation, rather than having thoughts of violence or revenge.
- Rambo gives many chances. Sheriff Will Teasle is given many opportunities to deescalate the situation. In each case he insists on piling onto his initial assertion that the law must be followed and he is the law, otherwise, “Hell breaks loose.” He needs to have control. The result of the repeated assertion of his will is a literal fireball unleashed onto the sleepy town. Each time it is suggested that he let Rambo go, to be picked up elsewhere, he asserts that things must be done his way.
- Rambo kills no-one. The only human fatality is Officer Galt who, against orders, tries to shoot Rambo while hanging out the side of an unstable helicopter with no harness. He falls to his own death. It is at this point that Rambo first offers to give himself up, saying, “I don’t want any more hurt.” When he does fire shots, he shoots around people, not at them. He draws his pursuers into traps where they are maimed, but not killed, or where they a tricked into attacking each other. There is the unfortunate loss of a Doberman, but is it Rambo’s fault the animal was being used as a weapon against him?
- Rambo ends in a whimper. In a 1982 review of the film Roger Ebert wrote of the “commonplace conclusions” to action movies of the time. He wonders, “What it would be like to see one end with a whimper rather than a bang.” And astute commenter on the review points out that this is, in fact, how First Blood ends. Rambo is literally in tears, finally speaking out loud of the struggles he’d faced in civilian population since being used as a soldier overseas.
- Rambo has a message. John Rambo speaks his message clearly and directly when he confronts the Sheriff and holds him at knifepoint. “Don’t push it,” Rambo says to the man whose name is, literally, Will. “Let it go.”
John Rambo represents an irresistible force, not unlike the one that determines all things in our Universe. Fate, God, Higher Power. Anything and everything that we cannot control.
The messages I took from these ninety unexpected minutes of reflection, are that pride gets us nowhere. Things needn’t be forced. Our will is the source of our misery.
Had he allowed it to flow, unabated, the Tao or the Way of the world would have solved Sheriff Will Teasle’s problems before he had a chance to create and repeatedly exacerbate them. A quick lunch and John Rambo would have been on his way back out of town. He had no reason to stay in Hope. The sheriff drew first blood and his pride kept it flowing.
I saw a meme, recently, with a person trying to mop up the water coming onto a beach with the tide. What a miserable existence it must be to think one can mop up an entire ocean. In most cases we cause our own problems by insisting things be the way we want them, not as they are. We can have peace if we heed Rambo’s advice: “Let it go.”