Film appreciation: Sylvester Stallone's Rambo debut, First Blood

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 March, 2015, 10:41pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 March, 2015, 10:41pm

First Blood
Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Brian Dennehy
Director: Ted Kotcheff

Much like the Rocky series that made Sylvester Stallone's name, the Rambo films set the tone for a distinctly 1980s form of action movie, in which excessive violence was unleashed under a banner of Stars-and-Stripes jingoism.

But while later episodes became implausible rocket-launcher-filled capers that walked the line between Reaganite foreign policy wet dreams and borderline homoerotic machismo, the first Rambo movie - like the first Rocky - was surprisingly serious and even poignant.

Based on the 1972 novel by David Morrell, First Blood tells the story of John Rambo (Stallone), a Vietnam veteran and drifter with post-traumatic stress disorder who falls foul of an overzealous sheriff (Brian Dennehy) while passing through a small US town, sparking a brutal manhunt, a violent backlash and a bleak denouement.

The film opens on an idyllic note, with Rambo walking up to a house by a sun-drenched lake. He becomes distraught, however, when he discovers the ex-army buddy he had come to visit had died of Agent Orange-induced cancer. He then finds himself at odds with the local lawman, Sheriff Teasle (Dennehy).

When the cops try to lock him up - beating and hosing him when he refuses to talk - Rambo experiences flashbacks of being tortured in a Vietnamese POW camp and fights back, fleeing to the surrounding woods with the cops in pursuit. From there on, the film centres on Rambo's fight to survive as he uses his guerilla warfare skills to outwit and outflank his heavily armed foes.

Key to Rambo's survival is the hunting knife that he uses to make lethal mantraps and which he straps to a long stick to spear a boar for supper. More impressive still - and no doubt a big part of the reason why replica and plastic toy versions of the knife became popular spin-offs - is the survival kit hidden in the handle, which includes needle, thread, matches and a compass, all of which Rambo uses to stay one step ahead of the cops.

The violence - at least until the explosive final act - is for the most part gritty and realistic, while the worsening weather brings an extra touch of gloom to a tale that seems destined to have a grim outcome. It's surprising, then - and contrary to Morrell's book - that the final scene should be settled by a burst of emotion as opposed to gunfire.

Virtually silent for most of the film, Rambo delivers a monologue on the psychological horrors of not only war, but of a return to a country in which he and his fellow soldiers are demonised instead of thanked.

Hopeless and disillusioned, Rambo surrenders - and lives to fight another day.