Rambo is a part of pop culture; seeping into the American subconscious, he has been endlessly referenced and parodied (Hot Shots: Part Deux and UHF are my personal favorites). Whether you have seen the film or not, you are no doubt familiar with the iconic character: the red headband, the muscles, the guns, and that weird speech pattern (is it an accent; who knows?). The thing that most people don’t remember is that First Blood is actually more than an action movie. Sylvester Stallone has gotten a bad rap as just a dumb muscle-bound hero, but both Rambo and Rocky are iconic for a reason. They are both good movies that speak to aspects of American society and masculinity that are not often expressed in mainstream film. First Blood in particular deals with some pretty heavy topics: PTSD, the effect of war on the soldier’s mind and spirit, the mistreatment of Vietnam vets upon their return home, and how to integrate soldiers back into society after witnessing the horrors of war.
Ex-Green Beret, Vietnam vet John Rambo wanders the streets, lost in a daze, after learning a friend has died of Agent Orange-induced cancer. A small town sheriff (Brian Dennehy) picks him up for vagrancy, and for merely being an outsider, based on his shabby appearance and gruff demeanor. After being mistreated by the police, Rambo makes a dramatic escape to the woods. The soldier’s skills prove to be too much for the small-minded cops, and they call for reinforcements from the military. John’s sympathetic former commander (Richard Crenna) arrives, and is stuck trying to save the police from Rambo and save Rambo from himself.
The film is obviously chock-full of great action sequences; the best of which take place in the forest. John Rambo is a Boy Scout on steroids, and part of the fun of the movie is watching what crazy survivalist techniques he comes up with next. It’s important to note, because of the misconceptions about the film, Rambo does not actually kill anyone; he is the victim of this story. Although it was called “heavy-handed” upon its initial release, Rambo’s innocence and rough existence elicits sympathy from the audience; his monologue in the final sequence may seem like a bit too much, but he had a rough week.
Men being cast aside after they have outlived their usefulness has become the overall theme of Stallone’s work. Rocky’s no good to us if he can’t get in the ring and fight. Rambo’s sole purpose is to kill for the good guys, and every time he tries to have a normal life, it fails. Even the camp comedy of The Expendables (2010–2014) series has this as its underlying message. These men (and one woman in the most recent film) were all soldiers who did what no one else wanted to do, but what “needed” to be done; they were not only expendable while on-mission, but unacknowledged and uncared for when the mission was over. None of this is to excuse these characters’ violent rampages or the fact that the Rambo series are popcorn action flicks, just to advocate for a deeper understanding of a character which has become a part of American cinematic landscape.