They Drew First Blood
First Blood, directed by Ted Kotcheff, is not only a first-rate action film, but also boasts one of Sylvester Stallone’s best performances as Rambo, a sympathetic, misunderstood anti-hero suffering from PTSD. On the surface, it’s an epic survival thriller, but beneath the layers of bloodshed lies a smart social commentary that confronts the ill-effects the Vietnam War had on the home front. First Blood may not be credited as the film that skyrocketed Rambo to iconic stature, but unlike the sequels, it succeeds as both a psychological thriller and a riveting actioner. Thanks to Stallone’s stoic performance and Kotcheff’s tight direction, First Blood is still to this day the absolute best entry in the series.
The Making of First Blood
For the unfamiliar, First Blood was based on the best-selling novel by Canadian academic David Morrell. The movie rights were snatched up shortly after the book’s release, and for much of the decade, First Blood was stuck in production hell. The script jumped from studio to studio and underwent numerous re-writes (18 to be exact), while various filmmakers like Richard Brooks and Sydney Pollack were tasked to direct.
At the time, Stallone was desperately searching for his next big break. Sure, he had three Rocky films under his belt, but not much else in terms of a starring role. After several high-profile actors such as Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman reportedly turned down the part, Stallone agreed to star in the film asking if he could help co-write the screenplay and make his character more likable, less “psychotic.” While many believed it to be a bad career move on Stallone’s part, First Blood went on to become a box office hit that made an action star of Stallone. The rest, as they say, is history.
What stands out most when revisiting First Blood is Stallone’s performance. He may not be known as a great actor, but he is perfectly cast here as the Special Forces Green Beret war hero, John Rambo. In retrospect, it is hard to imagine anyone other than the Italian Stallion in the part, and his capabilities as an actor should not be overlooked. In preparing for the role, Stallone underwent intense training in hand-to-hand combat, and even performed many of his own stunts, resulting in several serious injuries that nearly halted filming. His dedication cannot be questioned, and is on full display in scenes such as when he dives off a steep cliff, or takes off in the riveting action chase riding a motorbike. He truly is great here, which is why I was surprised to learn that Stallone hated the first cut of the film so much that he tried to buy the print back so that he could destroy it. When the producers refused his request, he suggested that they cut much of his speaking parts and let the rest of the characters tell the story instead.
The second thing that stands out most when watching First Blood is how tight the script is. Working from David Morell’s novel, screenwriters Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone whipped up a screenplay that understands Rambo’s appeal is not just limited to his muscular physique. Yes, First Blood is oozing with machismo, but unlike the over-the-top and ridiculous sequels that made the character an unstoppable killing machine, First Blood is far more grounded and hits plenty of emotional beats with a message about how returning Vietnam soldiers had been marginalized by a divided country. What at first appears to be just another muscle-flexing ‘80s actioner soon reveals itself to be a thought-provoking feature, and one of the first genre films to really tackle post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them effects, but they’re easy to please if it’s a good story.”– Steven Spielberg
In First Blood, Rambo isn’t a hero; instead, he’s a man who is suffering, and he’s a victim of a society that has turned their back on him. “He’s wounded,” says Col. Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), Rambo’s former superior officer and the man who trained Rambo to be a killing machine. In a strong supporting role, Crenna’s Trautman (the only actor other than Stallone to appear in all three films of the original trilogy) serves as the voice of reason. He’s the only man who understands John Rambo, and knows how dangerous he is. As Trautman puts it, he’s not here to save Rambo from the cops — he’s here to save the cops from Rambo.
First Blood: A One Man War
John Rambo raised the bar significantly higher for action heroes, and looking back decades later, it’s easy to see why. As Roger Ebert wrote, when John Rambo “explodes near the beginning of First Blood, hurling cops aside and breaking out of jail with his fists and speed, it’s such a convincing demonstration of physical strength and agility that we never question the scene’s implausibility.” A suspenseful chase takes up the majority of the running time, with Rambo hiding in the woods and setting traps for his would-be pursuers while shooting down helicopters, fighting off wild dogs, and eventually taking on the military backup who are all armed to the teeth with heavy ammunition. As hard as they try, the one-man wrecking crew is hard to stop, and by the time Rambo arms himself with a massive M-60 machine gun, it’s obvious that the lawmen stand no chance as he continues his frenzy through town, blowing up everything that stands in his way.
Not as Violent as I Remember…
At the time of its release, First Blood was widely criticized for its level of violence, and while the Rambo series has come to be associated with copious amounts of brutality, First Blood is relatively tame in comparison to its sequels. In fact, the body count is quite low when compared to the sequels such as First Blood Part II which features 67 deaths, and Rambo III, which features 108 kills. It’s also worth noting that Rambo doesn’t intentionally kill anyone in First Blood; instead, he uses his military training for self-defense, and unlike the novel — in which John Rambo is portrayed as a straight-up psychopath who kills 250 law enforcement officers without hesitation — only one character in First Blood dies onscreen. The rest of the men are never confirmed dead.
As a result, John Rambo is obviously a much more sympathetic character in the movie than he is in the novel. It should also be noted that the original edit and final theatrical release of the film is said to be extremely different. The first cut was almost three hours long, and in the end, Rambo dies as he does in the novel. The final theatrical cut is a lean 97 minutes, and yes, our hero survives thanks to producers who believed that audiences would reject the decision to kill him. With an international gross of roughly $125.2 million from a budget of $16m, the decision to sway away from the original source material is something the producers would not regret, since it allowed them to kickstart a successful franchise which spawned numerous sequels, an animated television series, and a series of comic books, novels, video games, and even a Bollywood remake.
He Never Fought a Battle he Couldn’t Win
That’s not to say First Blood doesn’t feature any grisly moments of terror — because it does — but most of them come in the form of brief flashbacks in which we see Rambo as a prisoner of war being tortured. Other than that, First Blood is a lean, mean thriller that consistently finds ways to raise its stakes and place John Rambo in moments of peril. And that’s why I love this film so much — unlike the sequels, First Blood is actually frightening at times, and builds a decent amount of suspense while showing the effect war and bigotry can have on its heroes and the country as a whole. By the time Stallone is given a long, impassioned speech to deliver, he earns every second of it. And while some will argue that this scene is a bit heavy-handed or clichéd, in my eyes it is one of Stallone’s most effective performances.
First Blood is an often-overlooked war classic that is anchored by Stallone’s effective, surprisingly low-key performance, along with an exceptional villain in Brian Dennehy as Teasle, the over-zealous town sheriff who will stop at nothing when hunting his prey. The rest of the cast is uniformly great and the cinematography by Andrew Laszlo (The Warriors) is remarkable given the hellish shooting schedule, which mostly took place outdoors in British Columbia during the cold winter. Meanwhile, the iconic score by legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith is one of his very best. It may not be as grand or bombastic as some of his other soundtracks, but in the grand scheme of Rambo’s character arc, the foreboding score seems especially fitting. His mournful main theme “Home Coming” for example, perfectly captures the anguish of Sylvester Stallone’s protagonist, while also setting the tone for what is a depressing, albeit thrilling film.
Yes, Stallone’s gun-toting, knife-wielding antics are on full display, but the darker tone, tight direction, and raw emotion make First Blood one of the best films of 1982, and a genuine classic that shouldn’t be missed.