Rambo: First Blood Is The Deepest

rambo first blood

The real location of Hope, a failed logging town in British Columbia in the late Autumn of 1981, plays ironic host to the fugitive travails and battle of wills between hard-nosed Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) and drifter John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), a haunted Vietnam vet, in First Blood. This sombre actioner and character study, by no means a sure thing, was intended to be a “let this be your last battlefield” comment on the abandonment by a shamed America of its troubled sons. Instead, its surprise success led to a chain of lesser, tub-thumping cartoons (here, literally), where a re-energised Rambo decries “Sir, do we get to win this time?”

The film, directed and adapted (it went through many iterations) by Ted Koetcheff, was based on a 1972 novel by thriller writer David Morrell. Rambo is a former decorated Green Beret, a “Frankenstein’s monster” adrift with a deadly skill set and no reliable “off switch“. Wherever he goes he’s shunned, even by the mother of a former comrade, bitter that her son has fallen to cancer – the legacy of “that Agent Orange”. Teasle, not wanting trouble in his quiet patch, firmly runs him out of town. In Rambo’s eyes, the lawman “keeps pushing” until he’s finally dragged in as a vagrant, and ill treatment in the station sets a tragic train in motion. What follows is a classic man on the run narrative, Rambo alone, disturbed and outnumbered, turning the tables and bringing the war back home.

The film’s production was not without its own dangers, often shooting on deadly ground. The mist deep in the dense mountain forests was such that there was a standing rule that no member of the crew or cast was to wander off more than 50 feet. Here Stallone suffered for his art. For the scene where he attempts to scale a sheer cliff face above the raging Coquihalla river, harassed by cops in a helicopter, he dropped through thick pine trees (twice), wanting to do the final segment of the fall (stuntmen shared the lions share of the 40 or so feet drop) for real. Meanwhile, squibs detonated in the flinty rock around him as a marksman from the chopper takes shots at his character. He suffered a broken rib, those branches thicker than he and the stunt crew realised. That scream of pain is real, caught in close-up. Before the fall, he was concerned he’d slip on the slick, mossy surface. The crew’s solution was to tie a rope around his ankle. As he wryly notes in his DVD commentary, “to retrieve the body.” A grim look around him revealed everyone else was firmly tethered to the surrounding trees as the helicopter downdraft buffeted them.

The rights had been knocking around Hollywood for years, a hot potato: eighteen screenplays, with major stars like Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, Nick Nolte all considering the role and passing, worried Vietnam was too raw a scar in America’s psyche. When Kotcheff got the gig, he demanded Stallone. Four duds after his breakthrough success Rocky, the actor was desperate for a hit. The role, along with his pugilist putz, would go on to define him, for better or worse.

A thrilling chase when Rambo escapes the police station and grabs a dirtbike, pursued by cop cars off road, was “horrifically unchoreographed” and led to the unscripted tumbling of Teasle’s car onto its roof as it slides down a shale ditch. Brian Dennehy was hastily inserted, clambering from the stricken vehicle, and the scene carried on.

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Stallone toned down the violence of the book, making the character more sympathetic: shut down and withdrawn, a victim of PTSD, not wanting trouble until flashbacks of captivity are triggered by a hosing down and enforced shave. The hose pressure was so strong it tore the fake scar tissue from Stallone’s back and chest.

A Navy SEAL was consulted on the use of realistic combat techniques to lay out the deputies in the police station. Stallone kicked Dennehy clear across the room and accidentally broke one guy’s nose. He slimmed down his Rocky physique to be more agile, less of a superman (something he would seemingly reverse for the sequels).

At a stretch, Rambo’s survival skills in the woods are believable (stitching up a gashed arm, laying out punjee traps, evading a rat infested flooded tunnel and so on) but park rangers scoffed at the idea that he could sneak up on and kill a wild boar single-handed. It made it into the film though. The alternative would have been a deadly, er, jackrabbit.

As the search widens and incompetent National Guard “weekend warriors” are brought in, so word spreads to the wider media, and Rambo’s former commander, Colonel Trautman, turns up to advise on how to bring him in peacefully, to the disgust of an embarrassed Teasle. Trautman was originally played by Kirk Douglas, until he turned up with copious notes of his own on how he saw the drama play out – the aged veteran would knock out the in his prime warrior himself.

Early poster featuring Kirk Douglas as Trautman

Early poster featuring Kirk Douglas as Trautman

A hasty recast saw Richard Crenna take on the role, who proceeds to essentially sidle up and tell everyone what a tough guy Rambo is at opportune moments.

Incidentally, Brian Dennehy was an actual ex-Marine (unlike Stallone, who never served), although claims he served in Vietnam have since come into question.

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When Rambo, encircled in the woods, decides to hijack a National Guard truck loaded with weapons and proceed to demolish the town that turned him away, the film crew had carte blanche to blow the hell out of the gas station for real: Rambo smashes into the gas pumps and ignites the fuel on the forecourt, blazing away with an M60 fired from the hip, before taking down power lines and gunning for his tormentor Teasle. You can follow Rambo’s rampage in the town’s map here.

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Dennehy got his own stunt to perform, and like Stallone, suffered. Rambo shoots out the ceiling and skylight of the police station, causing Teasle to fall through from the roof onto a desk below. Dennehy did the last part of the fall and also sustained a broken rib.

Trautman intervenes before an enraged Rambo can kill the Sheriff, and talks him down. In the original ending, and in that of the book, Rambo forces Trautman’s gun hand, pulling the trigger on himself.

Stallone fought hard to change this, and the final scene, where a sobbing, near incoherent Rambo breaks down, laying out all his frustrations and inability to return to civilised society, is raw and powerful. The incidents he recalls were real stories of trauma suffered by veterans.

Special mention should go to Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant score, and Rambo’s theme, “It’s A Long Road” (performed by Dan Hill): by turns reflective and sad, or rousing as he kicks into action. The film was cut down from an initial 3 1/2 hours. A nervous Stallone was given the job to introduce a 40 minute presentation to studio bosses. Everyone, Stallone included, was blown away, to pardon the phrase. The rest is history, as the gun toting genie was let out of the bottle. Ted Kotcheff passed on the sequel:

“I had the right to do the sequel, but I read the script and said, “I’m not going to do this. My film is against the war, and you’re having a jingoistic celebration of the war. You’re turning my first film upside down.”

(Kotcheff was perhaps being disingenuous – two years previous to 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Pt II, he directed Uncommon Valor, in which retired Marine Colonel Gene Hackman leads a squad back into Vietnam to retrieve his POW son and buddies – a virtually identical plot.)

Rambo was a lost soul, Stallone reflects on the DVD commentary, “looking for a cause.” Now, where’s my bandana…?

 

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