Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

A Survivalist’s Guide: The Continuing Relevance and Reinterpretation of Rambo

Here I am—intrepid screenwriter—gearing up to embark on a dizzying new adventure in my writing career:  my first full-length novel—a work of historical fiction (with supernatural twist, of course—the change in venue isn’t indicative of revamped storytelling sensibilities on my part!).  In a plot convenience straight out of a first-draft screenplay, Writer’s Digest recently hosted a novel-writing conference here in Los Angeles; among the seminars offered was a “Historical Fiction Boot Camp”—taught by no less than bestselling author David Morrell, who introduced the world to Rambo in his inaugural novel, First Blood (1972).  I’d have likely attended the workshop regardless, but given that on my most recent vacation I lazed on the beach and read three Morrell novels in a row, the happenstance of it all seemed too providential to dismiss.

During both his seminar and keynote address, Mr. Morrell spoke with endearing candor about his life’s experiences and path to becoming a writer, much of which you can read about—if you haven’t had the pleasure to hear him speak in person—in his 2012 essay Rambo and Me:  The Story Behind the Story.  If the man feels in any way that he lives in the shadow of his first—and most iconic—creation, one wouldn’t suspect as much from chatting with him, which I was lucky enough to get a chance to do.  As a child of the eighties, Rambo holds profound nostalgic significance for me; I went through a phase (as my dearest childhood friend can lamentably attest) in which a plastic jade Buddha amulet dangled totemically from my neck and I responded to any conversational overtures with nothing more eloquent than a sneering curl of my upper lip.  Mr. Morrell was gracious enough to answer my Rambo-related inquiries—with a smile; not a sneer!—and recounted some of his experiences on the development of the third and fourth films of the franchise.  The behind-the-scenes history of the storied movie series has been well-documented in the thirty-odd years since the first entry’s initial release, but to hear tales of the productions from the horse’s mouth was a thrill to rival any of Rambo’s breathless derring-do.

 

RAMBO VENTURES WEST—TO HOLLYWOOD

Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood (1982), from a screenplay by Michael Kozoll & William Sackheim and Sylvester Stallone, represents something of a transitional period in the evolution of Rambo, from the tragic literary figure of Mr. Morrell’s novel to the cinematic American icon of Rambo:  First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988).  The predominant image of Rambo indelibly ingrained in the collective cultural consciousness—an enviably chiseled, shirtless Stallone cradling in his muscular arms a priapic rocket launcher—isn’t quite so readily evident in First Blood, which in some respects plays more like a low-budget horror film than the glossy, shoot-‘em-up sequels that followed.  In the Reagan era, Rambo was co-opted as a symbol of American Might Is Right; he became, purists could argue, victim of his own iconography, and Rambo II and III, not without their merits, may’ve done more to feed that image than refute it.

But the John Rambo of First Blood is a more defensive sort of action hero than I think most audiences probably remember.  First Blood is what Blake Snyder refers to as a Dude with a Problem movie, in which an innocent herosuddenly and unexpectedly—finds himself in a life-or-death encounter (Die Hard and The Fugitive are popular examples of DWAP).  True, Rambo does share some blame for the “war” that breaks out in the backwater mountain town where the story is set—when provoked by the sheriff, he’s given an opportunity to walk away and chooses confrontation instead (and we’ll get to why shortly)—but the screenwriters took pains to establish Rambo’s general innocence in the do-or-die events in which he finds himself unwittingly embroiled:  “I don’t want any more hurt” and “I didn’t do anything” are two of his common refrains.  (Rambo’s direct culpability in the events of the novel is more overt).

I briefly referenced Rambo’s characterization in my analysis of 24’s Jack Bauer, but let’s have a complete look at his five governing traits, one at a time:

 

1. RAMBO IS A SKILLED SURVIVALIST AND MILITARY TACTICIAN

“You don’t seem to want to accept the fact that you’re dealing with an expert in guerilla warfare.  A man who’s the best—with guns; with knives; with his bare hands.  A man who’s been trained to ignore pain.  Ignore weather.  To live off the land.  To eat things that’d make a billy goat puke.  In Vietnam, his job was to dispose of enemy personnel.  To kill—period!  Win by attrition.  Well, Rambo was the best.”—Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) to Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy)

I mentioned above that the Fun and Games section of First Blood is stylistically reminiscent of a horror film, whereby under cover of stormy night Rambo materializes at will in the woods, garbed in his grungy burlap poncho and camouflaged in mud and leaves, playing cat-and-mouse with the search party on his trail through a series of expertly executed stealth attacks and booby traps.  “We ain’t huntin’ him,” one of the deputies observes, “he’s huntin’ us.”  Rambo’s resourcefulness, superhuman stamina, and unsurpassed aptitude for combat are abundantly evident, and might even be his defining characteristic (certainly insofar as it applies to his cultural reputation).

 

2. RAMBO IS ETHICAL AND ASCETIC

“There wouldn’t be no trouble except for that king-shit cop!  All I wanted was something to eat.”—John Rambo (Stallone) to Trautman via walkie-talkie

Rambo is a good guy with simple needs.  We know that from the first scene in the movie, which has him carrying a rolled sleeping bag over his shoulder and all of his worldly possessions—including a group photo of his cherished Special Forces unit in Vietnam—crammed into the overstuffed pocket of his field jacket.

Though the screenplay follows the plot of the novel relatively closely, that opening scene is exclusive to the movie:  It establishes empathy for Rambo as our protagonist (in the novel, it is intentionally ambiguous as to whether he is the story’s hero or antagonist) as he arrives at the homestead of his last surviving friend and teammate, only to discover that the man has recently succumbed to cancer from his exposure to Agent Orange.  Rambo leaves the crumpled photo with his late friend’s widow, then wanders off into the town of Hope—after all of his is lost—in search of a quiet meal.  What he finds, however, is a sheriff with a chip on his shoulder…

 

3. RAMBO’S “FATAL FLAW”:  HE SUFFERS FROM POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

At the sheriff’s station in town, Rambo’s incarceration and physical abuse at the hands of the sadistic deputies triggers flashbacks to the relentless torture he endured as a prisoner of war.  Later, Trautman, whom Rambo served under, even exploits that PTSD to coerce Rambo to break radio silence:  The colonel broadcasts a transmission purposefully designed to confuse Rambo’s delicate psyche as to whether he is in the past or present, prompting the dutiful solider to respond to his superior officer.

Like most “fatal flaws” (a general industry term, not mine), Rambo’s is kept buried—even from himself.  But, it manifests in two other facets of his personality:

 

4. RAMBO IS VIOLENT WHEN PROVOKED

“They drew first blood—not me.”—Rambo to Trautman

When the deputies’ abusive harassment reaches a fever pitch, Rambo nonfatally disables them in self-defense with brutal efficiency and escapes into the nearby wilderness.  In the course of his guerilla campaign against the hunting party, Rambo ambushes the last man standing—Sheriff Teasle—at knifepoint and warns him as to the extent he’s willing to go if further instigated:

“I could’ve killed them all.  I could’ve killed you.  In town, you’re the law; out here, it’s me.  Don’t push it.  Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe.  Let it go.  Let it go.”

That particular exchange demonstrates a number of Rambo’s traits—his tactical expertise, his ethics (he cautions Teasle about inciting escalation)—but, most tellingly, it provides evidence that Rambo’s inclination toward violence when provoked is a conscious expression of his PTSD:  Rambo knows why he’s violent—it’s his defense against inhumane treatment.  Jack Bauer applies violence as a tactical ploy; John Rambo uses it as a defensive strategy—a physical and emotional one.

 

5. RAMBO IS A LACONIC LONER

“I’m the last one, sir.”—Rambo to Trautman

Rambo is both a loner by circumstance and by choice.  Most of his friends were victims of the war, yes, and he returned to a country that treated him like a pariah, not greeted him as a hero, but there is an underlying emotional component to his solitude, too:  He has retreated from humanity on account of the inhumanity he’s suffered.  When addressed, a mere nod of his head or one-word response are often all he feels inclined to return.

Just as Rambo uses violence as a conscious expression of his PTSD—a defensive measure to protect him from further physical harm—his tendency toward solitude and pithiness is an unconscious manifestation of that same “fatal flaw”—a defensive façade that conceals and protects him from his own inner demons.  And we know it’s a contrived disguisement because it crumbles as soon as Rambo is finally compelled to acknowledge his PTSD:  When he’s holed up with Trautman, his last friend (and father figure), at the devastated police station after the town has been reduced to cinders—when there are no targets left at which Rambo can direct his violence—he starts talking.  More to the point, he spills his guts—almost incomprehensibly—in a gush of unrestrained emotion about the horrifying atrocities he witnessed and endured.  Film critic Leonard Maltin criticized the scene for its raw incoherence (“A kewpie doll to anyone who can understand more than three words of Sly’s final monologue,” he wrote), but he missed the point:  Rambo’s breviloquence was an unconscious contrivance designed to keep his PTSD-associated anxieties at bay; as soon as the posttraumatic stress was consciously recognized, however, Rambo’s preferred means of repression went up in smoke just like the town that incurred his wrath.  In other words, it wasn’t what Rambo was saying that was important, it was merely the fact that he was expressing himself verbally at all that had meaning—some small measure of catharsis in a story that sees its protagonist off into the closing credit roll in restraints, not revelry.

 

DEVIATING FROM THE MAP

Demystifying a fictional character through this manner of “psychological profiling” permits us to see, at a glance, why he says the things he says and does the things he does—all of his dialogue and actions are attributable to his core characteristics.  As a writer’s tool, it allows us to identify out-of-character behavior with ease and assurance.

To that end, there’s a scene in First Blood in which Rambo hijacks a cargo truck to the shock of its unsuspecting driver:  “Don’t look at me,” Rambo orders, “look at the road.  That’s how accidents happen.”  As far as eighties-action-hero one-liners go, it isn’t the worst joke I’ve heard—but, now that we’ve stripped Rambo down to his elementals, it is all too apparent that it is a violation of his psych profile; it’s too wordy and too funny—it’s simply not something he would say.  I could see Martin Riggs from Lethal Weapon (another ex-Green Beret and Vietnam vet prone to violence) getting off a line like that—silly wordplay is completely in keeping with his character—but not Rambo.  Even Stallone cops to a degree of embarrassment over that particular piece of dialogue on the film’s audio commentary:  “There’s another line I wish I could take out.”  In the frenzy of a film’s production, it’s easy to see how that slipped through, but perspective made it stick out conspicuously to the star/screenwriter.  Writers that practice the technique of “character blueprinting” taught by David Freeman help safeguard themselves against out-of-character dialogue and actions.  Next time you ask, Would my character do that?, you won’t have to poll your own intuition for the answer.

 

FORGING NEW TRAILS

Those who watched Cosmos:  A Spacetime Odyssey (so worth your time) were imparted with the astonishing realization that it takes but the slightest cosmic nudge at just the right moment to profoundly alter an entity’s evolutionary trajectory.  When we understand Rambo’s psychological constitution in his earliest cinematic interpretation, we can diagnose exactly what changed to shift his cultural reputation away from the innocent hero of First Blood to the “jingoistic superhero” (as Mr. Morrell describes him in Rambo and Me) of Rambo II and III.

First off:  In order to create a viable franchise out of this character, the genre had to change—someone involved in the project clearly understood that, intuitively or otherwise (we may never know which).  DWAP movies, as previously indicated, are predicated on a hero getting thrown against his will into an unforeseen set of life-and-death circumstances, and there are only so many times that can happen believably to the same protagonist.  It’s the reason why the follow-up to The Fugitive switched focus to the hunter, Tommy Lee Jones’ dogged federal marshal, over the innocent “dude” with a problem (Harrison Ford was nowhere to be seen in U.S. Marshals); it’s also the reason why the Die Hard series got progressively more credibility-straining with each successive installment.  In terms of franchisability, DWAP has its limitations.

So, instead of a reactive hero, how about a proactive one?  That’s what we got beginning with Rambo:  First Blood Part II—a Golden Fleece adventure, the three conventional criteria of which (per Snyder) are as follows:  Road, Team, Prize.  To elaborate:  A hero and his comrades set off on a quest with a clear or tangible objective, be it save the princess, steal the money, win the tournament, and so on; Rocky, Indiana Jones, and The Lord of the Rings are all classic examples of GF.  With respect to Rambo, it’s telling that screenwriter James Cameron’s initial draft of the first sequel (dated December 22, 1983) was called “First Blood II:  The Mission”; he started reconditioning audience expectations right there in the title.  (Genre switches are one of Cameron’s go-to tricks to keep sequels fresh; it will be interesting to see how he handles the forthcoming Avatar follow-ups, his first since T2.)  So, in Part II, Rambo is offered full pardon for his transgressions in the first movie if he accepts an assignment to locate American prisoners of war still languishing at a North Vietnamese camp—classic Golden Fleece narrative paradigm:  Rambo and Trautman (Team) head to Vietnam (Road) to rescue POWs (Prize).  (All of the Rambo sequels followed the GF model.)  This is the movie—by far the most financially successful of the series—that set Rambo down the road to “jingoistic superhero”—the take-no-prisoners, Reagan-era icon with which his name became synonymous.

Here’s the crazy thing, though:  Only a minor adjustment was made to his trait profile from the first movie.  But, it was enough to carry major consequences with respect to public perception.  In this interpretation, Rambo is still a skilled survivalist/military tactician, still ethical and ascetic, he still suffers from PTSD (though it isn’t, unfortunately, explored with much depth—more so in Mr. Morrell’s rich novelization), and he is still a laconic loner.  Here’s where they tweaked him:  “violent when provoked” became “willfully violent mercenary.”  It’s an almost imperceptible modification—he’s still violent, after all, and he’s still ethical:  He only inflicts violence on the deserving (as he deems it, of course, which is its own philosophical debate).  But “provoked” is defensive, and “mercenary” offensive—the difference between a Dude with a Problem and a Golden Fleece; the difference, ultimately, between First Blood and the Rambo sequels that followed.

"Johnny, get your gun": Rambo returns

“Johnny, get your gun”: Rambo returns

 

WHEN JOHNNY COMES MARCHING HOME

And here’s where things come full circle.  Rambo’s proclivity for—and history of—willful violence formed the basis of a new “fatal flaw” in the series’ belated fourth entry, titled, with single-word simplicity characteristic of its laconic protagonist, Rambo (2008):  He is soul-deadened (emotional deficiency), as reflected in his cynical, disillusioned detachment (conscious manifestation), his relentlessly lethal disposition suppressed under an unflinchingly stoic visage (unconscious façade).  In forcing their melancholic hero to confront his own bloodstained conscience, screenwriters Art Monterastelli and Stallone brought Rambo, by Mr. Morrell’s own appraisal in Rambo and Me, most closely in line with the characterization as depicted in the original novel.  Consider that:  Rambo survived his own literary death (in the closing pages of the book), personification by a physically and stylistically distinctive actor, reinterpretation as a sympathetic cinematic protagonist, further reinvention as a “jingoistic superhero,” a stint as a children’s cartoon, and cooptation as a cultural and political shorthand to evolve—four decades to the year after Mr. Morrell first conceived of the character—on-screen at last into the purest form of himself.

10 Comments

  1. Great breakdown, Sean!

    I love David Morrell’s book The Successful Novelist. It’s really helpful and fluff-free. 🙂

    Christine

    • Thanks so much, Christine, for the compliment and the comment! Haven’t yet had a chance to read The Successful Novelist, but his advice to a “recovering” screenwriter (me!) was invaluable: In prose, treat the story’s visuals like they’re a given, and rely instead on the other senses — the ones that have no application on a flat movie screen — to create an immersive sensory experience.

  2. My favorite one is the Afghanistan location and the quote.

  3. What a great article and analysis of john Rambo’s character.
    I am currently reading the new french translation of the novel “First Blood” translater for the 1st Time by Premier Sang.
    This Will be of great help.

    • Thank you, Fred! It’s a testament to Mr. Morrell’s creativity that Rambo continues to thrive in new venues all these decades later. You’ll have to let me know how he “survives” translation into French!

  4. I loved this analysis of perhaps one of my all time favorite movies — for many of the reasons you described.

    • Thanks, Chuck! When one considers that the character first appeared in 1972 as the protagonist of David Morrell’s debut novel First Blood, which served as an allegory for the Vietnam War — something that was still very much on the forefront of the American consciousness, as well as the front page, at that time — and yet Rambo found relevance anew a decade later in the Reagan era with the initial trilogy of movies (which dealt with the geopolitical affairs of their day, like the POW/MIA issue and the Soviet–Afghan War), only to resurface twenty years after that in a fourth film that shed light on the (underreported) humanitarian crisis in Burma, one really begins to appreciate what a uniquely versatile character Mr. Morrell (and, by extension, screenwriter and star Sylvester Stallone) created; much like the Joker, Rambo has transcended his literary and even cinematic origins to become part of something much more substantial: American folklore.

      Mr. Morrell, who, per this recent Goodreads Q&A, recently worked with Mr. Stallone on the plot to a proposed (and, sadly, scuttled) fifth Rambo movie, endorsed “A Survivalist’s Guide” on his Facebook page when it was first published last year. Consider following Mr. Morrell on Facebook: He engages with his fans there on matters ranging from his work, his pop-cultural interests, and even his gardening! He is a very generous and interesting man who has managed to stay as professionally and creatively relevant to the changing times as his most enduring creation. What a run both he and Rambo have had!

  5. Hey Sean. An absolute pleasure to read your analysis. Thank you 🙂

    • Thank you, Casper, for taking the time to read it and leave a comment! It’s always nice to know someone appreciates what you’ve written; I don’t know any writer that tires of hearing that!

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