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Why Rambo Matters

An addendum to Episode 290.

The year 2010 marks significant anniversaries of some of the greatest and most memorable films of all time: The Empire Strikes Back and Raging Bull are thirty, Five Easy Pieces is forty, Psycho is fifty, and Bride of Frankenstein is seventy-five. These are some serious cinematic heavyweights with awards and other critical accolades to their credit. But there is another film, which is celebrating its silver anniversary: Rambo: First Blood Part II.

First Blood Part II didn’t win any Academy Awards; the Best Picture Oscar for films of 1985 went to Out of Africa. But First Blood Part II did take Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Picture, Actor, and Screenplay. With the amount of effort and emphasis placed on the Hollywood awards circuit, we would expect the Oscar winner to be enshrined in cultural immortality and the Razzie “winner” to sink into obscurity. But, twenty-five years later, nothing could be further from the truth. While Out of Africa enjoys a healthy level of popularity, it is First Blood Part II that is played as a part of marathons on American Movie Classics and other cable television channels. It is First Blood Part II that is referenced as recognizable parody (the surest sign of cultural influence) in Hot Shots Part Deux, UHF, and Son of Rambow. And it is First Blood Part II that continues to stir the emotions of its viewers, who vent their love or hatred of the film in online message boards.

For those unfamiliar with the film, First Blood Part II is a follow up to 1982’s First Blood. Picking up a few months after the events of the original, decorated Vietnam veteran John Rambo is sent on a covert mission to photograph American prisoners of war still being held in Vietnam. When Rambo exceeds his mandate and engages the Vietnamese, he is abandoned and must fight his way out of the jungle.

Is First Blood Part II a good movie? Perhaps, in its own way it is. But that’s really beside the point, which is that First Blood Part II is an important movie. I would go so far as to argue it is among the most important movies of the last twenty-five years.

First Blood Part II stands out in several ways, not the least of which is its impact on filmmaking itself. The picture set a new standard for possible (and acceptable) body counts, the level of property destruction, and how the hero—and by extension the audience—should think and feel about that human and material devastation (in that we don’t). Later action films like Die Hard, Bad Boys, Braveheart, Black Hawk Down and even Avatar owe their style in whole or in part to First Blood Part II. To put it another way, First Blood Part II made possible every picture Michael Bay ever made.

Secondly, First Blood Part II is among the essential films of Reagan-Bush era. The film dramatizes one of the major conservative pillars of the post-Vietnam period: that the war was just and winnable but was lost by the bureaucrats. Rambo’s annihilation of the Vietnamese prison camp and rescue of the POWs in spite of the establishment is a fantasy of wish fulfillment to compensate for defeat in Vietnam and the film and the character embody the rehabilitation of America’s self-image throughout the 1980s; a superhero as a metaphor for a superpower. Like many fantasies, it is irrational, has little or nothing to do with reality, and is embarrassing to behold when held to the light. But like in a dream, our fantasies act out our desires and First Blood Part II fulfilled that desire.

Another funny thing about fantasies, especially those on film, is the way that they can shape our expectations and actions in life. First Blood Part II, along with the action films of the 1980s staring Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger, normalized unilateral, maverick military action and cast it as patriotic. It is too much to say that First Blood Part II and its contemporaries bear responsibility for the United States’ military interventions in places like Granada and Afghanistan throughout the 1980s; that would be like blaming school shootings on video games. But when academic debates are abandoned for contests of brute strength, superiority is measured by shooting accuracy, and moral authority is inherently possessed by one side over another as opposed to being earned, nurtured, and maintained, a culture surrenders its ability to think critically about itself. And this is precisely what First Blood Part II encouraged.

But why do First Blood Part II and the Rambo character matter for the twenty-first century? Consider these two examples.

In 2007, the comic book adaptation 300 was released in theaters. The film shows significant influence from First Blood Part II with its exaggeratedly staged violence, shirtless and muscled out heroes, and the theme of fighting for freedom. At the time of the film’s release, the United States was preparing to escalate the war in Iraq with a troop surge. Dramatizing the last stand of the three hundred Spartans as a conflict between the democratic and civilized Greek (read: Western) civilization and a barbaric and theocratic Persian (read: Middle Eastern) civilization, the film played right into the arguments of those who would redouble the war effort. Whether or not the filmmakers behind 300 intended to do this is irrelevant; this is the context into which the film was released and it functioned that way within the culture.

A year later, Sylvester Stallone returned to his character in the fourth film of the series, simply titled Rambo. Set in Burma, Rambo rescues a group of Christian missionaries who have been captured by the country’s military junta. Rambo is banned in Burma but pirated copies have found their way into the country and the film has circulated underground. Those who are caught viewing it face imprisonment and those who distribute the film risk their lives. One of Rambo’s lines from the film, “Live for nothing or die for something” became a rallying cry among the Karen resistance fighters. At the time of Rambo’s premiere, Mark Farmaner, Director of the Burma Campaign UK said, “By setting Rambo in Burma, Sylvester Stallone has done more than governments or the United Nations to draw attention to the crisis going on out of sight in the jungles of Eastern Burma.”

We tend to think of action films like the Rambo pictures as sort of silly diversions with no real artistic or social value. And in some cases they are. But film and popular entertainment can not only draw attention to an ongoing social issue but actually shape our perception of it, for good or bad, and thereby shape our reactions to it.  This is why movies are important and why it is important for us, as the consumers of cinema, to think about the entertainment that is being sold to us.

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