We all remember Rambo, the muscle-bound commando with headband, machine gun in hand, strap of bullets over his shoulder.
Mark Walker suggests in his book Vietnam Veteran Films that Rambo represents the very American idea that, “the right man in the right place can win any battle.” In fact, Rambo represents America itself, evolving over the past 4 decades from his leftwing roots to his rightwing heyday to his apolitical present, along with our political ideals and our popular culture.
Rambo began as a leftwing reaction to Vietnam vets’ difficulties adjusting to civilian life. In David Morrell’s novel First Blood, Colonel Trautman tells Sheriff Teasle “you tolerate a system that lets others [kill] for you. And when they come back from the war, you can’t stand the smell of death on them.”
In the novel, Rambo is portrayed as an almost psychopathic killer, but the film adaptation downplays this, with him only causing one death, first because, as Susan Jeffords says in her essay The Reagan Hero: Rambo, “it would be difficult to maintain his characterization as victim…. and second, because helpless, screaming men far more effectively portray the consequences of a weakened masculinity than silent corpses do.”
Weakened masculinity to go with a weakened superpower, coming off the loss of the Vietnam War. In fact, Albert Bergesen argues in his book The Depth of Shallow Culture that “the ideal/reality gap” between the war in Rambo’s mind and the war he’s waging against the police has “geopolitical origin in the early moments of hegemonic decline.” He compares Rambo to Don Quixote, two men idealizing old ways of fighting to the point of delusion, “acting on the basis of a hegemonic code… when the material base of that [code] is dissipating.”
Then came the Reagan era, a pair of new rightwing Rambo films and a kids’ cartoon.
Along with Uncommon Valor and the Missing in Action films, Rambo: First Blood Part II was one of what Siskel and Ebert called in June of ’85, the “this-time-we-win films” in which, the Vietvet, returns to fight Vietnam again. Notably, as Colonel Rhodes says in the earlier Uncommon Valor, “this time nobody can dispute the rightness of what we’re doing.”
First Blood Part II “triggered long suppressed emotions,” says Sylvester Stallone in People Weekly, 8 July 1985, “Suddenly apple pie was an important thing on the menu… Millions of kids, too young to remember the nightly news clips of the war we lost [were] screaming and hooting at each new death” in the film.
Popular opinion was deliberately missing the point of the earlier Rambo story. America wouldn’t let Rambo be a symbol for rejecting war. Instead, by rescuing missing POWs in the second film, “a galling defeat could… be turned into a symbolic victory,” says Time magazine, 27 May 1985. Hegemonic decline be damned.
Meanwhile, Rambo became the first R-rated film franchise to get a kids’ cartoon, Rambo: The Force of Freedom, in which Rambo is more superhero now than soldier. He is called in the show’s opener, “the honor-bound protector of the innocent” and “liberty’s champion.”
Like the shallow, materialistic culture of ‘80s America, the third film, Rambo III, couldn’t have much depth. Despite a dedication to “the gallant people of Afghanistan,” the film spends most of its time with the protagonist and his rescue of his father-figure, and little time exploring the freedom fighters he would help to victory. In fact, in response to rumors that Stallone was rewriting the film “to be more philosophical” the producers quickly countered that he couldn’t turn it into a “talky-thinky film,” according to Forbes, 1 June 1987. If he “took out the action,” they said, he wouldn’t “have a film.”
The more recent, apolitical 4th film, simply titled Rambo, puts Rambo on the side of the Karen freedom fighters in Burma, but steps away from political motivation.
Entertainment Weekly, 6 June 2008, called Rambo, “humorless and derangedly violent.” David Morrell, on his website, davidmorrell.net says the film is “spot on” in how he “imagined the character—angry, burned-out, and filled with self disgust.” In the age of so-called “torture porn” films like the Saw series, the over-the-top blood and gore of Rambo does not serve the purpose of Stallone, now directing as well as starring, to show the horror of the violence itself.
It is telling, taking Rambo as representative of America, when we have two wars going, and he says in the film, “there isn’t one of us that doesn’t want to be someplace else. But this is what we do, who we are.” He tells himself, “war is in your blood. Don’t fight it.”
He is talking about us.
He is talking about America.
Rambo has gone from left-wing, anti-war, as America was reeling from loss in Vietnam, to right-wing, jingoist as the Reagan era reinvigorated American nationalism, and more recently, he’s fallen into an apolitical, more realistically violent quagmire, as America is stuck in two wars abroad with no end in sight.
In conclusion, Loved or hated, Rambo has stood at the front of American culture and remains to this day an icon of… the spirit of America.
“Is there life beyond rambo?” Forbes 1 June 1987.
“Rambo: First Blood Part II” (Review). Time 27 May 1985.
“With a $100 million gross(out), Sly Stallone fends off Rambo’s army of adversaries.” People Weekly 8 July 1985.
Bergesen, Albert J. The Depth of Shallow Culture: The High Art of Shoes, Movies, Novels, Monsters, and Toys. Boulder: Paradigm, 2006.
Collis, Clark. “Rambo” (Review). Entertainment Weekly 6 June 2008.
First Blood. Dir. Ted Ketchoff, Carolco, 1982.
Jeffords, Susan. “The Reagan Hero: Rambo.” The War Film. Ed. Robert Eberwein. Piscataway: Rutgers UP, 2005.
Morrell, David. First Blood. …1972.
Rambo III. Dir. Peter MacDonald. Carolco, 1988.
Rambo. Dir. Sylvester Stallone. Lionsgate, 2008.
Rambo: First Blood Part II. Dir. George P. Cosmatos. Carolco, 1985.
Rambo: The Force of Freedom. Ruby-Spears Productions, 1985.
Uncommon Valor. Dir. Ted Kotcheff. Paramount, 1982.
Walker, Mark. Vietnam Veteran Films. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1991.