“A very mature and dark film on the mental damage of war, which ironically spawned a series of films which glorifies the very subject”
First Blood begins with a beautiful shot of some lake-side and a snow covered mountain in the background. After a few moments of focusing on this view, we notice a lone figure walking down the side of the road, coming towards us. As this man draws closer, we see he is wearing an OD green military jacket, proudly displaying an American flag, along with your typical pair of jeans and boots. Suddenly, he turns and begins making his way down a drive-way of a home, and continues into it’s back yard. Here, we see an older woman putting some clothing up on a line to dry, when she notices this stranger and engages him in conversation. Our protagonist identifies himself as John Rambo, and tells the woman he has come here to speak with Delmar Berry, a man whom he served with in the Vietnam war in the same unit.
The older woman seems to freeze up a bit, and becomes cold. She informs Rambo that Delmar had passed away a short time ago, after enduring a horrible battle with cancer. She continues to grow even colder, stating that it was the US Military’s deployment of Agent Orange in combat which had caused his cancer, and took his life. Devastated, as Delmar was the last surviving member of Rambo’s unit minus himself, John hands a photograph of the whole unit to his comrade’s mother and proceeds to leave the property.
From here, we transition to a scene of Rambo entering the small town of Hope, Washington. Rambo is entering the town in the hopes of sitting down at a diner to eat a meal, and possibly getting a hotel room to spend the night. Shortly after his arrival however, his militaristic appearance catches the attention of the town’s sheriff, who speaks with him for a few moments, and offers him a quick ride through town. After a short ride and an uncomfortable conversation, the Sheriff, named Teasle, drops Rambo off across a bridge, and instructs Rambo to continue walking and leave his town alone. Rambo, defiantly, waits for the sheriff to drive away, and proceeds to turn around and re-enter Hope.
The sheriff looks in his rear view mirror and notices this, spinning his car around, hopping out, and angrily confronting John. When Rambo ignores his verbal commands, Sheriff Teasle grabs Rambo, which prompts John to instinctively pull away due to his military training. As a result, Sheriff Teasle tells Rambo that he is officially being placed under arrest for vagrancy and places him in handcuffs. After a pat-down, the sheriff finds John’s bowie knife on his person, and charges him additionally with carrying a concealed weapon (Welcome to deep blue Washington State.)
When John arrives at the police station with the sheriff, nearly all the officers in the building both verbally and physically abuse him. When John and a few officers head down into the basement where John is ordered to remove his clothing for “a shower,” the officers are taken aback when they realize John’s entire body is covered in scars from head to toe, a reminder of his time as a POW under the Vietnamese. Unimpressed, Officer Galt strikes Rambo in the lower back with a police baton for his own sick enjoyment. As John is still lying on the ground, another officer arrives with a fire hose and begins blasting Rambo with high pressure water, to “clean him up.”
With his washing complete, the officers tell John they need to shave him for his upcoming court appearance. An officer approaches John from behind and begins choking him with a night-stick, while the other officer prepares to dry-shave Rambo with a straight razor. This sight of a blade coming towards his throat throws Rambo into a full blown Vietnam-flashback, causing him to break free from his captors, and begins beating them one-by-one. Eventually, John succeeds in fighting his way through and out of the entire police headquarters, retrieving his bowie knife along the way.
Out of pure anger, Officer Galt runs out of the police precinct with a bolt-action rifle and prepares to shoot John as John rides off on a motorcycle he stole, but is interrupted when Sheriff Teasle knocks his rifle into the air to prevent civilian casualties.
Sheriff Teasle gives chase to John in a police cruiser and follows him through some tough hill terrain, but is forced to abandon the chase when his car overturns. Temporarily free, John dumps the motorcycle and begins climbing the hill further, stopping to make himself a poncho out of some old canvas and wire he finds.
The officers finally catch up to Rambo on foot, and John is forced to climb down onto a steep cliff. A helicopter arrives on scene with Officer Galt in the passenger seat, and Galt once again ignores law enforcement procedure, shooting at Rambo and attempting to murder him in cold blood. John, with no other option, leaps from the cliff down onto a mass of trees. (Fun Fact, the scream that Rambo lets out while falling through the trees is real. Stallone broke a number of ribs during this stunt.)
On the ground, wide out in the open with nowhere to go and Galt still firing at him, Rambo grabs a hefty rock and hurls it at the windshield of the helicopter. This, along with updraft, causes the helicopter to shake violently, and Galt slips out of his seat, and plummets to his death on the jagged rocks down below. Sheriff Teasle then arrives, who was not present to witness the illegal actions of his officer, and vows that John Rambo will die for murdering his friend. Shortly after, Rambo comes out to the officers after patching an arm wound, and attempts to surrender himself to stop further violence. Sheriff Teasle, now on a warpath, instead orders his men to open fire on and kill John.
John turns and retreats further into the trick forest, with the officers in tow. While chasing John, the inexperienced and bickering officers learn that Rambo is a Green Beret and Congressional War Hero. Whilst still fighting amongst themselves, John begins taking down the disorganized team one-by-one via non-lethal boobytraps. Upon injuring the final officer, John retrieves his walkie-talkie. In the middle of this absolute chaos, Rambo, decked out in heavy camouflage, gets the jump on Sheriff Teasle and pins him against a tree holding his bowie knife against the Sheriff’s throat stating “Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe. Let it go…” and proceeds to disappear back into the vegetation.
At this point, the Washington State National Guard is called in to respond, and a base camp is set up. The National Guard, knowing that John is in possession of a walkie-talkie, informs him that he is surrounded on all sides, and that it is best to surrender. Just after this transmission, Special Forces Colonel Sam Trautman arrives, taking credit for training Rambo himself, and warning the officers and guardsmen there is no way they can win. Colonel Trautman notes he is surprised John left the officers alive, and recommends the officers give the situation a few days to cool down, and then bring John in peacefully. Sheriff Teasle, out of anger and hurt pride, declines this advice, but allows Colonel Trautman to speak with Rambo over the radio waves. While speaking, Colonel Trautman pleads with John to surrender peacefully which John refuses to do, citing his horrible treatment from the police officers.
Colonel Trautman verbally shoots back at John, telling him he should not have been so violent in his response to the officer’s actions, which prompts Rambo to respond “They drew first blood sir” followed by John turning off his radio. It was too late for Rambo however, as he had stayed on the radio waves just long enough for Teasle’s men to pinpoint his general location.
While John is holding up just inside the entrance to an abandoned mine shaft, National Guardsmen take up positions just outside of it, pinning him down. After a few minutes of rifle fire, a poorly trained Guardsman fires a Law Rocket Launcher into the mine, collapsing the entrance and trapping Rambo inside. The cocky soldiers begin packing everything in and heading home, believing John to now be dead, but unknown to them, Rambo is both alive and has headed down a shaft, heading deeper into the dark. Deep in the dark, John uses old gasoline and some fabric to make an improvised torch. After a trip through some very deep water and fighting off some hungry rats, John realizes there is airflow pulling his flame, and crawls his way out to the surface.
Shortly after his arrival back to the surface, John notices an Army cargo truck passing by and quickly hijacks it. He drives the vehicle back to Hope, and plows the metal machine through an Army roadblock in a glorious 80s action scene. He continues on through the roadblock, and exits the truck just before it collides with the town’s gas station. With gas all over the highway road, Rambo ignites it all to keep law enforcement and military from being able to pursue him, and retrieves an M-60 light machine gun just before the Army cargo truck goes up in flames. Now, Rambo is free to run around Hope as he pleases, using his machine gun to cause as much chaos and mayhem as possible. John, being an expert in guerilla and insurgent warfare, destroys power transformers to cover the town in darkness.
To cause further Hell on Earth, John enters a sporting goods store and spills gunpowder and ammunition all over the floor. During the massive explosion a few moments later, Rambo is successful in using the explosion to get Sheriff Teasle to expose his position, allowing John to spot him on the roof of the police headquarters. After drenching the police building in suppressive gunfire to force Teasle to take cover, Rambo quietly enters. In a bid to get Sheriff Teasle to waste his rounds and expose his exact location again, John darts across a section of the building with a glass ceiling, getting the desired effect. John then lets loose with a large burst of machine gun fire, and Teasle comes plummeting through the glass ceiling and down to the floor. With Rambo standing over Teasle’s nearly lifeless corpse, preparing to end his life, Colonel Trautman appears from the dark and snaps at John that if he takes the Sheriff’s life, there is no hope for Rambo to escape this situation alive.
John Rambo, now accepting that the building is completely surrounded by military and that there is no longer any escape, has a full blown mental breakdown. He begins sobbing and shaking like a small child lost in a shopping mall, speaking of all the horrors of the Vietnam War. He recalls a good friend who simply wanted to return home and drive his car, but instead, that man got his brains blown out, and John was standing there with his pal’s brains all over him, trying to figure out what to do. John states how disgusted he is that in war, he is a hero, but in civilian life, he is treated as garbage.
As he puts it “In war, I was trusted to operate multi-million dollar tanks and equipment. Back home, I can’t even hold a job parking cars.” He regresses into a further state of shock, curling up into a ball and reaching out to hug Colonel Trautman. While being embraced by the Colonel, John shares another story of a comrade going to receive a shoe-shine from a Vietnamese child, but that child turned out to be a child soldier who detonated the cleaning box and blew off the American GI’s legs.
While almost cradling him like a child, Colonel Trautman tells John it’s time to turn himself in and make things right. Rambo meanwhile, sits there with a thousand yard stare. The credits begin to roll, and Colonel Trautman and John Rambo exit the police station, with Rambo turning himself in for arrest.
Strangely enough, First Blood was the final film that I watched in the Rambo series. I began with Rambo (2008), which is Rambo 4, then watched Rambo: Last Blood or Rambo 5 as you could call it. Then, I watched the original three films backwards. I mention this because knowing what was to come in Rambo’s future definitely altered my viewing of this film. Similarly to watching the original Star Wars films, and then watching the prequels.
The first thing I picked up on is that, in my opinion, this is by far the best acted Rambo film, aside from perhaps Rambo (2008.) From the very first scene of Rambo making his way down an empty back-country road, Stallone does an excellent job of portraying a man who, in simple terms, has seen some shit. He has an empty look in his eyes, as if he’s still picturing images in his head from his time in combat. One of, if possibly the only time Rambo shows a bit of joy throughout the entire film, is when he is speaking with the mother of his comrade from the war. Of course, that last small bit of happiness is taken from him at the reveal of his friend’s death, and Stallone does a superb job reflecting that in his facial expressions.
By the time Rambo arrives in the town of Hope, he is a man who no longer cares about living. His character reminded me very much of James Sunderland from Silent Hill 2. At this point in their lives, neither man has anything to live for, and a man like that is very scary. Rambo doesn’t seem to fight and survive throughout the film because he truly wants to live, it seemed more so to me he was simply doing what he was programmed to do.
The real life location of the town, Hope, British Columbia, is breath-taking. I could not picture a more perfect environment to film a movie about a master survivalist fighting against a much larger force. Once in the deep forest, everything looks the same in every direction, which really sells the difficulty with which the police are operating under, and makes Rambo’s abilities all the more impressive. As we’ll see in later films, different environments make for vastly different combat situations but for me, the thick woods of Hope was by far the greatest fighting environment we get to see Rambo in.
One of the things I found quite refreshing about the film was it’s political message. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, pop-culture was riddled with messages of anti-war and sometimes, anti-American sentiment. First Blood does a phenomenal job showing how over time, this transformed from folks being against the war, to being against American soldiers, and eventually, both verbally and physically harassing American soldiers. As Rambo talks about at the very end of the film, when he returned home from Vietnam, he was “screamed at, called a murderer, called a baby-killer, spit on, and had objects thrown at me.” This film itself is a time capsule as it shows the political transformation America was going under at the beginnings of the 1980s. As I read in another review for this film, “First Blood shows how in the 1980s, America was going from being on the side of the protestor, to being on the side of the soldier.”
Aside from the incredible performance of Stallone in this film, my other two MVPs would be Brian Dennehy as Sheriff Teasle, and Jack Starrett as Officer Galt. These two actors did such an incredible job portraying scumbags who have spent their entire lives pushing folks around as they please, but have finally met their match. The film goes on for so long with them pushing and striking Rambo that when Rambo finally snaps, you relish every moment as the viewer watching these men likely receive what is the first ever beat-down of their life. Jack Starrett really sold his “good old boy” character, and seeing him die due to his own cruelty was very enjoyable.
Much of this film would have been make or break depending on Brian Dennehy’s performance as Sheriff Teasle, but he absolutely delivered. His character of being a cowardly bully who jumps in only after his opponent has been softened up was well performed, and seeing him panicking while having to combat Rambo one on one towards the conclusion of the film was a nice touch. I would have liked for Sheriff Teasle to have received a bit more explanation behind his great dislike for Rambo, as I felt the film explanation of “he hates bums” was a bit weak. Ultimately though, Brian Dennehy knocked it out of the park, something later Rambo villains really don’t accomplish.
(The novel this film is based on explains Teasle was a Korean War veteran, and that he hated Rambo for the Vietnam war receiving more attention than his war did.)
I’m a bit indifferent as to Richard Crenna’s portrayal of Colonel Trautman. While he is absolutely by no means poor, I’ve never personally understood why he is so beloved by the Rambo fandom. To his defense, another actor was apparently set to play Colonel Trautman in this film, but backed out only weeks or days before filming bagan, causing Mr. Crenna to be brought in at the last minute, with virtually no time to prepare for the role. I found his performance to be alright. Possibly the biggest nitpick I have regarding his character is how Trautman always seems like he’s only a few moments away from laughing. In a situation like the one we have in this film, I don’t see someone like Trautman finding it even remotely humorous. However, Crenna did a stellar job along with Stallone during the final mental breakdown scene. Again, I by no means hate Crenna’s Colonel Trautman, I just feel like he almost belongs in a different film with his attitude.
Finally, let me end my two cents with my thoughts on the most important aspect of any 80s action film, and that is of course, THE ACTION! The action on tap here is incredible. From chase sequences of cars flying over hills, to Rambo throwing himself off a cliff and (literally) breaking bones while falling down, dudes falling to their death from helicopters, rocket launchers blowing up mine shafts, military cargo trucks plowing through military checkpoints, gas stations exploding, gun stores blowing half a block off the map, and a ultra muscular man running through the streets with a light machine gun blowing everything to Hell!
It’s pretty uncommon to have a film like this one where, while having those amazing 80s action scenes, tells a genuinely dark and emotional story at the same time. While later Rambo films had equal, and even better action scenes, none of them would ever reach quite the same emotional highs of this film. I HIGHLY recommend you watch this film if you have not, as it’s both a kickass action film which helped spawn a genre, and is a touching piece of media on the Vietnam War, and the horrible treatment the men who fought it received upon the arrival back home.
Pros & Cons
- Stallone gives, in my opinion, his greatest acting performance of all time in this film
- Stallone’s incredible physical condition makes his character of a Green Beret truly believable
- Incredibly engaging story which keeps it moving and never waits for too long
- The film does a phenomenal job at being a solid story, while subtly including politically charged statements which feel organic
- Brian Dennehy (Sheriff Teasle) and Jack Starrett (Officer Galt) do phenomenal jobs portraying dirty cops who you want to see receive their comeuppance
- The location of filming, Hope, British Columbia is absolutely beautiful and makes for many incredible shots
- Even the more explosive and gunfire heavy scenes in this film are vastly more realistic then future inclusions in the series
- Some people have stated, which I partly agree with, that to place the viewers on Rambo’s side, the police officers are evil and sadistic to an almost unrealistic and cartoony point
- Like all films in the series, there are occasional moments in combat where Rambo pulls of feats which are impossible (But are incredibly fun to watch)
“Nothing is ever over! Nothing!” – John Rambo