Cult Fiction IV: First Blood vs. First Blood
So who is John Rambo and why has he gone to hell? Rambo started out as literature, debuting in David Morrell’s first novel, First Blood, published in 1972. A former Green Beret, a Vietnam War veteran, destined to become a serialized action hero, Rambo is much more in this first movie than the bandoleered, greased, buff bod with the big gun of the iconic poster. Alienated from fellow citizens, scarred by his experiences “in country”, Rambo drifts, unable to find or hold a job. Too angry to back down, convinced that he shouldn’t have to take abuse, looking for excuses to pick a fight, victimized by his own countrymen, Rambo hunts his abusers down. First Blood offers an early depiction of a psychological condition euphemistically referred to at the time as “the Vietnam-vet syndrome” (Coming Home, 1978, did show the same anger and emotional imbalance in a veteran who came home physically wounded).
The aggressive stance of the US administration and military is equated with the tactics and abuse of authority of Chief of Police Teasle in the novel. Yet the book itself maintains a balance which the movie abandons. Chapters alternate between Rambo’s and Teasle’s points of view as they take turns being the hunter and the hunted. We learn much more about Teasle’s character, his Korean War-hero past, the disappointment and pain which haunts him, the personal issues that he plays out on the public war-games stage. “[T]he intention was to make him as motivated and sympathetic as Rambo, because the viewpoints that divided America came from deep, well-meant convictions.” [David Morrell, First Blood (FB), London, Headline Edition, 1992; p. x, author’s introduction]
Chief Teasle is less of a bully, more of a hero in the novel, an establishment hero, while Rambo is less admirable, killing fifteen or twenty of his fellow citizens (he loses count), and, what is more important to him, killing them for the wrong reasons, for personal and emotional rather than ethical reasons. [FB, p. 297]. In the film, all figures of authority are challenged. Sheriff Teasle is less sympathetic, more like the abusive Chief of Police in In the Heat of the Night. Although in the novel, both Rambo and Teasle express sorrow for their actions, in the film, neither one verbalizes regret. So differences in characterization are one of many changes between the novel and the film.
Other changes between novel and film seem relatively minor. The Chief of Police becomes a Sheriff, perhaps suggesting the Sheriff of Nottingham, nemesis to another outlaw. There is no Rambo knife in the novel. Rambo steals a police cruiser in the novel, an army truck in the movie, suggesting that different representative authority figures are being targeted. The Captain becomes a Colonel, giving the military man increased authority. The bat cave becomes a rat cave. Rats are probably easier to wrangle, but they also allude to other earlier war movies.
Writers expect changes in the transformation from page to screen. “Stephen King once told me that in the movie First Blood I had been treated about as well as Hollywood could treat a novelist inasmuch as the plot was recognizable. The only major plot change is that Rambo dies at the end of the novel and lives at the end of the movie . . . The interpretation of that plot is another matter. In my novel, Rambo is furious about what he’s been through in Vietnam. He’s confused and tormented and in many ways causes the small war that he fights. In the movie, though, he’s a victim, a reluctant warrior.” [David Morrell interview, WritersWrite.com]
The many changes of interpretation between novel and movie can be explained in different ways. It is possible that the changes reflect changes in American society between publication in 1972 and film production in 1982. These changes include: the end of the war, the withdrawal of troops, the fall of Saigon and its renaming as Ho Chi Minh City, and the eventual return of prisoners of war. The defeat of the nation has been borne by returned veterans who are shamed, hounded, demonized. The establishment has lost some credibility--protesting students were shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State (May 4, 1970) and President Nixon was forced to resign for ethical deficiencies (1974). American citizens have been held hostage in Iran. Ronald Reagan has defeated Jimmy Carter. Foreign affairs attention has turned from Asia; covert American military interventions have shifted to Central and South America. Veterans who have not been wounded are still sick and dying, although the government continues to deny any connection to Agent Orange and other toxins dumped on the enemy.
And, by 1982, several movies have already begun to explore what went wrong and what we should have learned. Indeed, Roger Ebert’s review of First Blood complains “we’ve heard all this before, the ranting against the unfair treatment the vets received upon their return”. [rogerebert.com] Like the opening scene where Rambo learns that the last member of his team has died, this “ranting” final breakdown scene was added for the movie.
In the novel, Captain Trautman, the Green Beret who trained Rambo, arrives to help with the manhunt for “the kid”. In Trautman, the military is represented as a caring individual rather than as a faceless bureaucracy. He chastises Teasle for his sloppy police work and for causing the situation by mis-reading Rambo’s needs, for labeling him as “trouble” rather than as “troubled”. He accepts responsibility, admitting that Rambo is “his boy”, he has trained Rambo to kill, sent him overseas, and brought him back with no skills except killing, and now he has killed many Americans.
In the novel, when the Captain finds Rambo after the shootout in the playground, Trautman “took the top of his head off with this shotgun.” [FB, p. 307]
“What’s it like for you?” Teasle asks him.
“Better than when I knew he was in pain,” Trautman replies.
This scene of military compassion, where Rambo is executed as one would a traitor or a wounded animal, never happens in the movie. Indeed, the imdb.com says that Kirk Douglas reneged on a contract to play Trautman because he objected to the plot change. He wanted to shoot Rambo. Instead, after Rambo has shot the sheriff and has broken into the police armoury, he is confronted by Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) who role-plays into his hallucination/fantasy: “This mission is over, Rambo. This mission is over.” The Colonel’s challenge breaks through and stops the action; it provides an opening for Rambo to explain why the mission will never be over, the horrific images he lives with, the pieces of his friends he is unable to brush from his body. In a shocking change from the mumbling inarticulate hero “sucking it up”, stitching his own wounds, never letting on that he may be afraid or that anything is wrong, Rambo breaks down and cries at the Colonel’s feet.
The breakdown scene represents a recognition that the mental health issues evident in so many veterans can no longer be dismissed as “personal” weakness and idiosyncrasy. By 1982, a name, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is being applied to the symptoms Rambo exhibits. The wounded protagonist has increased in credibility, and changes to the plot make it easier to accept him as the hero. Indeed, in the movie, Rambo kills no one; he has the weapons, he has the opportunities; he chooses not to kill. He may be more of a victim; the charges against him are trumped up, but he is no longer the killer outlaw of the novel.
In the movie, after the Colonel listens to his breakdown, falls to his knees, lets the broken Rambo embrace him, almost touches him, almost comforts him, he walks Rambo out, in custody, handcuffs and torture scars hidden beneath the officer’s military trench coat. Thus, the armed forces in the movie accept responsibility in a more humane and compassionate way, and cover up the shame.
In First Blood, the movie, the establishment rejects the death penalty, or, in this case, summary execution. And the wounded hero speaks his piece, is heard, and lives to fight again. Ultimately the movie is suggesting that there are alternative solutions, that violence is not the only strategy available. And that bad or troubled behaviour may stem from illness which deserves treatment rather than from moral choices that require punishment.
So changes of characterization and of interpretation in the movie could be the result of the changed context, of the times and of earlier Vietnam movies, but they could also reflect a less American, a more outside, international, or Canadian interpretation, challenging what America was doing both at home and abroad. Of course, Canada has no ethical monopoly on higher order moral reasoning, but as a nation we do choose peace and treatment and rehabilitation over aggression, revenge, and capital punishment. At least so far. The “why?” is more important to us than the “what?”; “why people do things” can be addressed and changed. ©
David Morrell, Rambo’s creator, is a Canadian. Read about how the writer’s background influences his work in Cult Fiction V.