Cult Fiction V: Rambo’s Creator
War is Hell, everyone can agree. But “America as Hell” is a cultural grenade tossed to stir things up on the homefront. However, Rambo’s creator, David Morrell, is a Canadian. Born in 1943 in Kitchener, Ontario, Morrell convinced his pregnant wife to give up her career and move with him to the States in 1966 so that he could study American literature with one of his heroes, Philip Young, at Penn State University. [www.davidmorrell.net] Morrell wrote his Masters thesis on Ernest Hemingway and his doctoral dissertation on John Barth. First Blood, his first novel, begun in 1968 and published in 1972, has been translated into eighteen languages. There have been twenty-eight other books since, including four non-fiction titles. More than thirty years after its original publication, First Blood is still in print, an incredible statistic which seems to prove that his Rambo character has reached cult status and continues to attract fans.
When he began the novel, Morrell was inspired by the juxtaposition of Vietnam War news reports and returning soldiers attending his English classes with political protests and race riots in America. He wondered: “What if I wrote a book in which the Vietnam war literally came home to America? . . . With America splitting apart because of Vietnam, maybe it was time to write a novel that dramatized the philosophical division in our society, that shoved the brutality of war right under our noses.” [FB, Introduction, p. viii] Thus, war is hell, and hell is here. So, the artist is asking readers/citizens to imagine what it would feel like if this hell were happening to you.
Although Morrell remained south of the border after he completed his studies and appears to have achieved the American dream, he has never abandoned his Canadian roots. When contacted through his website, Morrell responds:
"I am still a Canadian, but I am also a US citizen. In other words, I have dual citizenship. My Canadian roots very much influenced my writing, particularly with regard to First Blood. When I came to the US in 1966, I knew nothing about Vietnam. I watched [as] the national turmoil about the war reached higher and higher states of frenzy—riots etc. Finally I decided to write a novel in which a small war takes place in the US, a war whose escalation mirrors that of the Vietnam War and involves a returned Medal of Honor winner. I think the story required a writer with some distance from the conflict. For example, as a Canadian I wasn’t in danger of being drafted, so I could observe with some objectivity. It’s a complicated situation."
As a student of literature, Morrell named his hero after a favourite French writer and placed him in settings reminiscent of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. As an outsider in America, Morrell wrote about the nation’s trauma with the luxury of distance and objectivity. Indeed, the story is very challenging of American values for the late 1960s, questioning in symbolic ways America’s choice to fight in Vietnam on the enemy’s own territory. [FB, p. 205] The stance of the US administration and military is equated with the bully tactics and abuse of authority of Chief of Police Teasle. 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.” [FB, p. x, author’s introduction]
By the time First Blood the novel became First Blood, the movie, things had changed in America. Other movies about Vietnam had been made. Other artists, including other “outsiders”, had become involved in transforming the story from page to screen. ©
Read about the differences between the novel and the film in Cult Fiction IV; explore the possibility that outsiders challenge American values through the arts in Cult Fiction VI.