It took me a long while to get to First Blood. My first viewing wasn’t until 2005-ish, maybe? In the ’80s, “John Rambo” played by Sylvester Stallone became a parody of himself with the schlocky followup films, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III, and that is probably what kept me away. But I was in for a real treat once I finally allowed myself to watch it.
Based on the David Morrell novel with the same name (Great read, BTW), First Blood takes place in the small town of Hope, Washington where a drifter, John Rambo has wandered in from the road. He has recently learned of how his friend and fellow Vietnam War vet had passed away from cancer brought on by an exposure to Agent Orange.
Rambo isn’t in the best frame of mind when he is walking towards Hope’s main street, and his hippy length hair and John Lennon like army jacket catches Sheriff Will Teasle’s (Brian Dennehy) eye. Teasle believes he has spotted a trouble maker and “insists” Rambo allow him to give him a lift. Teasle grills Rambo on who he is, but the Vet only reveals how he is heading to Portland and is only looking for a place to eat. Teasle doesn’t buy Rambo’s story and drops him off at the edge of town. He tells Rambo the highway will take him straight to Portland and to try the diner 30 miles up the road. Rambo instead begins walking back into town.
Teasle arrests him on the spot for vagrancy, resisting arrest, and possessing a concealed knife. While booking Rambo, Hope’s officers abuse him and trigger flashbacks of the torture he suffered as a POW. Rambo overwhelms the officers and flees to the wooded mountains with his knife. While chased deeper into the woods, Rambo maims all of the officers on his tail and inadvertently kills one. Still, with his posse whittled down, and Rambo’s knife at his throat, the Sherriff refuses to back down.
Unlike those sequels I mentioned, First Blood is a legit, action-heavy thriller. The film’s unsung heroes are the performances by Dennehy (RIP) and Richard Crenna (also, RIP) as Colonel Sam Trautman who trained Rambo in guerrilla warfare and survival. After Teasle ignores Rambo’s warnings, Trautman steps up to confirm that Teasle is way in over his head:
(The video is two scenes spliced together, so ignore the materialization of Dennehy’s coat.)
As great as Crenna’s performance is, it could have come off as hammy if it were not for how straight Dennehy played his role. Together, they have the kind of chemistry that I don’t believe can be created but can only happen naturally. And, of course, more easily with two veteran actors who know what they are doing.
Part of what makes First Blood compelling is how plausible the story is. It is the worst possible outcome, but it stuck as close as it could to Morrell’s novel, a call to the plight of the US Army vet. At the time PTSD was a new term and we are still in the process of figuring out how to deal with it this very day. You know a film is hitting its mark well when having something relevant to say is only the icing on the cake.
Bonus content: Here is a four-year-old podcast of @TheRamVox, @itsRocketSauce, @STCPod and myself talking about the Rambo films. Man, we did long shows back then.