In the late 1970s and early 1980s, military heroism was an oxymoron in the movies unless you were talking about World War II. For a nation trying to process what the hell just happened in Vietnam, lionizing military exploits just didn’t go over so well. Movies that made heroes out of Vietnam vets really didn’t get rolling until the 1980s, when just enough time had passed for people to feel like they had creative license to take touchy subject matter and use it as a springboard for heroic escapism. And none of these stood more supreme than the Rambo franchise, the shoot-‘em-ups that further cemented Sylvester Stallone as one of the most legendary action stars of all time. But as the Rambo movies got progressively more gratuitous, a lot of people overlooked the finest among them, the one that got the whole franchise started, an action movie with plenty of thrills, sure, but also one that at least attempted to get the audience to stop and listen to the plight of Vietnam’s soldiers, many of whom were still walking wounded. I’m talking, of course, about First Blood.
Former Green Beret John Rambo is walking across America, visiting his old comrades from the war, only to discover that most of them are already dead. For a man with no friends or family, his unit is all he’s got left, and even that is gone, too. He discovers he’s the last man standing while walking near the town of Hope Washington. Sheriff Will Teasle—a small-town lawman who really seems to get off on living up to every negative stereotype that one might attach to a small-town lawman—immediately intercepts Rambo because he doesn’t like the look of him. Rambo tries to resist passively and is arrested for it. Teasle’s men decide to rough Rambo up a little, they trigger some serious PTSD Rambo has from his time in a POW camp, and he fights his way out of the police station, escaping into the woods. Teasle’s men give chase and learn just how ill-equipped they are to take on their fugitive. Teasle calls in more guys. They also find out that 20:1 odds still mean the fight is stacked in Rambo’s favor. Eventually, they have to call in the National Guard to bring down this one guy whose strength, skill, resourcefulness, lethal instinct and sheer guts make him all but impossible to stop or catch. Nobody but Rambo’s former CO, Colonel Trautman, can appreciate how grateful we ought to be that Rambo fought on our side in the war. Trautman’s play is to reason with Rambo and get him to stand down. Teasle’s play is to annihilate the guy. The question is, which one will get what they want, and how much of the town of Hope will be left standing by the end of it all? After all, one John Rambo + one fully loaded M60 can do an awful lot of damage.
As a straight-up action movie, First Blood is an under-acknowledged masterpiece. The action sequences are tight and thrilling, and watching Rambo put his old skills to the test is a fascinating look at what it means when somebody has been turned into a living weapon. But the more the movie plays out, the more we begin to appreciate it as this weird kind of metaphor for how people treated Vietnam vets as unwanted eyesores, troublemakers and whack jobs. This, for people who had already seen enough on the ground in Vietnam to scar many of them for life. Most of these folks never asked to go. A lot of them weren’t exactly welcomed home when they returned. No wonder why they felt like they got such a raw deal.
There is a fantastic scene when Rambo is first contending with Teasle’s men out in the woods, and he overpowers all of them with relative ease as he gets back into the swing of things. And finally, he corners Teasle and puts a knife to the guy’s throat and gives him a chance to call this off. Rambo will go his way, Teasle will go his, and that’ll be the end of it. Rambo means it. And of course, Teasle can’t accept it. And that impasse seems to speak to something much bigger than one lone Green Beret against some vengeful and abusive cops. It spoke to a generation of soldiers who didn’t ask for a parade, but would have settled to be left alone. And they couldn’t get even that.
The moment of truth, however, is near the end of the movie when, after all other efforts to bring in Rambo have failed, Trautman finally gets Rambo to stand down. He does it not with a gun but with some kind words, one soldier to another. He respects Rambo too much to sugarcoat it for him: he’s gonna have to go to jail after all of this. And then, Rambo just breaks down and vents every frustration he has carried ever since he left for a war he never asked for and came home to a country that wished he hadn’t returned. He was the greatest hero his country could have asked for, and all he got for it was a head full of bad memories, the enmity of his fellow citizens, and terrible prospects for work. He only wanted to walk the land and say goodbye to his buddies, but guys like Teasle wouldn’t let him. He didn’t draw first blood. They did. And you realize he’s not just talking about the cops and soldiers who chased him. He’s talking about every arched eyebrow, every sneer and snide comment, every disapproving look, every reason to turn one’s back. There is a little bit of Teasle in everyone, so for a guy like Rambo, coming home just means trading in one war for another. And neither one has decent prospects for victory.