The Rambo Phenomenon (1982 - 2008)
The cinematic character of John J Rambo is heavily associated with the politics of the eighties and the ascending right-wing attitudes of the era. His name has entered the popular sub culture and means different things to different people. His name is used as a pejorative term by certain political lobbies, who see him as stereotypical incarnation of blind patriotism and “might is right” minsdet. It is a name also sadly linked to the Hungerford Massacre in the UK by Michael Ryan in 1987. It was alleged, particularly by tabloid newspapers, that Ryan was inspired by the film Rambo: First Blood Part II, with some claiming he wore armed-forces style clothing. Rambo was cited as an example of a negative media influence, which was particularly relevant in the wake of the controversy over video nasties in the UK at that time. It is now claimed that Ryan had never seen the film, but the allegations provided sensationalist headlines and imagery and so the label stuck.
US President Ronald Reagan made reference to the character on several occasions during his two terms in office. Upon the release of 39 American hostages in June 1985 said, “after seeing Rambo last night, I know what to do next time this happens”. Hardly diplomatic words. Several months later, pleading for tax reform, Reagan said, “Let me tell you, in the spirit of Rambo, we're going to win this thing”. These extraordinary references by an American president attest to the power and ubiquity of the Rambo phenomenon. That fact that a contrived cinematic character could become a powerful political metaphor is still intriguing. Even today Rambo remains a name that gets a reaction and invokes an emotional response. However, often people’s perceptions are erroneous, based around popular headlines rather than an awareness of the central character himself. If we look at the history of the character, it is not as black and white as it first appears.
The first film featuring John Rambo was First Blood, released in 1982 and directed by Ted Kotcheff. It took David Morrell's traumatised twenty-year-old character and turned him into a 36, melancholic and philosophical veteran. The film also made some subtle plot alterations to negate any moral ambiguity that featured in the novel. Stallone is put upon and although violently breaks out of the Police station, does not kill first. Where as in the book, Rambo, instinctively reacts to provocation due to his military training and guts one of the police officers. Kotcheff's tried to tackle the wider issue of how a nation treats it war veterans, especially in light of a military defeat, whereas the book focused on a generation of youth that had been rendered dysfunctional and homicidal due to their training and experience. It is a surprisingly thoughtful film and very much a horse of a different colour, compared to what followed.
Rambo: First Blood Part II was released in 1985 and rather than reflecting on America's historical wounds, offered a populist fantasy in which John Rambo got to re-write history and rescue a group of POWs from Vietnam. It was a massive commercial success and succinctly reflected the social and political mood of the US at the times. There is absolutely no attempt to objectively look at the complex issues that lead to the failure of the Vietnam war. We are instead presented with arbitrary bad guy stereotypes, whose evil status is denoted by their penchant for looking through binoculars fiendishly and speaking in hackneyed foreign accents. School boy politics aside, the film was a solid action vehicle for Stallone and sealed his action star status. It was competently directed by George P. Cosmatos and superbly shot by legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The body count is ludicrously high and Rambo special forces skills go from the credible to the incredible.
By 1988 the world was changing rapidly. The Cold War was slowly coming to an end as Russia entered a new period of Gasnost and Perestroika. Due to production delays, the plot of Rambo III centring around rescuing Colonel Trautman from Afghanistan, seemed somewhat out of step with current affairs. However, the basic premise of the bond of friendship between student and master was sound and the film directed by veteran second unit director Peter MacDonald, supplied copious amount of action. However, due to the backlash in the UK against the franchise by the tabloid press, allegedly over the Hungerford massacre, the film was heavily censored. This arbitrary knee jerk reaction achieved nothing tangible and in subsequent years, all cuts have been waived by the BBFC. This entry is perhaps the most underrated in the series and curiously enough adds a slightly more flippant and humorous facet to Rambo's character.
In Rambo, the fourth instalment of the franchise, directed in 2008 by Stallone himself, finds our protagonist rescuing a group of Christian missionaries, from the Burmese military. Unlike the previous two sequels, there is far less of a political dimension to the story. The Burmese army are simply a catalyst for the action and are not explored in any depth. This time Rambo presents us with the age-old dilemma about the use of violence against violence. The Burmese Army brutally shoot, blow up, bayonet, burn, mutilate, and rape the innocent villagers. Yet exactly the same retribution is visited upon them. One of the Christians muses that it is never justifiable to use violence or to kill. Ironically (or predictably) he beats a soldier to death with a stone at the films climax. Is this an effective illustration of the inevitability of violence? Other films have argued otherwise. Ghandi depicts the destiny of a nation, changed through nonviolent protest. However, he was not faced with the prospect of genocide.
Film critic Mark Kermode slated Rambo as totally morally bankrupt, a claim also made against the 1985 instalment. Stallone counters this argument by stating that violence is simply human nature. It is what we are. A point that is often unpalatable to some intellectual quarters, possibly because it is so near to the truth. The writer Robert A. Heinlein proposed that violence has settled more issues in history than has any other factor and that all actions in human society are governed by force. The very act of voting is a manifestation of exerting one’s dominance. Also, there is the debate that violence can be justified if the cause is morally valid. It is intriguing that the Christians depicted in the 2008 film Rambo, are at odds with their faiths historical legacy on this very issue.
Debating the wider moral and philosophical aspects of this franchise is not as easy a question as one would expect. Is the entire Rambo phenomenon broad escapist entertainment or a politically incorrect cinematic slaughter house? Is it a revisionist western or nihilistic sanguinary pornography? Despite initial statements that a fifth film may manifest itself, Stallone appears to have put that idea to bed. It would seem that the final images of part four, with John Rambo returning to his family home is indeed to be the definitive ending. For good or ill, Rambo has become an integral part of 20th century pop culture and the name has assumed a wider meaning and become part of the contemporary lexicon. Some argue that cinema does not set the cultural agenda but merely reflects it. If that is so, then don’t shoot the messenger, especially when he's an ex Green Beret.
Finally, it would be impossible to write about the Rambo series without mentioning the work of composer Jerry Goldsmith. He provided the score for the first three films and after his death, Brian Tyler continued with his main themes for the fourth movie. Goldsmith's music for the franchise is very accomplished and adds an additional layer to the central character. His various cues especially for the action sequences demonstrates how a musical score can enhance a film. Posted below is the main theme for the first film, which is has become synonymous with the Rambo character and encapsulates the late composer’s immense talent.