This month marks the 30th anniversary of the first celluloid outing of the most famous human war machine in the Western popular consciousness. As immortalised by Sylvester Stallone in the 1982, epoch-defining film First Blood, it is exactly 30 years since legendary Vietnam vet and Green Beret John Rambo burst onto our screens with his trademark headband, serrated hunting knife and laconic dialogue.
I am a massive Rambo fan. I was 12 in 1988 when Rambo III was released and vividly remember watching it on video—my first encounter with the character who would both inspire and influence me right through into my adult years. I marvelled at the ferocity of the action sequences and the uncompromising yet chivalrous moral code of the man who was so well versed in the art of death.
Nowadays, when gung-ho, 80s action flicks aren’t quite so popular, I am still immune to the scornful looks and put downs that I receive from those astonished by my choice of role model. I believe that Rambo is actually an existential everyman and the perfect hero for our troubled times.
I am of course willing to concede that in his various celluloid outings Rambo has got a bad press. Seen as a monosyllabic, bloodthirsty psychopath, Stallone’s character is constantly derided as a brute and a Neanderthal, a “dumb ox” in the words of The Observer film critic Phillip French. On the contrary, Rambo is the ultimate pugilist-penseur. Look closely at his ripped abs and chiselled pecs and you will find there is not an ounce of moral or intellectual flabbiness on him either. His is mindful, not mindless violence.
John J Rambo first entered the public arena in the savage, nihilistic, 1972 novel First Blood by David Morrell. He was born on July 6th, 1947 in Bowie, Arizona, of mixed parentage (half German, half Native American). Rambo enlisted in the army at 17 and after training for the US Special Forces (Green Berets) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, went on to highly decorated military service in Vietnam. On his return to America, where he was met with hostility by anti-war demonstrators, Rambo suffered an acute case of post-traumatic stress disorder and, discombobulated by the return to civilian life, ended up as an out-of-work vagrant. This is the man we meet at the beginning of First Blood.
What can we learn from Rambo? When he spares the lives of the nefarious Sheriff Teasle and his trigger-happy deputies in First Blood, Rambo demonstrates perhaps the most important of all martial virtues: compassion. Consider, too, the loyalty he exhibits in Rambo III when he returns to rescue Colonel Trautman from a seemingly impenetrable hill-top Russian army fortress in Afghanistan.
And then there’s the bravery, of course. Think of when, with clenched teeth, he sews up his severed arm in First Blood, or cauterises his stomach wound with nothing more than gunpowder, fire and a grimace in Rambo III. Such are the actions of a man taught to ignore pain, a man for whom self-mastery and self-control are the keys to winning at all costs.
To this physical prowess, we must add Rambo’s predilection for sagacious, gnomic aphorisms about the nature of warfare and its effect on the human spirit. “To win war, you have to become war” he says before combat in Rambo II. When exhorting mercenaries to complete their mission and rescue the innocent in Rambo IV, he admonishes them with the chilling words, “Live for nothing, or die for something.”
There is tenderness here, too. Rambo’s Homeric return home to his father’s farm in Bowie, Arizona at the end of the final film, when, having conquered his own inner demons, he at last comes “full circle”, is a scene of real pathos. So much so, in fact, that it brought tears to my eyes. Yet more proof, if it were needed, that Rambo is indeed a nuanced character, not the one dimensional, asinine slab of beefcake his detractors like to make out.
Rambo has long faced snide attacks from film critics. For example, Xan Brooks, reviewing Rambo IV in The Guardian, condemned the film’s “risible characters and its bone-headed grasp of geopolitics.” Boneheaded? Sure, Rambo III saw our hero fighting alongside the Mujahidin in Soviet-era Afghanistan—but there is a prescient lesson for our politicians in the film. “If you’d studied your history,” says Trautman to the Russian Colonel Zaysen, “you’d know that these people have never given up to anyone. They’d rather die than be slaves to an invading army. You can’t defeat a people like that.” A foreign policy masterclass if ever there was one.
Rambo is also the perennial loner, a pawn in a bigger game, self-consciously expendable, used to being the ironic social observer, the outsider with a good heart who troubles no one unless they trouble him first. He is a recalcitrant drifter, at odds with Western society’s meretricious values. There is, in short, a part of Rambo in all of us who dare to challenge the dictates of quotidian orthodoxy.
We should come to praise Rambo, not to bury him with slander. We need to rehabilitate Rambo and rescue him from his critics. His virtues are as sadly old-fashioned as they are important to mankind’s continued survival. Rambo, that lithe, cerebral Hercules, fully deserves his place in the pantheon of the world’s true heroes.
Thanks in part to Rambo, I have endeavoured to cultivate mental fortitude and an indomitable warrior spirit in the face of life’s vicissitudes. Rambo has imbued me with a rage against injustice, whatever form it takes. Moreover, as an often outspoken, socially conservative, mixed-race, free thinker—I am used to being on the outside. Rambo has helped me to rejoice in always being my own man, speaking my own truth, and not worrying what others say.
If I hold dear one Rambonian adage above all others, it’s in First Blood when he warns Teasle, “Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe. Let it go.” Never before did one man articulate in such terse locutions such a powerful martial philosophy, combining both self-preservation and retributive justice. Those are truly fighting words to guide us in a fighting age. Like the Statius to my Virgil, long may Rambo illuminate my path.
Lindsay Johns is a writer and broadcaster. He will be speaking about Rambo on BBC2′s Culture Show in November