‘You drew first blood, Bill. You drew first blood.’
A commonality between our reactions to Ted Kotcheff’s 1982 First Blood was in how the film blindsided us with its earnest and dramatic tackling of the subject of Vietnam War veterans in the early 1980s. First Blood is not concerned with stereotypical violence as is often found in Hollywood productions featuring actors the likes of Sylvester Stallone. In fact, when the violence erupts, it is atypical in that the character of John J. Rambo is involved in a battle of wits and might against his own countrymen in his own backyard. This alone made for a unique viewing experience, not to mention how, as you put it in your review, Stallone provide some gravitas to Rambo that would have been sorely lacking otherwise. I liked seeing Stallone in an early performance. His youth really lent to his being a disgruntled Vietnam vet who got the proverbial shaft upon his return home from the battle fields. That typical deep voice of his only reinforced Rambo’s unfortunate state of mind and heart throughout the film. The movie works in many ways as a social commentary, one that must have hit American audiences hard back in 1982 when the subject of the Vietnam War was still fresh. The conflicting emotions of the American public towards this infamous war and those who served in it are set on a dangerous collision course in First Blood. For those reasons Kotcheff’s movie is a challenging one, far more challenging than one’s run of the mill action movie, and I think we agree that First Blood is far more than a mere ‘action movie.’
There were a couple of details you mentioned in your review last week that caught me by surprise however, the first being how First Blood ‘isn’t a particularly well made film.’ You go on by briefly mentioning some poor post-production dubbing and the underwhelming direction from Kotcheff himself. With regards to the first point (poor dubbing), I must admit that it flew over my head. Perhaps I was so absorbed in this dark, gritty and challenging world that the fact that dubbing had been performed was too slight detail for me to take notice. I haven’t watched the film since, but I’ll keep that issue in mind the next time I give my disc a spin. It seems to me a lot of older pictures have dubbing, so it could have been that I just took it for granted. More importantly however were your less than complimentary comments towards Ted Kotcheff’s directorial style. I thought his camera did wonders for the film, especially in the action sequences. It certainly has a more ‘old school’ feel to it, with the camera being pretty static in many instances, but oftentimes I thought the frame was perfectly placed and awarded the viewer with some really intriguing images. One of my favourites occurs early on when Rambo is hanging from the cliff over the river. The police have called in a chopper (in which the crazy cop with the rifle is riding) and the hovering vehicle is approaching Rambo’s location along the cliff. The camera is placed very near Rambo, but on his right side, so the rest of the frame showcases the remainder of the canyon and the grey sky. In the background we can see the chopper approaching as Rambo scrambles to keep his grip. I thought that shot was really cool. Not flashy, but really effective at telling the story of an action scene. That was Kotcheff’s most important contribution to the film in my opinion, that is, the ability to carefully frame the shots during moments of tension and action. This might sound ludicrous but I felt there were hints of some Hitchcockian inspiration at times during the action sequences.
The only other point on which we disagree somewhat is the usefulness of the Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) character. His importance at the end of the story is of the utmost, that we agree on I believe. However, his introduction around the midpoint of the story does serve some purpose, even though it may not be totally essential. The point I’m about to make has much to do with the type of characters we are dealing with up until the moment Colonel Trautman makes his presence known, so let’s rewind things a little bit. So far, we’ve seen Rambo try to find an old friend, only to discover of his shocking demise. This completely warps Rambo’s attitude, from somewhat decent bloke to cold and distant. When the cops pick him up, they’re aren’t much better. In fact, they’re clearly worse for a short while, mistreating him in some surprising to say the least. This in turn activates ‘killer/survival instinct’ mode in Rambo, with the latter going all army on anyone who dares approach him. The momentary flashbacks tell us one of the main reasons why Rambo is behaving this way, but for some audience members it might not be enough for that knowledge to make Rambo terribly relatable. I mean, we have a United States war veteran maiming small American town police officers in the woods. While I did find the conflict interesting in its oddity and shock value, and while I believe that I could have still found it interesting without the introduction of Colonel Trautman, the Colonel’s presence instils a sort of structure to the chaos that has taken over. We understand a little bit more who Rambo is and why he might be behaving the way he his. In fact, I think the night time scene in which Colonel Trautmen tries to reign Rambo in via radio is top notch. Rambo’s semi-psychotic state is put into some harsh words during their radio conversation (‘They drew first blood’). And anyways, I really enjoyed Richard Crenna's performance, so there.
I was relieved to learn that you found First Blood to be a mostly pleasing viewing experience. It certainly takes the action genre by the horn and gives it good shake. I was listening to the extra features on the disc in which the author of the novel David Morell expresses some of his thoughts. It was quite interesting to hear him reveal that in the book John Rambo really does start gunning people down in small town U.S.A. I think there are some obvious reasons why the decision was made not to have Rambo do that in a mainstream motion picture adaptation, but it had me wondering what sort of movie that would have been like. Regardless, First Blood is far smarter than I foolishly had given it credit for (without having seen it), and you were smart enough to realize this as well. Seems as though things mostly evened out in our reviews. Maybe the real bloodshed will commence next week…