Friday, October 7, 2016

First Blood

"They drew first blood, not me."
-Vietnam veteran, Green Beret and iconic war hero John Rambo-

Like Grave Of The Fireflies (1988), Brothers (2009), The Messenger (2009) and other classics director Ted Kotcheff's First Blood (1982), loosely based on a 1972 book by David Morrell, examines the after effect of war and the impact of war at home on the man. The film is far more respectful to the portrait of Rambo as a sympathetic hero than the book.

The post-war pictures expose the psychological influence of war, the trauma and the outright horror of war on the individual sometimes to greater character centric effect.

Still, unlike the aforementioned films, First Blood unabashedly embraces its fair share of physical action and war violence as Vietnam veteran John Rambo, performed with great physicality and empathy by Sylvester Stallone, literally brings the violence of the war home.

First Blood deftly creates an action picture while examining the sociological impact on the returning veteran. The unpopular Vietnam War witnessed Society rejecting the soldier forcing soldiers to retreat back to dark places while coping with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Here John Rambo is literally escorted out of town by the stubborn local sheriff Will Teasle played memorably by Brian Dennehy. He is pushed away from society. It is precisely the more character driven moments that are among the best in Kotcheff's picture too. Nevertheless the action is well staged and intercut with abundant secondary characters like one played by a young David Caruso.

Unlike full-on war pictures like Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), earlier First Blood tapped a psychological nerve of those returning home from the war to the disdain of society. Others like The Deer Hunter (1979) did as well. Kotcheff's picture manages to walk the line of action and drama without falling over the edge into a cartoonish portrait of the returning soldier.

The film is loaded with practical effects from explosions to helicopter runs in small gorges. And all are jaw-dropping even today. Budgeted at just fifteen million the film grossed a massive 125 million in returns. The film was popular!

First Blood captured the zeitgeist of the aftermath of the Vietnam War for soldiers through the iconic John Rambo character, but does so in entertaining fashion. Rambo, a misunderstood and empathetic drifter looks to find a place for himself back home, the land for which he fought, only to find closed doors at every turn in the ironic and fictional town of Hope. His sense of alienation and pain is palpable throughout this simply structured film. Rambo is "pushed" to the brink and forced to relive the post-traumatic stress of the war by waging his own "private" war on a small po-dunk town managed by a judgmental sheriff. Look for the moment later where Sheriff Teasle could de-escalate, but chooses his fateful course, pressing on and setting the wheels of destruction in motion. When Rambo doesn't comply he is brought into custody, terribly mistreated and ultimately forced to push back against an army of "weekend warriors." In effect, again, Rambo literally brings the Vietnam experience home to America and the film is established in such a way that the mountains and the gorgeous location photography of the film act as a parallel to the war in Vietnam as Rambo sets traps and lives off the land. Soldiers were subjected to true horrors and Rambo in a sense acts as an embodiment of that nightmare.

The film somehow manages to tap a political and cultural nerve inside of an intimate action picture and a relatively strong character portrait that glimpses humanity at its worst despite a small town of normally perceived "nice" people. There are even surprising touches of humor and banter between characters that is entirely genuine.

First Blood is handsomely crafted, scored by Jerry Goldsmith and filmed and tells its tale in a tight 96 minutes, not a sprawling, noisy two and a half hour epic of computer effects with no heart. First Blood is made with all heart, blood, sweat and tears.

This brings me to a final point about First Blood. After all of the bloodshed and the build up to a violent confrontation culminating in the town's destruction (taking First Blood a bit too far) the film strips all of that away for the final act, and a move rarely experienced in film today.

The camera focuses intimately on the relationship between Richard Crenna's Colonel Sam Trautman and John Rambo. Anger fades and sinks into agony and emotional trauma for Rambo. The camera captures the pain of veteran John Rambo and thus the tragic effects of the Vietnam War on the American psyche and on a soldier's humanity. As Rambo drops in a heap sobbing it is affectingly and effectively staged. The soliloquy delivered by a broken John Rambo is moving beyond words and brings the film together in a way so many action films avoid preferring to end on a trite, empty or hollow lack of closure with little to no character value opting instead for a blaze of glory. First Blood is so much more as a result of these final frames coupled with those earlier sequences in the film. They remind us of the fragility of humanity and that our soldiers are tasked with unspeakable missions and asked to simply readjust.

What is a mostly visual or physical film for one Sylvester Stallone likely in his physical prime, becomes a dramatic, emotional performance for the actor in the final minutes that lends weight and gravity and transcends what would be handled as but a mere ordinary action picture in today's film houses. But its subject matter, performances, execution and script allow First Blood to be something special within the action and war genre. There's enough subtext that it actually drives the action from start to finish giving it intelligence and heart.

Please note the sincerity and power of the film's message in the words from those final scenes---words that still resonate today and have lost none of their importance (see notable dialogue below).

Kotcheff is also remembered by this writer for his equally stirring and impressive Gene Hackman-led war film Uncommon Valor (1983). Who can forget his foray into comedy with the fantastically funny Weekend At Bernie's (1989). This trio of films would rank among my favorites by Kotcheff with First Blood ranking at the top.

First Blood also continued to build upon the legend of Stallone and the icon of a writer/actor/director on the rise following Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979). The underrated Nighthawks (1981) would follow co-starring Billy Dee Williams, Lindsay Wagner and Rutger Hauer. His impressive run would continue. These early period films are arguably among Stallone's best and First Blood is a standout.

Truthfully there was a time when I didn't believe fully appreciate Stallone or give him much credence. Time has changed that as well as films like Copland (1997) forcing a re-evaluation and softening to the man's work.

Stallone and Kotcheff deliver a classic and a franchise maker modulating between drama and action effortlessly. First Blood offers essential Stallone with a war story infused and preferring a somber, sobering and serious tone.

First Blood.
Writer: Michael Kozoll/ William Sackheim/ Sylvester Stallone.
Director: Ted Kotcheff.

The War: Vietnam (1955-1975).

Notable Dialogue: "Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don't turn it off! It wasn't my war! You asked me, I didn't ask you! And I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn't let us win! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me, huh? Who are they? Unless they've been me and been there and know what the hell they're yelling about! For you! For me civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there's nothing!Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can't even hold a job parking cars!."

"We were in this bar in Saigon and this kid comes up, this kid carrying a shoe-shine box. And he says "Shine, please, shine!" I said no. He kept askin', yeah, and Joey said "Yeah." And I went to get a couple of beers, and the box was wired, and he opened up the box, fucking blew his body all over the place. And he's laying there, he's fucking screaming. There's pieces of him all over me, just... like this, and I'm tryin' to pull him off, you know, my friend that's all over me! I've got blood and everything and I'm tryin' to hold him together! I'm puttin'... the guy's fuckin' insides keep coming out! And nobody would help! Nobody would help! He's saying, sayin' "I wanna go home! I wanna go home!" He keeps calling my name! "I wanna go home, Johnny! I wanna drive my Chevy!" I said "With what? I can't find your fuckin' legs! I can't find your legs!"

What Critics Had To Say:

Rotten Tomatoes ranks First Blood at 87% with one critic noting its decent into lunacy as a diversion from what is "a mournful and sobering action-movie treatment of postwar stress." writer Martin Liebman noted the film was "one of my favorite movies, period... a film that helped redefine the action genre and it's exciting, thought-provoking and poignant."

Roger Ebert gave the film 3 (of 4) stars. "...almost all of First Blood is implausible, because it's Stallone on the screen, we'll buy it. the ending doesn't work." Ebert genuinely decried the handling of that emotional final scene in his review. This is one of the few occasions where I couldn't have disagreed with Ebert more vociferously regarding that emotional final act. It's a stunner and it does work.

The War Film Blog: Highly Recommended.

What Drew Me To The Film:

My son inquired if I had a good war film or western handy. Come on. Challenge me. Are you kidding? My western collection is a little scarce, but my war film selection is mighty. So I hit the basement running and selected the film, First Blood (1982). It was an unexpected return to a great film I had not seen for years. I'm pleased to report it still holds up as entertainment and as war commentary and looks exceptional on Blu-Ray for a classic film.

It literally had been decades since I viewed this film (where does the time go?) almost as many times as I did Star Wars (1977) and John Carpenter's The Thing (1982). There were lines in the film I would anticipate from memory. There were scenes and moments I was recalling as I watched the film before they happened like I had seen the film yesterday. Incredible really. It had been decades and yet the film felt as fresh as the day it was released. It clearly had an impact on me. How Kotcheff delivered this film is a testament to how it has remained stored in memory. How does the mind and the memory hold data that long that seems so clear? Amazing.

Yes First Blood and a selection of others somehow managed to make it onto VHS copies in my house complete with snow. Video quality was low but we still loved it.

Nevertheless, First Blood was a defining film for me as a young man. As it turns out I'm very much a purist when it comes to Rambo too. I've seen only the original, first film, First Blood. That's it. I've never seen another John Rambo film, nor do I care to, but as it happens this simple story was hands down one of the finest, unexpected treats to hit cinemas that year. My perception of Stallone and Rambo is relatively perfect with this original film. I'm good with ending that experience here. I know what the Star Wars franchise has done to me. I need look no further.

My son is a pretty open book when it comes to film surprisingly. He's a great kid. You might think the film would have to be modern, technically magnificent films like Black Hawk Down (2001) or We Were Soldiers (2002), both exceptional films with state of the art effects, but instead this writer kicks it old school and my son was along for the ride.

The lesson here is when a film is good its good. Period. Age has nothing to do with it. My son has seen Alien (1979) and other classics, and now, First Blood. He actually had heard of the Rambo character and didn't realize this was the original film until they mentioned his name. When it was all said and done he really enjoyed the film.

This made me recall an interaction with one of his friends. His friend was over and we were watching Aliens (1986). His friend insisted, repeating a fairly offensive refrain to this old man, "Wow, this film is pretty good for 1986." Again, "this movie is pretty impressive for 1986." STOP! I had enough. I said with a laugh and rather diplomatically, "pal, this is a great film and age has nothing to do with great films. Transformers and all of the CGI debacles that exist today couldn't hold a candle to this film from 1986." My son piped in, "yeah, knucklehead, this film rocks!" Youth today.

My son asked if I liked Sylvester Stallone during First Blood? I turned and replied, "absolutely, I like the man a lot." So First Blood was kind of a stroke of chance, but what a terrific film to experience all over.

Hmm, perhaps revisiting Against All Odds (1984), Fatal Attraction (1987) or No Way Out (1987) is in order.

Finally, to be honest, I'm not a particularly big Stallone fan, and that speaks to my lack of bias toward this impressive film classic.

I've seen a good number of the man's films, but I'd consider Nighthawks (1981), Copland (1997) and the Rocky films to be among his very best. Taking a look at the first two law enforcement-centric films may not be outside the realm of possibility here. But First Blood ranks toward the top. In fact, if you've never really seen a Stallone film you would be wise to make this post-war First Blood thriller your first.

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