Writing About Film

Rambo: First Blood, Part II, 1985The Complexities of Simplicity: John Rambo Revealed

Rambo: First Blood, Part II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985)

Paper for Vietnam and the Cinema class, Oberlin College, 1988


A film which is as completely without intellectual depth as Rambo: First Blood Part II, because it provides so little information with which to fill the medium's inherent empty spaces, demands a more rigorous analysis than a work of greater substance. The figure of John Rambo is much the same: an exploration of his character is imperative for determining the qualities he exemplifies which so strongly appeal to the American filmgoer.

Rambo, above all, is an obedient, silent killer, one who has no opinion about pain or death, either his own or others'. Though Rambo occasionally displays anger and emotional pain, he is never outspoken, always silent rather than expressive. Despite his straightforward demeanor, Rambo's inconsistencies and contradictions are many: he always obeys orders, even when he knows they are wrong or malicious; but, afterwards, he returns to kill the man who sent him on his mission. Rambo is expendable to his government, but the film doesn't explain the extent to which he believes he is expendable: Rambo obviously has a breaking-point, but the film's structure, and possibly Sylvester Stallone's acting, prevent the audience from ever learning when or why that threshold is reached. Rambo's character is so thin, and the movie provides so few clues, that the audience never enters the film, but is merely pulled along for the ride. That, in turn, may be Rambo's appeal: it calls for absolutely no intelligence on the part of its viewers. This stripped-down character is the producers' triumph: Rambo is so transparent and un-individualized (which is, itself, his individuality), that he enables a viewer of even the dullest imagination to identify with him. One gets the sense that Rambo could not exist outside of the film: he has no home, no expectations to fulfill, nor any peaceful goals to reach. He exists within the framework of the film and extends no further, not even in the viewer's imagination.

For instance, Rambo is momentarily upset when Co Bao (the local woman assisting his mission) is killed, but his spontaneous reaction to her death quickly merges with his normal battle functions, and he returns to planning and stealth, taking out the enemy in strategic bunches. In any case, Co and Rambo's romance, whatever its absurdity, threatens the static quality of his character in the first place, so the story demands that she die — it could be no other way. Indeed, Co's death gives Rambo a reason for exacting his revenge — disguised as an ambulatory pile of shit. Rambo is the epitome of the perfect killer that Full Metal Jacket's Joker describes: the Marine (or in this case, Green Beret) ideal who is not a killing-machine but, rather, a man who cares nothing about killing. Rambo's "war face" is more frightening than Joker's could ever be.

Rambo, because he is played by Sylvester Stallone, is equated with the cultural icon of Rocky. Rocky Balboa, however, is a certifiable American hero, an underdog ethnic kid from Philadelphia's streets who wins the good fight, in which no one ever really gets hurt. Rocky, furthermore, is a developed character with a wife, a kid, a best friend, an old trainer, a house, and more. Rambo has none of that — First Blood was not nearly the blockbuster that was Rambo, and to many people, this film was their first exposure to the character. John Rambo is the Rocky of the 80s, of the Reagan era — streamlined, simplistic, deadly, and as unconcerned with details and vagaries as was the President. Rambo is just "Rambo," to his friends and to film audiences — why be overly complex and worry about both first and last names? The details of his character — his résumé — are filled-in quickly: service in 'Nam, medic and chopper pilot, escapee from a prison camp — but every one of those items is integral to the film's plot, placed there not for character development but as a tool to lend the film some degree of rational order. Rambo's only friend is Colonel Trautman, a stereotyped Army lifer who is brave, patriotic and unswervingly by-the-book. Their relationship is based on their shared service and the trust they have somehow developed. That is the extent of their friendship and there is no need for anything else: too much more and the secondary character would be more "real" than the star.

Rambo has the silence and impenetrability of The Deer Hunter's Michael, but he is so extreme that he loses the vital contact with reality that Robert DeNiro gives to the role. Though this may merely be Stallone's deficiency as an actor, that cannot be the sole reason: he was able to create a quite compelling and "realistic" figure in Rocky. There are certainly comic-book elements to Rambo's make-up, if comic-book refers to two-dimensionality, a limited characterization, and an exploitation of the medium which is vital in creating a superhuman soldier.

Apocalypse Now's Lieutenant Willard spends much of that film wearing a face whose impenetrability matches Rambo's. But, overall, there is the sense that Willard's mind is working, that he processes information and attempts to remain separate from his surroundings. Rambo, however, never separates himself: it is not that he thinks about something else, he merely has no opinion most of the time, even while gunning down legions of enemy troops.

Marlon Brando's Colonel W.E. Kurtz is another comic-book figure, right down to his shaven, eclipsed head. Kurtz, in contrast to Rambo, however, is stormy and metaphysical: passionate, even if he is hokey, and (relatively) eloquent. Most importantly, Kurtz invites reaction because he reacts to the events in Vietnam. Rambo was in-country for God-knows-how-many years, incarcerated in a prison camp, sees his lover murdered, is crucified and tortured, and finally betrayed by his own country, and he emerges unscathed. Rambo creates a purely one-dimensional figure with no emotional motivations, existing merely to drive the film forward and provide an impetus for the action. Either that, or Rambo is permanently and irrevocably scathed, mainly by a country which doesn't "love [him] as much as [he] loves it." Through this device, Rambo manifests the archetypical blue-collar virtue: expendability as moral correctness. Like the Wild One, Rambo is the heroic loner, one superman fighting against the system, and therefore the perfect fantasy hero of the powerless masses.

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