As I was heading off to my first day of elementary school, my father said, “If they ask you your religion, tell them you're a member of the Church of the Holy Gun.”
It was a joke, of course. But not entirely.
I grew up in a gun shop in New Hampshire. Or, more accurately, I grew up in a house with a gun shop attached to it. I was never baptized, but I was given a life membership in the National Rifle Association when I was born. My first substantial birthday present was a .22 rifle my father built for me when I was three. Other kids always wanted to come over to my house to play Cowboys & Indians because we got to use real guns from my father's box of broken pistols and revolvers. By the summer of 1985, I was nine years old and my father had just gotten a license to sell machine guns.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (which I've always just called Rambo II) was one of the first R-rated movies I ever got to watch. I don't remember if my father took me to see it at our local movie theater or if I watched it when he rented the videotape later. I expect it was the latter, but it feels in my memory more like the former—going out to see a movie was a big event in my family, much like the sequence in The 400 Blows where Antoine and his parents go to see a movie and for the time they're under the spell of the celluloid dreamworld, it takes no effort to smile.
Rambo II offered not just entertainment, but lessons. In our house, my father would turn on the evening news at 6.30 and we'd watch it through dinner while he talked at the politicians, telling them what they were doing wrong. Ronald Reagan, our dear leader, had once, on a campaign stop in my home town, patted me on the head, a story I was told repeatedly when I was young, as if somehow the touch of the one true and good politician could ensure that I would become a real man.
The cold war was still alive and well, and two facets of it in particular held not only my father's interest, but the nation's: the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the civil war in Nicaragua. In his 1985 State of the Union Address, President Reagan said, “We must stand by all our democratic allies. And we must not break faith with those who are risking their lives—on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua—to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth.” After denouncing the Sandinista government as an evil dictatorship, he said, “Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.”
Reagan brought us a new morning in a new America, an America that was not like the dark and pitiful one that had failed so terribly in Vietnam. Reagan was a savior to people who felt Vietnam remained an open wound, and Rambo was right there beside him. In the opening minutes of Rambo II, Sylvester Stallone asks Richard Crenna, “Sir, do we get to win this time?” and Crenna replies, “That's up to you.”
The wars of the 1980s were not wars the U.S. supported only because of anti-Soviet fervor. There was that, and Hollywood occasionally reflected it—Red Dawn, from the summer of '84, was a sacred text in our house, and my father continually impressed on me how realistic it was, especially the scene where the invading Russians go to confiscate the Form 4473s from gun dealers to learn who owns what weapons.
But there was also the need to feel good about the U.S. as a militaristic country. With our military spending making up nearly half of the entire world's in 1985, we needed to feel righteous again.
The famous, award-winning war movies of the 1970s that focused on Vietnam were full of conflicted characters, men riddled with guilt and pain, people for whom Vietnam was a hallucination into hearts of darkness, a scar of dishonor, the pure product of sociopathic insanity where those who survived remained one Russian roulette game away from the oblivion they felt they deserved. These were serious films, dark films, films for night and nightmares.
Halfway through the '80s, President Reagan had ushered in a brighter day. No more shame, no more guilt. We were on the side of freedom, and freedom was worth fighting for.
The POW/MIA issue was a perfect engine to drive us toward a reconfiguration of how we understood the Vietnam war. Even gung-ho conservatives like my father (who had been just a little too old to be forced to serve in the war, and who had fled his service in the National Guard as soon as he could, because following orders was never something he had much talent for) didn't have a whole lot of faith that the war had been fought for great reasons. It wasn't like World War II, that unimpeachable struggle between the forces of light and darkness. It had been hard to find larger-than-life heroes to carry the narrative of Vietnam out of the jungles and into the living rooms of America.
In 1982, James “Bo” Gritz, the most decorated Green Beret who served in the war, secured funding from Ross Perot and led a group of mercenaries back to Cambodia in search of living prisoners of war. He didn't find any, but he grabbed plenty of headlines, and, according to David Niewert, partly inspired George Peppard's character of Colonel “Hannibal” Smith on The A-Team, one of only a few TV shows I watched faithfully as a child (the others were CHiPS, The Dukes of Hazzard and Fraggle Rock).
Bo Gritz went on to be a darling of racist far-right conspiracy mongers, but for a little while he was the geist of the zeit, and the John Rambo who appears in Rambo II is the love-child of Gritz and Superman. He not only goes back to Vietnam, but within moments of landing in the jungle, he finds living prisoners.
Rambo II is a movie filled almost entirely with enemies. Gritz's conspiracy delusions are easy to see even in Stallone's fantasy version of him—Rambo is a character who is thwarted at every step by people who can only be described by a thesaurus entry: lying, untruthful, dishonest, deceitful, false, dissembling, insincere, disingenuous, hypocritical, fraudulent, double-dealing, two-faced, two-timing, duplicitous, perfidious, perjured; antonym: truthful. Early in the film, Rambo says to Col. Trautman (Crenna), “You're the only one I trust,” and both that trust and his distrust of everyone else is revealed to be utterly justified—it turns out he's been sent back to Vietnam to a camp where the military thinks no POWs are. The politicians want him to show the world that the camp is empty so that the war can be, along with its warriors, finally forgotten. When Rambo is spotted running with one of the prisoners, the commander who sent him into the jungle orders the rescue mission to abort, and once again the grunts are abandoned by their country. It's up to Rambo to fix it.
Two fantasies are at play here—a fantasy in which Gritz and the other POW/MIA activists were not only correct in their belief that lots of American soldiers had been left behind but also successful at finding them; and a fantasy in which Vietnam really was a winnable war if it was done right. Do we get to win this time? Yes, because this time we've got Rambo.
But Rambo is more than just the Avenger of Vietnam. He's also Natty Bumppo and Tarzan, the man who lives best outside civilization, the man whose superpowers come from mixing the best of the “savage” world with the natural superiority of the white man. He can't live in the United States any more than Tarzan can stay in Wisconsin; he's too pure, too truly, archetypally American for the fallen world the US of A has become since those perfect days of 1776. His final act, after killing hordes of undifferentiated Vietnamese and scheming Russians (thus avenging the failures of the Vietnam War and furthering the cause of the Cold War at the same time), is to return to base and blow away a room full of computer terminals with an M60E3 heavy machine gun. These are the computers that the (lying, untruthful, dishonest, etc.) Murdock had told Rambo were the best technology available, and thus the best weapons, to which Rambo said, “I always believed the mind is the best weapon.” Murdock replied, “Times change,” and Rambo muttered, “For some people.” The Vietnam War was screwed up by the technocrats, it's a living wound for Rambo, and so long as the wound remains open and the heroism of the soldiers—who survived on wits and brawn—remains unrecognized, their sacrifices unavenged, time cannot move forward without that very movement being a betrayal.
The computers are inhuman, the people who run them their servants, weak and hypnotized. These computers are bulky, beeping boxes, like set decorations discarded from a Flash Gordon serial, and they come equipped with human operators who never look away from them, who never see the actual world they are sitting in. They have theories, they have measurements, but it's very clear they do not have the truth. Again and again, faces are reflected in screens and the light of screens dances over faces until finally, after Rambo has shot an M72 LAW through the windshield of his Huey helicopter into the Soviet helicopter that has come down to see if he's survived the crash, we see Rambo's face through the broken glass, and then a reverse shot of the burning Russians from his POV. It reveals and it foreshadows—nothing gets between Rambo and reality, though sometimes he has to play dead to lure the bad guys down into his vengeance.
Because he rejects computers does not mean Rambo rejects technology. His mind is pure, but his hands are aided by weapons he and the camera revere, the tools that are an extension of his own perfection. An early sequence intercuts shots of Murdock and the computers with shots of Rambo preparing himself for battle. Trautman calls him “a pure fighting machine with only a desire to win a war that someone else lost.” (The fighting machine—Rambo as cyborg.) Moments later, after Trautman has said, “What you choose to call hell, he calls home,” and after a few brief shots of a jet engine and the plane itself being fueled (the machine, warming up), we cut to Rambo's sweaty, muscled shoulder. It's an abstract image in the first frames, a curve of shiny skin surrounded by darkness. The camera flows over the skin as the arm moves rhythmically back and forth, the veins like hard wire, a slash of white light contrasting the flesh to the darkness—and then we see The Knife as it moves rhythmically across a whetstone.
During the longest conversation in the film (and the quietest, most relaxed moment), Rambo is on a boat with his partner in Vietnam, Co Bao, played by Julia Nickson speaking with a lightly British accent minus all articles and occasional verbs, like Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane impersonating Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan. Rambo asks her about the jade necklace she wears. “It bring me good luck,” she says. “What bring you good luck?” He holds up his knife, looks at it, and replies, with the closest thing to a smile we see in the whole film, “I guess this.”
The Knife is a powerful totem in Rambo II. Later, during an extended torture scene, it will not only be used against Rambo—heated in a fire until its tip is white hot, then drawn across his cheek—but it will briefly be held by the devilish Russian commander (played by Steven Berkoff) like an erect penis jutting sharply, threateningly from his pants. It is, indeed, Rambo's manhood, his source of power, and while it is in enemy hands, he is at his weakest.
But that lets him becomes Jesus on the cross. We've seen Jesus once before here when Rambo first laid eyes on the camp and saw a POW strung up half-naked on a giant bamboo X. Soon, Rambo himself is tied to bamboo, his arms above him, sunk in leech-filled mud. When the Soviets arrive, Rambo is pulled up (he is risen!), naked except for a nearly-inconspicuous loincloth. Soon after, he gets his own passion play, strapped to an electrified rack, not quite as bloodied as Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson's godly gore-fest, but just as holy. He is our redeemer.
Like Popeye, though, Rambo can't become a full superhero until he gets his spinach, and Rambo's spinach is lonely rage. He's rescued from his crucifixion by Co Bao, who creates enough of a distraction for Rambo to get The Knife back and be empowered once again. And in the bright light of resurrection he and the perfect woman (she can handle a gun, but never questions his righteousness and authority) share a kiss. Perhaps they dreamed of getting out of Vietnam and going on vacation to Alaska and shooting wolves from helicopters, but whatever they dreamed, it can't come true—Rambo is code-named Lone Wolf, after all, and his is the kiss of doom. Vulnerability and sensitivity are punished with immediate pain, as Co Bao is shot to smithereens and dies in Rambo's arms, bathed in light that might have been borrowed from Thomas Kincaid. Her last words: “Rambo…you…can't…forget…me!” It's true, he can't, he won't, for he is not just The Avenger, but The Rememberer. Co Bao now shares the status of the Vietnam War for him: the lost cause, the pure hope destroyed, and That Which Must Never Be Forgotten.
Cut to Murdock the Mendacious threatening to arrest Trautman the Trusted for daring to suggest Rambo and the POWs be rescued. Murdock now thinks he's winning, and his words to Trautman reiterate a revelation: “Like you said, Colonel, he went home.” Jump cut to THE TRANSFORMATION.
The Knife thrusts into its sheath. The hand that holds it is muddy, wet. Rain pours down on a medium shot of Rambo's back, his rippled arms raised to tie a bandana onto his head. Though the movie up till this moment has followed his face, its suspicious and stoic gaze, now we see only Rambo's back.
Co Bao had seemed closer to a Hollywood American Indian than a woman from Vietnam, and she suffered the fate of the Good Injun, killed by people who looked like her and not our hero. Rambo now takes on the role of the Savage Injun, animalistic, brutal, and no matter the setting, central to the great American myth, for it is a figure that is both attractive and repelling to Hollywood's dream of a general audience, a character impressive for its power, but also threatening because of its bestial connection to nature. We know he is not truly a Savage Injun, for his blood is still the pure, good blood of the white man, and so we know he will shed the savage like Dr. Bruce Banner, when he calms, sheds the Hulk. But it is the power of the bestial connection that Rambo needs to accomplish his fate and inflict his fury.
There is no hesitation, no weakness. He moves silently through the jungle, a force of destruction first against the Soviet soldiers, then the Vietnamese. He is silent and invisible. He molds the Earth around him—the landscape itself is his weapon, and he is an extension of it. He reaches out of the darkness like a deadly vine to pull one victim down into a crevice. He vanishes into the mud, like Predator or Swamp Thing. His bullets reach out from everywhere, and they never miss their mark. But bullets aren't enough—he has saved his exploding arrow tips, and now they fly through the air, bringing immense plumes of fire to all the heretics. Water and fire dance throughout these scenes, culminating in a sequence at a waterfall where a Vietnamese soldier shoots ineffectively at Rambo and then is vaporized by the Arrow of God. The build-up is slow and deliberate. We know what will happen, and we revel in the expectation with each image: the arrow strung, the bow drawn, the soldier's panic-stricken face, Rambo's calm and focused eyes. We know what will happen, and we know it is the right thing, the true thing. And then the arrow is released. Lacking an identity as anything except The Enemy, the Vietnamese soldier becomes, for one glorious moment, The Exploding Gook.
And then the commie copter descends. Rambo runs in slo-mo with the waterfall his only background until the fire-breath of a bomb obliterates the water and reaches toward him. We never suspect he will be slowed or stopped, because we know he is undefeatable now. Our pleasure is not the pleasure of suspense, but the pleasure of release, of expectations met, of unencumbered strength wiping out absolute evil.
This is a movie that began with the white, orgasmic explosion of rocks in the quarry of the work prison where Rambo had been locked up by an uncomprehending bureaucracy, and now it reaches its full climax as plumes of fire purify the land and its memory.
The effect remains alluring. The scenes, despite how much I revile their morality and politics, still bring shivers to my spine, gooseflesh to my own so un-Rambo arms. No matter the tortured screams of my inner pacifist, the archetype of the individual laying waste to forces of evil remains gripping.
The power fantasy is powerful for me, yes, but much more so for people like my father. It was not an archetype for him, but rather a yearning. For me, born the autumn following the capture of Saigon, the Vietnam War is history, the Cold War a vague memory, but for my father they were ever-present events that shaped his life and consciousness.
Rambo was our pope in the Church of the Holy Gun.
There is a sadness to the figure of the lone wolf, but it's a sentimental sadness, for it relies on a belief that things cannot be otherwise if they are to be pure. It was, I'm sure, a comforting sadness for my father, who so often felt besieged and betrayed by a world that was, he was sure, designed to oppose him. The pain in a martyr complex is exquisite and euphoric, something to live for—They are against me, and I must bear my cross. For the paranoid, martyrdom is always a second away. Dreams of apocalypse are alluring—part of my father desperately wanted the Russkies to bring their Red Dawn, because it would free him from the quotidian, messy drudge of his life and give him a stage on which to enact the heroism he knew had been stolen from him, the glory he had been denied. Stolen by whom, denied by what, that was not important. It was Them, and there was always a Them. The Russians, the Vietnamese, the bureaucrats in Washington. All the same. Politicians were as evil as Commies, especially the Democrats, those weasly weaklings whose greatest desire, my father knew, was to steal the tools of his masculinity, his guns and knives.
Almost exactly a year after Rambo II was released, the U.S. Congress passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which included the Hughes Amendment, severely restricting and taxing access to machine guns by civilians. I remember the day. I came home from school and my father was watching C-SPAN and radiating rage. The Murdocks of the world were winning. Their goal was the same as the Russians and the Vietcong and the Sandinistas: they wanted to destroy us.
Almost exactly two years after the Hughes Amendment passed, Rambo III hit the theaters. This time, Rambo was even more of a superhero and even more a phallic extension of Ronald Reagan's freedom fighter wet dream. When the movie arrived at our local theatre, my father brought me to see it along with a bunch of my friends. The Iran-Contra scandal had broken, the Berlin Wall was still a year away from falling, and we needed to visit church again. Rambo III wasn't a movie, it was a revival show.
In the next decade, I would become an apostate, but no one who has ever been a devout member of a church ever really gets to leave. When my father died suddenly in 2007, I was living in New Jersey, the state represented in the 1980s by the man who gave us the Hughes Amendment, William J. Hughes, a politician who first entered the House of Representatives in the year I was born, ten years before the summer of '85, and who shared my birthday.
I am an only child and my parents were divorced when I was 20, which meant I inherited the gun shop. I returned to New Hampshire to figure it all out, to live in the house again, to sort through what my father had left behind. I went through an F.B.I. background check and inherited my father's Federal Firearms License so I could sell off the inventory. The only things I couldn't sell were the machine guns, because my father had, a few years back, given up the expensive Class III license and moved back to selling less regulated firearms. He kept some machine guns for himself, including the first he'd owned and the first I remember shooting: a Heckler & Koch MP5—the submachine gun that Rambo carries with him when he parachutes into Vietnam at the beginning of Rambo II.
I was, briefly, tempted to keep the MP5 for myself; I've shot very few other guns where the first word that comes to my mind is elegant. Even to a pinko faggot like me, it's a beautiful object, an extraordinary piece of machinery.
While watching Rambo II again, I realized that during my childhood I shot most of the guns used in the film, and many of them were weapons my father had owned. The M60 I shot at a machine gun shoot where a bunch of folks got together in a sandpit and blasted away at old appliances and a couple of wrecked Datsuns. The guy who owned the M60 would let anybody shoot it who was willing to pay for ammo. As a present, my father bought me some rounds. The rifle sat, well supported, on the ground. Sighting it, the whole thing felt like it was longer than me, and it might well have been. I couldn't imagine how anybody could be strong enough to shoot the gun while standing up—the recoil from shooting it on the ground was stunning, its power literally breathtaking. For a moment, I could almost envision myself as Rambo.
I was never going to become Rambo, though. I had tried to be interested in my father's passions while I was young, but they never took hold. Worse, it was pretty clear from high school on that uncomplicated heterosexuality was not my schtick, though the lone wolf mythos penetrated deeper than any desire for longtime companionship could (Lone Wolf McQuade, starring Chuck Norris, was another favorite film of my early years).
I was always fated to leave the church, but, as lapsed Catholic friends tell me, the church never leaves you.
While writing this essay, I received word that the last of my father's machine guns, a beautiful old Thompson, had sold. A few hours later, I learned that a Probate Court judge had, at my request, issued the order that my father's estate is now closed.
My own little Church of the Holy Gun has shut its doors. The celluloid icons, though, still gleam red, white, and blue. I can live day by day, but I can never forget.
Matthew Cheney is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies, a regular columnist for the online magazine Strange Horizons, and a blogger known as The Mumpsimus. He currently teaches English and women's studies at Plymouth State University.