“You’re always going to be tearing away at yourself until you come to terms with who you are…Until you come full circle.” So says the disembodied voice of Col. Trautman (the late Richard Crenna), super-soldier John Rambo’s mentor, in a nightmare sequence from Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo. In this long-delayed fourth episode in the action franchise, our gravel-voiced angel of death rouses himself from his isolationist torpor long enough to guide Christian missionaries upriver to deliver medicine to oppressed villagers in the Union of Myanmar (here called Burma), then leads mercenaries to the same village to rescue the kidnapped Christians. The hero’s dream occurs during an introverted lull in the action—one of those inevitable, oddly charming moments when Rambo contemplates not getting involved. (Like we paid ten bucks to watch him sit on his ass and mope.) Minutes later, Rambo hammers red-hot metal against an anvil and comes to a voice-over realization: “You know what you are… What you’re made of… War is in your blood. You didn’t kill for your country. You killed for yourself.”
Since the character of John Rambo is, and always has been, kind of a lethal everyman—Pauline Kael once called him “our national palooka”—killing for one’s country versus killing for oneself is, in this context, a distinction without a difference. The important part of Rambo’s monologue precedes the capper: “War is in your blood.”
For all of Rambo’s enjoyably absurd superheroics and chunks-a-flyin’ combat scenes—not to mention its nostalgic spectacle of a Reagan-era action hero shredding hundreds of greasy louts—it’s that phrase, more than anything else, that lingers in the mind: War is in your blood. Read it, hear it, memorize it—and don’t be surprised to see it on bumper stickers or T-shirts after Rambo has left theaters, and newspaper critics have all had to write pieces explaining why this supposed liver-spotted relic of a film made so much money. Like its three predecessors, Rambo strikes a nerve, and it’s not a nerve that America’s left-leaning critical establishment wants struck. Cowritten and directed by Stallone, the fourth Rambo movie is a bracingly political picture—as much an argument in movie form as No End In Sight; a pro-interventionist rebuttal to all the 2007 documentaries and dramas about America losing bits of its soul in Iraq. The I-word is never spoken in Rambo, yet in its coded way, the film makes a case for why we are in Iraq and should stay there until the job is done, whenever that may be.
As in a dream, the film’s characters and situations represent many different ideas at once—and given Stallone’s long track record as a meat-and-potatoes filmmaker who believes in whatever sells and who never acknowledges cliches as cliches, it’s fair to assume he’s being imprecise rather than complicated. (Think of the scene in the second movie where Rambo smooches his lovely Vietnamese female guide near an idyllic waterfall, and she gets shot the instant their lips unlock—a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker moment played straight.) Yet the end product is still a potent stew, with a sharp pro-interventionist flavor. Arriving five years into America’s occupation of Iraq, on the cusp of a presidential election that could determine whether the U.S. stays indefinitely or leaves as soon as possible, its timing is impeccable. It’s a Stay the Course movie, an inspirational blood-and-guts action flick whose message seems aimed equally at the portion of the American left that wants to see democracy spread, but not in this way, and that supposedly has no stomach for war; and that growing sector of the American right that views Iraq as noble crusade led by incompetents. [Editor’s Note: Spoilers Galore]
This Rambo, more than any previous entry, makes a point of showing what happens when you don’t get involved: the goons that rule Myanmar countryside massacre hapless villagers, rape their women, shoot animals and small children point-blank, make prisoners race through mine-strewn rice paddies for sport, and conscript preadolescent boys at gunpoint. (Stallone establishes his journalistic bona fides with an opening montage of real-life atrocity footage that includes a shot of a child burying an adult’s severed head. Fox News pilloried Brian De Palma for doing this in Redacted; somehow I doubt they’ll raise similar objections here.) Then Stallone shows what happens when you try to change the world through compassion: the missionary medics ask Rambo to take them into Myanmar to help ethnic Karen rebels persecuted by the country’s goon squads. Rambo refuses until the group’s moral figurehead, Sarah (Julie Benz), engages him in a dialogue about ideals and how best to achieve them. Rambo accuses her of “trying to change what is.” Later, upon learning that the missionaries brought no weapons, Rambo declares, “Then you aren’t changing anything.”
The deeper Rambo and the God folk travel upriver, the scarier things get, but the newly-arrived Americans never turn back because “we made a commitment” (a line spoken twice in the film). But without lethal force to back it, the missionaries’ good intentions are limp-dick useless. These Ned Flanders-types are terrorized by a bandit army led by a Saddam manque—a chain-smoking tinpot dictator with mirrored shades and a creepy mustache. (Unlike Saddam, he’s gay.) Soon enough, the Americans are captured, tortured, imprisoned, strung up by their arms and gnawed by flesh-eating boars. Sweet blond Sarah is trapped in a muddy bamboo cage and leered at by thugs, her terrified expression backed by the offscreen squealing of pigs. (Rambo ultimately saves her from her own personal rape room—but several unlucky brown-skinned dancers aren’t so blessed.) The group’s church hires an ethnically and nationally mixed band of mercenaries to extract the Christians, but at various points, many of them (but especially the group’s leader, a Brit) suffer attacks of doubt and fear and argue in favor of turning back. Rambo won’t let them. He’ll go it alone if he has to—but he doesn’t have to. This world-in-microcosm responds to Rambo’s humble moral certitude and fathomless resolve. The snotty Brit leader sticks it out till the end and kicks ass with one good leg. Even Sarah’s best friend, the stridently pacifist Burnett (Paul Schulze, who played Father Phil on The Sopranos), renounces pacifism, grabs a stone and makes like David. Out with the New Testament, in with the Old.
Message to Neo-hippies, Christian pacifists and anyone who thinks there’s a humanitarian or diplomatic route to a more peaceful world: join reality, arm yourself, and keep fighting until you win. “Nothing is over!” Rambo bellowed in the first installment. “Nothing! You don’t just turn it off!” “You’ve got a choice,” Rambo growls in the fourth film, pointing the tip of a fully drawn arrow at the forehead of a selfish fellow soldier who wants to cut and run. “Die for something… or live for nothing.”
I can’t think of another blockbuster action franchise that has been so unabashedly right wing in its world view. The original Rambo picture, 1982’s First Blood—based on David Morrell’s engrossing 1971 novel—gives no obvious hint of where the series would eventually go. It’s one of the most accomplished action films of the 1980s, a have-it-both-ways thriller with a persecuted prole hero that pretty much any viewer, from Ralph Nader to Pat Buchanan, could cheer. For much of the film’s running time, Rambo comes across as the latest incarnation of The Man Pushed Too Far—a police-brutality-victimized drifter terrorizing the small town cops and soft-bellied National Guardsmen that mistook him for a smelly hippie. The film is fundamentally left-wing in its conception. But in its final scene—Rambo’s post-rampage meltdown in Trautman’s presence—it makes a sharp right turn. The hero weeps about being called a “baby killer and all kinds of vile crap” by protestors, and says he only did what he needed to do to win—but “Somebody wouldn’t let us win!”
The sequel, the P.O.W. rescue fantasy Rambo: First Blood Part II, was more politically specific and divisive. Co-scripted by Stallone and James Cameron, the film invested Rambo with a Terminator-like resilience, and drew emotional force from the even more indestructible right-wing canard that the United States lost the Vietnam War because somebody or something (tie-died hippies, spineless politicians, the media, the bureaucrats, the sun that was in our eyes) wouldn’t “let us win.” (Vietnam was lost, morally if not logistically, from the instant the Johnson administration fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident as a pretext for sending in regular Army troops—and perhaps, as the French might suggest, long before that.) When Trautman offers Rambo his new mission, Rambo asks, “Do we get to win this time?” Rambo doesn’t literally re-fight the war, as the film’s detractors were fond of claiming; the film’s action is confined to a P.O.W. camp and the surrounding jungle. But this, too, proves a distinction without a difference. By liberating long-imprisoned P.O.W.s—a group whose emaciated, Christlike leader blesses Rambo in the film’s finale with a silent glance and a hand raised as if to heal—the hero confirms America’s moral rightness in Vietnam, and frees the idealistic, impetuous, ass-kicking part of the American character held hostage for 10 years by the memory of Army choppers fleeing the Saigon embassy. (Five-and-a-half years after the release of Rambo: First Blood, Part II, the U.S. led an international coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait; after withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and declaring victory, then-president George H.W. Bush announced, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”)
Rambo III, which sent Rambo to Afghanistan to rescue the kidnapped Col. Trautman and waste oodles of Reds, seemed only half-aware of the irony of its plot: the former Green Beret, a counterinsurgent trained to kill Vietcong and North Vietnamese army regulars on behalf of baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet, finds himself embedded (so to speak) with the same sort of people he’d been trained to exterminate: aggrieved peasants trying to expel a high-tech occupier. But aside from poignant reaction shots of Rambo regarding his mujahaddeen colleagues (which establish little more than Rambo’s respect for fellow warriors) there’s nothing to indicate awareness, on the part of Rambo or the movie, of the hero’s politically intriguing, karmically apt situation. Rambo (and by extension, we) are placed safely on the side of the American-backed good guys. As in the second film, which sees Trautman promise the hero a pardon for the mayhem he wreaked in First Blood, Rambo picks up the old compound bow and goes to Afghanistan for personal, emotional reasons.
Or does he? In the Rambo films, as in so many blood-and-guts action pictures, the hero’s reason for killing is more a pretext—a means of talking himself into a course of action that he secretly wanted, perhaps needed, to embark on anyway. Rambo’s a much finer human being than he lets on. All three sequels include a moment when the hero’s sullen, fuck-you-for-pushing-me attitude gives way to appalled fury: think of the sequence in Rambo III when the Soviets attack his peasant hosts, or the moment in First Blood, Part II when he sees the starving, tormented P.O.W.’s in the flesh, reports his findings, busts out the prisoners and is abandoned by American helicopters at the extraction point. (Trautman later learns that Rambo was sent to that camp because the C.I.A. assumed it was empty, and assumed he would return with pictures of empty cages and give the American government permission to wipe its hands of Vietnam for good. Here, as in the original war, Rambo can’t win because someone won’t let him win.) Rambo the Fourth goes one giant step further: this time Rambo unleashes his rage not in response to humiliation, betrayal or an oath of friendship, but after a process of moral reasoning assisted by his subconscious. The anvil soliloquy is Rambo’s “to be or not to be,” after which he resolves to take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end the fuckers. Rambo’s big realization is that he does what he does because it’s what he was put on earth to do. He always resists being tricked or coerced into battle, but once he’s there, he commits. He’s a good American that way. The world is Casablanca; he’s Ripped Blaine.
Speaking of Bogart’s selfish-turned-selfless hero, the spectre of World War II looms over the whole franchise. This truth becomes self-evident in the fourth film not simply because of the politics and aesthetics of Sly, but because Rambo arrives amid a still-ongoing war that’s characterized by its architects and partisans as another World War II, and by its opponents as Vietnam in the sand. When you watch the sagging but still formidable hero tear-assing through the bush, his lethal proficiency ennobled by the late Jerry Goldsmith’s mournful score, you get a rush of feeling that’s more than moviegoer’s deja vu; it’s the sensation of mistakenly believing that you were having a dream, then realizing you’re awake and it’s all really happening. Here we are again in Stallone’s imagination—but this time the fantasy is not confined to the screen.
All in all, the second and third Rambo movies weren’t so much anti-commie as pro-intervention—and nostalgic for the four brief, shining years, 1941-45, when it was acceptable to put such attitudes into action. In the second and third Rambo pictures, the hero wasn’t merely revising the Vietnam war and heating up the Cold war, he was dramatizing a collective desire for another World War II—the last American war in which the vast majority of citizens, and a fair portion of the world, believed from start to finish that we were in the right. The Vietnamese in the second Rambo film read as Japanese; their poster boy is a bespectacled dork that looks like the character that came out of the bushes and surprised Gilligan. The effete, swaggering Russians in the second and third films are Nazis without the swastikas. The military prisons featured in II and III bear more relation, respectively, to a Japanese P.O.W. camp and a German castle keep than to the real-world 1980s structures they represent.
Stallone’s understanding of the American imagination is reductive, but it’s not wrong. The collective longing to relive The Good War has been handed from generation to generation like the gold watch in Pulp Fiction. This nostalgic fantasy is so overwhelming that for days and weeks and years following 9/11, Americans grasped after images that seemed to confirm that the period we’d been jolted into was “our” World War II. (Arguably the most iconic photo from 9/11 is Thomas Franklin’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated snapshot of firefighters raising an American flag at Ground Zero—an act and a record of an act that are as much homages to the Greatest Generation as Saving Private Ryan. “As soon as I shot it, I realized the similarity to the famous image of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima,” Franklin told Poynter Online.) Seventeen years after the last Gulf war, 20 years after the last Rambo movie, 40 years after Tet and 70 years after Hitler rolled into Czechoslovakia, here we are again—fighting either cynically scapegoated Others or Nazis in head scarves, depending on your politics—because, as Rambo confirms, it’s what we do, and what we were meant to do. However we got into this mess, we’re in it, and now we have to win it. Pain is weakness leaving the body. These colors don’t run. The surge is working.
Rambo is America’s undying warrior spirit made flesh—a human incarnation of the “sleeping giant” that Japanese admiral Yamamoto claimed had been awakened by Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. By defining Rambo this way, and pitting him against murderous, torturing, decadent Others who, unlike Rambo (and us), have no code, no sense of decency, no humanity, this series aims to show that our nation is right even when it’s wrong, and that it makes war because it is a righteous warrior nation in a barbarian world. The warrior spirit is America’s defining trait, the double helix from which the rest of its character is built. We’ve come full circle.