Professor's Reviews > First Blood

First Blood by David Morrell
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May 02, 2010

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bookshelves: watched-first
Read from April 26 to May 01, 2010

** spoiler alert ** First Blood is not the book you think it is, but of course, First Blood aka Rambo Part I is not the film most people think it is. Generally when someone says "Rambo" the first thoughts that come to mind are of Rambo: First Blood Part II, the over-the-top 1980s action film where the character of Rambo completed his evolution from the Rambo of the book to the action hero that everyone remembers. The constants of the character are this: Rambo is a tough, skilled Green Beret, who burned out after winning the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam. That may, in fact, be the only similarities from the "re-fights the Vietnam war" character of the first film and the character as he appears in the book.

David Morrell's First Blood contains the germ of the idea that would result in the incredibly popular film series. Rambo is wandering the country as a drifter when he runs into Sheriff Teasle. Teasle is also a decorated veteran (winning the Bronze Star at the Chosin Reservoir in Korean), and is tired of dealing with hippie counter-culture types and makes the mistake of assuming that Rambo, or "the kid" as he calls him, is one of these. When Rambo won't simply take a ride out of town, Teasle books him on vagrancy and resisting arrest. Unfortunately for everyone, Teasle attempts to shave Rambo and cut his hair, triggering his PTSD from his time as a prisoner of the Viet Cong and Rambo attacks, using the razor to kill one of Teasle's deputies. Rambo escapes to the hills of Kentucky, and Teasle foolishly attempts to go it alone, rushing after Rambo so that he can be considered "in pursuit" and retain control of the operation. This is a mistake, as Teasle soon learns. Rambo easily slaughters Teasle's men (and his adopted father), but Teasle escapes. Can a combined State Police/National Guard task force, with the man who devised and oversaw Rambo's training, Colonel Trautman, capture Rambo, and how many more men will die before they do?

The biggest difference between the book and the film is that author David Morrell balances both sides. Teasle makes mistakes and is hardly blameless, but he's not the practically mustache twirling hard-ass of the film. Since Morrell lets us into his head as well as Rambo's we come to understand why he does the things he does; even if he is misguided, we know that there are reasons, and we see the stress he's under. Rambo goes from being a put-upon Vietnam Vet to a genuinely unbalanced killing machine, who is initially hassled not because of Vietnam, but because Teasle thinks he's a hippy! When he gets set off he doesn't "shoot to wound" or set up non-lethal traps, he gets a gun and knocks off tons of cops, shoots dogs, even kills an old man. This is not even the disturbed but almost heroic lead of the first film, and is light years away from the cartoon superhero of the later films. Rambo is a man, gets injured, gets tired and is severely screwed up in the head-thanks to the training and experiences he received in Vietnam. This is a tale of the war, and the training used to fight it, coming home to rural Kentucky, not a diatribe about how we could have one the war if only we'd supported the troops, and it's a much better story for it.

That being said, the film does follow the basic outline of the film, but there are points where the film makes correct decisions and excises some pulpy goofiness. Rambo running away from the jail nude, stealing a motorcycle, and then running through the woods that way, while dramatic, would look quite silly on the screen. The scene where Rambo gets a gun, clothes and food off a moonshiner is not only completely a scene of its time (though a bit ahead of the big "good ole boys racing and selling moonshine" films), its also a bit much. The book definitely needed some trimming and jiggling to work as a film, but the film does much more than that: it completely transformed the message of the book, right down to the ending, which of course left room for a sequel (though truth be told I found the ending of the book to be a bit too over-the-top and suspect the ending for the film that was changed-Rambo kills himself rather than allow himself to be captured-might have been best).

First Blood is worth a read for pulp fans and those who enjoy seeing the evolution of pop culture characters.
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