Forgive me. It’s between semesters and I haven’t been writing about biology much. However, I have been watching as many bad movies as possible…
AMC was crazy about Rambo last month – which was perfect, because I love ‘First Blood.’ It’s 75% of a fantastic film. Then Col. Troutman shows up and the film sags under the weight of Richard Crenna’s “acting” and some pretty poor screenwriting. Whereas the beginning is bouoyed by Stallone’s tight-lipped grimness and because Dennehy actually can act.
This film was released in 1982. That’s just nine years after the US ended its involvement in Vietnam. And it’s a challenge to remember what it was like back when this war/ conflict was still a recent, palpable memory. The returning vets were having a hell of a time adjusting to and re-entering a society that opposed the war so vehemently that they eventually mixed up political opposition with personal rejection of its US victims, the Vets themselves. Contrast this to how WWII vets returned to a celebration of ticker-tape parades and the end of a nation that went to war with its soldiers, making sacrifices and experiencing the war at home just as it was on the fronts. WWII soldiers were heroes that America embraced and did all it could to bring back into American life. It was a war against evil, and America was in it 100%.
Vietnam, on the other hand, was a war of ideas – abstract ideas – Capitalism vs Communism, fought on a real battlefield by pawns of their governments. At home, the war was being played on television and young people did not like what they were watching.
… And there was the draft. It was no fantasy for kids at home to imagine being in the jungle fighting a war they didn’t understand against enemies they knew nothing about. If nothing else, the draft brought the country together knowing that it could be anyone’s number up next. Fighting evil is one thing, fighting a difference in opinion about how to manage the financial resources of a country is another thing altogether.
With this in mind, the young people in the US rebelled: They protested, burned draft cards and wrote protest songs. Over time opposition to the war gained strength and lent legitimacy to the protester’s arguments and bred distrust of the government.
The effect this had on the veteran population is difficult to assess.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn’t officially recognized until 1980 and veteran suicide rates were not officially tracked prior to the Vietnam era.1 So there’s no data from WWII vets – which would have been a perfect control population of veterans who returned to a welcoming country.
In a study of Vietnam veterans vs veterans from the same era who did not serve in Vietnam, there was a significant increase in deaths due to ‘external causes’, meaning non-illness. This includes motor vehicle accidents, suicide and homicide. The greatest difference was found in the first five years after discharge (see below)
A United States Department of Veterans Affairs report estimates that 830,000 Vietnam War veterans suffer(ed) symptoms of PTSD compared with 207,161 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.2
All of this is just to provide some background into the psyche of veterans at the time. In First Blood, John Rambo is a returning green beret, war hero and congressional medal of honor winner with a body and mind ravaged by the war and the horrors of a POW experience. Sly Stallone does a great job with the role – he looks the part: muscular, downtrodden and sullen with bottled rage simmering under a façade of cool. John Dennehy is a bastard Sheriff for the small town in Hope, Washington (no message there) hell bent on keeping riff raff like Rambo out. He starts cruel and unsympathetic and then matures into downright vengeful and vindictive.
Despite only spending ten or fifteen minutes to develop characters, the audience gets the point quickly and can’t help rooting for Stallone right from the start. From that point in the movie on, we’re fed a constant stream of action in pure, pre-CGI style. Bones might break and crunch, but we’re not thrust into seeing every detail… which, by the way, is the entirety of the most recent Rambo film which was obviously thrown together just to take advantage of Stallone’s bulking up for Rocky Balboa.
I might poke fun, but I love the ride this film takes us on. We get to watch Rambo struggle and improvise in the forested mountains above town as he hides out and picks off his hunters one by one. I can’t help but think that this is exactly what MacGyver would have been like if he was a badass with PTSD.
Then, there’s an abrupt shift. As if the original writer was fired and a hack was brought in to tie things up with a series of big explosions and a final face-off between Rambo and the Sheriff. It’s crap. Not to mention that the total destruction of the town kind of makes you think that Dennehy was right to try to keep him out in the first place.
But that’s not the worst of it. The worst comes when Rambo breaks down sobbing to the ridiculously stilted acting of his former commander, Col. Troutman, the man who tells us that ‘God didn’t make Rambo, I did.’ I enjoy several of his scenes just because watching an accident is not something people can control, but it goes way, way, WAY too far. Something about Johnny not having legs… whatever. Too much story.
So, let’s sum it up…
First Blood is fun to watch. +1
You don’t need to feel compelled to watch the whole thing. +1
The setting is amazing, beautiful and as realistic a place as one could ever imagine this story taking place. +1
You might stop to think a bit about how we run our government, how we run our wars and how we treat our veterans. +1
The acting is really hit or miss. +1/-1
There’s some truly awful screenwriting at times. -1
Overall, that comes to +3 by my account. Not bad.