One of the best known and most popular fictional characters of the 1980s, Rambo was introduced in David Morrell's 1972 novel First Blood with the words, "His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky." Rambo's popularity was due especially to the series of films based on the Rambo character, especially the second film, Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which the hero, played by Sylvester Stallone, symbolically "wins" the Vietnam War. After the humiliation of Vietnam, the disgust over Watergate, and the four-year presidency of the somber, soul-searching Jimmy Carter, America in the 1980s was ready for a change. Throughout that decade, both President Ronald Reagan and Rambo proclaimed the same message: America is back!
In the novel, the character bears little resemblance to Stallone. Rambo is barely out of his teens. He is only six months home from Vietnam, where he served with the elite Special Forces, was captured by the Viet Cong, escaped, and went a little mad in the process. He has let his hair and beard grow, and now hitchhikes aimlessly around the country. In Madison, Kentucky, Rambo runs afoul of the local sheriff, who arrests him for vagrancy. While being forcibly shaved at the local jail, Rambo has a flashback to the war. In a panic, he kills one deputy, wounds another, and escapes to the nearby wilderness. He is soon the focus of a manhunt by a posse of men who have no idea what kind of tiger they have by the tail. Rambo's hard-won guerrilla skills allow him both to avoid capture and to inflict heavy casualties upon his pursuers. The National Guard is eventually brought in but is no match for the former Green Beret. Many deaths later, Rambo kills his enemy, the sheriff, before being shot dead himself—by his former Special Forces commander, Captain Trautman.
The novel was moderately successful, but the story was not filmed until 1981, and a number of changes were made before Stallone would take on the lead role. The biggest change was in the behavior of Rambo. In the film, he is still a Special Forces veteran of Vietnam, but his use of survival skills is much more restrained. In the novel, Rambo kills his pursuers with no thought of mercy; for him, it is war. Stallone's is a kinder, gentler Rambo. He wounds many people, but kills no one directly, and the one death attributable to him is an accident. Clearly, this rewriting stems from a desire to have Rambo conform more closely to the mold of the "good guy" hero, whereas his literary incarnation is more of an anti-hero. The change in the character may also explain why the savagely realistic Rambo of the novel had to die, while Stallone's character lived to fight another day.
That day was three years in coming, but in May 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II burst upon America's movie screens. Rambo is released from prison to undertake a mission for the CIA. Satellite photos suggest that Americans are still being held prisoner in Vietnam. Rambo is to sneak in through the jungle and find out for certain. The tone of the movie is set early when Trautman, Rambo's former commander, comes to get him out of prison and explain the mission. Rambo asks, "Do we get to win this time?" Trautman's reply: "This time it's up to you." Once in Vietnam, Rambo is betrayed by the CIA, captured by the Vietnamese, and tortured by their Russian "advisors." Refusing to break under torture, Rambo escapes, arms himself, and proceeds to slaughter every Vietnamese and Russian soldier in the vicinity. In an interesting reversal of America's role in the Vietnam War, Rambo is now the wily guerrilla, using stealth, guile, and primitive weapons (a knife and longbow) against a large force of well-armed enemies.
The film was a huge success both in the United States and worldwide, earning more than $150 million in its U.S. theatrical release alone. Even President Ronald Reagan praised it. For some, that was a problem: the character of Rambo seemed to represent the kind of kill-the-Commies machismo that had involved the country in Vietnam in the first place—an attitude that also could be said to typify most U.S. foreign policy in the Reagan years.
Rambo III, one of the most expensive movies made up to that time, was released in 1988. Some estimates put the film's budget at a whopping $63 million, with about a quarter of that going to Stallone. In this incarnation, Rambo is seeking tranquility in a Thai monastery when he is visited by his mentor, Trautman. The Green Beret colonel has been given a dangerous assignment: to help Afghan guerrillas fight the Soviet invaders of their country. Trautman asks Rambo to come to Afghanistan with him, but Rambo is tired of war and declines. Trautman undertakes the mission alone and is captured by the evil Russians. Rambo learns of his friend's plight and vows to rescue him. Reaching Afghanistan, Rambo finds Trautman, frees him, and the two then mow down the Russians in an orgy of grunts, explosions, and automatic weapons fire.
To the surprise of many, Rambo III actually lost money, at least in its U.S. release. One reason was its immense budget, but the "Rambo" formula also appeared to be growing stale, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan lacked the kind of emotional resonance for Americans that could be found in the second film's refighting of the Vietnam War.
Rambo also saw action as a Saturday-morning cartoon character, battling such enemies as Russian spies, Arab terrorists, and evil American punk rockers. A number of toy companies were licensed to produce action figures of Rambo and his foes, as well as plastic guns and knives modeled after the weapons used by Stallone's character in the films.
Greenburg, Harvey R. "Dangerous Recuperations: Red Dawn, Rambo, and the New Decaturism." Journal of Popular Film and Television. Vol. 15, No. 2, 1987, 60-70.
Morrell, David. First Blood. New York, M. Evans & Co., 1972.
Walsh, Jeffrey, and James Aulich, editors. Vietnam Images: War and Representation. Hampshire, United Kingdom, Macmillan Press, 1989.
John Rambo was first introduced in the 1972 Vietnam war novel by David Morrell (1943–), First Blood. Rambo has just returned from serving in the Vietnam War (1954–75). While serving with the elite Special Forces, he had been captured by the Viet Cong. He eventually escaped but was psychologically damaged by the experience. Drifting through Kentucky, he is harassed and arrested by a local sheriff. In response, Rambo snaps and reverts to a killing machine, with tragic results.
The novel was moderately successful and became a film in 1981. In the film version, Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone (1946–), is still a Special Forces veteran of Vietnam, but his deadly skills are much more restrained. In the novel, Rambo kills without mercy; for him, it is war. But Stallone's is a kinder, gentler Rambo. He wounds many people, but kills no one, conforming to the mold of the "good guy" hero.
In 1985, Rambo: First Blood Part II sends the hero on a mission for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which believes that American prisoners may remain in Vietnam. Rambo's assignment: sneak in and find out for certain. Once in Vietnam, Rambo is betrayed, captured by the Vietnamese, and tortured by their Russian "advisors." He eventually escapes, to slaughter every Vietnamese and Russian soldier in the vicinity. The film was a huge financial success. For some, however, Rambo represented the kind of "kill-the-Commies" machismo (exaggerated masculinity) that had involved the United States in Vietnam in the first place.
In 1988, Rambo III finds Stallone's character meditating in a Thai monastery, where he is visited by his former commanding officer, Colonel Sam Trautman. The Green Beret colonel has the dangerous mission of helping Afghan guerrillas combat the Soviet invaders of their country. Trautman asks for assistance, but Rambo refuses. Trautman goes in alone and is captured. Rambo rushes to Afghanistan, rescues his friend, and helps him mow down the Russians. Surprisingly, the film lost money, at least in its U.S. release.
A number of toy companies were licensed to produce Rambo action figures, as well as plastic guns and knives modeled after those used in the films. The Rambo character also saw action briefly as a Saturday morning cartoon (see entry under 1960s—TV and Radio in volume 4) character in the 1980s.
For More Information
Morrell, David. First Blood. New York: M. Evans and Co., 1972.
Walsh, Jeffrey, and James Aulich, eds. Vietnam Images: War and Representation. Hampshire, UK: Macmillan Press, 1989.
Rambo ★★ 2008 (R)
Worldweary killing machine John Rambo (Stallone) is back, and this time the body count is higher than ever. Seemingly forgotten by the American military that used him in Vietnam and Afghanistan, Rambo's retired to isolation in the swamps of Thailand, but he's soon sucked back into the life of a mercenary when a group of missionaries recruit him to take them to Myanmar (Burma). Before the group has much time to help the innocents affected by the ongoing civil war, they're kidnapped by Burmese soldiers, and Rambo must swing into action, wiping out anyone in his way in the process. Passable if overthetop action sequences highlight Stallone's freakishly buff 60yearold bod. 93m/C DVD . US Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Ken Howard, Tim Kang, Graham McTavish, Rey Gallegos, Jake La Botz, Maung Maung Khin; D: Sylvester Stallone; W: Sylvester Stallone, Art Montersatelli; C: Glen MacPherson; M: Brian Tyler, Ashley Miller.