There’s an old Roman proverb that reads “homo homini lupus.” In English, this roughly translates to “man is a wolf to man” — no one is crueler to humankind than humankind itself.
“Rambo: First Blood” exemplifies this attitude of cruelty quite well. It’s a regular “Heart of Darkness” with an important wrinkle: this one takes place in the audience’s backyard.
The movie follows Sylvester Stallone as the titular John Rambo, a former Green Beret and Vietnam War hero turned homeless vagabond, wandering the Pacific Northwest in search for a now-dead member of his platoon. After being kicked out of a small town by its Sheriff, Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), Rambo returns and is arrested for vagrancy.
While being mistreated by Deputy Art Galt (Jack Starrett), Rambo has a flashback to his time as a prisoner of war and attacks the officers, escaping and starting a guerilla war in the forest by the small town. After the death of Galt, who Rambo accidentally kills in self defense, the State Police, National Guard, and Rambo’s former commanding officer Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) all arrive to try and capture him — or, in the case of the Colonel, to try and protect the police from Rambo.
“Rambo: First Blood” was released in 1982, so a sizable chunk of the special effects and camera work may fall short to a modern audience. However, as the film progresses and the action beats go more and more over the top, they both improve, culminating in an excellent final scene where Rambo takes on Sheriff Teasle and destroys most of the town in order to distract and kill him. The cinematography is also quite good when it avoids cheesy slow-motion shots typical of the genre.
On top of the engaging action and cinematography, the film features incredible acting from Stallone, Dennehy and Crenna, all giving dynamite performances. Stallone especially manages to add depth to, and evoke sympathy from, a man who is stressed over and over again by the filmmakers and Colonel Trautman to be a relentless weapon of war.
The strongest part of “Rambo: First Blood” has to do with the aforementioned proverb and what it means to the film. The audience is shown the dehumanization of war veterans, both in their experiences in war and in how they are received when they return home.
Rambo returns and is mistreated by the people who are supposed to protect him in the same way that he was mistreated by the Vietcong, and he finds that he has no place in a society where war is absent. In fact, the time he fits in the most at home is while he is fighting off the police.
There is an exchange at one point in the film between the Colonel and Rambo where the latter remarks that his friend and fellow soldier Delmar Barry, who had been exposed to Agent Orange and passed away due to cancer, “had died in Vietnam and not even known it.” This applies to Rambo as well. No one from his platoon ever really “came back” from Vietnam. Barry carried the war with him physically, in the form of his poisoning, and Rambo carried it psychologically, through his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and flashbacks.
Despite anything that could be said about how well this film has aged, its excellent performances and its “on the nose” critique of the way veterans are dealt with upon returning home makes this a movie that stands the test of time.