poster for First Blood

It’s the 40th anniversary of First Blood, which was released on October 22, 1982. The riveting debut novel by David Morrell was published in 1972, and was immediately optioned and in development with many high-profile directors and actors attached to it. However, due to the timeliness of the subject (the last troops didn’t leave Vietnam until April 30, 1975), the controversial action movie couldn’t get off the ground until director Ted Kotcheff asked Sylvester Stallone, hot off the Rocky series, to take a swing at it.

Rambo was more like Frankenstein’s Monster in the book, ravaging the countryside killing everyone in his wake, while he’s slightly the kinder, gentle John J. in the movie, thanks to Sly giving him the “Rocky treatment” of being the misunderstood underdog. It also catapulted Stallone from being Rocky Balboa in the ring to a bankable action star outside of the boxing ring. “This time he’s fighting for his life” the tagline to the posters read.

Though First Blood was followed by four sequels, it was the debut movie that had the most heart and soul—the others relying less on character development and more on one-note characterizations, action set pieces, and graphic violence. First Blood is a much-imitated but never duplicated film that the dramatizes the issue of combat-related post-traumatic stress and its effects of soldiers returning home from war.

Here is the Blake Snyder beat sheet analysis of First Blood:

Logline: A traumatized Vietnam-veteran Green Beret is forced by an authoritarian Sheriff and his callous deputies to flee into the misty mountains and wage an escalating one-man war against his determined pursuers.

Genre: Superhero (People’s Superhero)

Cousins: Gladiator, High Plains Drifter, The Legend of Tarzan, Robin Hood, Whale Rider, The Patriot, Casino Royale, Rambo

Written by: William Kozoll & William Sackheim and Sylvester Stallone
Based on the novel by David Morrell
Directed by: Ted Kotcheff

Opening Image: John J. Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) walks the long road to nowhere, with Jerry Goldsmith’s stirring score helping him along. He’s our superhero who has nearly superhuman abilities in strength and endurance, but mostly, he just wants to do good and find a connection in his status quo thesis world.

Sylvester Stallone with a rolled-up sleeping bag on his back in First Blood
Rambo’s on a mission to find hope and humanity after the war.

Set-Up: Arriving at a lakeside homestead, Rambo’s looking for a friend from his old US Army unit, Delmar Barry. Mrs. Barry puts up laundry and tells the former soldier that Delmar died last year of cancer due to Agent Orange.

Theme Stated: These soldiers are the remnants of an unpopular war, many dying from defoliates like Agent Orange, and others, like Rambo, who must carry on being reviled and called “baby killer.” They weren’t welcomed home, and Rambo’s simply looking for a friendly face and understanding. He won’t find it here. His curse as a gifted soldier is the theme.

Catalyst: Rambo heads into Hope, Washington. And here’s where we have the shades of a western with “good guy” Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) putting on his white hat and mounting his steed (in this case a patrol car). Every “superhero” needs a Nemesis, which is typically a self-made shadow character of the protagonist—and that’s Teasle to a tee. He immediately takes a dislike to Rambo due to the ex-soldier’s appearance (Rambo’s superhero curse). The sheriff drives the raggedy drifter out of town.

Stallone and Dennehy next to a patrol car in First Blood
Sheriff Will Teasle arrests Rambo for not complying.

Debate: Rambo doesn’t appreciate the law enforcer’s discourtesy and marches back across the bridge back toward town. Rambo’s ironically seeking hope in Hope, but he won’t find it. He’s immediately arrested by Sheriff Teasle and taken to the Hope Police Station. Inside, Rambo’s booked for vagrancy and carrying a concealed weapon—a large survival knife that will be known as John Rambo’s trademark throughout the films. Down in the basement, Rambo’s stripped, beaten, and hosed down with a firehose led by Deputy Sergeant Arthur “Art” Galt (Jack Starrett). When they try to shave his three-day beard, Rambo flips out due to combat-related post-traumatic stress. He systematically gives the oppressive troops a beat down with a little jailhouse rock.

Dennehy shows Stallonea razor in a cell
Sheriff Will Teasle wants to “clean up” Rambo’s act.

Wearing only a tank top, jeans, boots, and re-armed with his knife, Rambo escapes from Hope and into the woods on a stolen dirt bike. Teasle gives chase but loses control of his patrol car. He calls in his men, dogs, and a helicopter. A manhunt will be underway.

Rambo on his motorcycle
Rambo leaves Hope behind.

Break into Two: We don’t know Rambo’s backstory yet, but we can see actively that he’s tough and resourceful, using anything he can as a weapon or for survival. He fashions a poncho out of some canvas and cord from a junk yard. As typical with this beat, the protagonist has answered the call of the Catalyst. He’s breaking away from the police—and society.

Rambo with a hunting knife
The resourceful Rambo reoutfits himself for battle.

B Story: The fugitive’s ID comes in over the teletype. One of the officers shares it with Sheriff Teasle. John J. Rambo’s a Special Forces “Green Beret” from Vietnam with a chest full of medals, including the highest: a Congressional Medal of Honor for Valor. This seems to make Teasle angrier, especially after Rambo bested one of his men, Gault. Gault died accidentally falling out of a helicopter when he tried to shoot Rambo as he was scaling down the side of a cliff.

Fun and Games: Now that we know the truth about who John Rambo is, we see his true specialties and the promise of the premise. From his survival knife, he threads a gushing, angry-looking wound he sustained from falling out of a tree after he dove off a cliff pursued by Gault. He grabs guns and coats off the dead man. Rambo raises his hands and tries to surrender so there won’t be any more violence, but one of the itchy-fingered police shoots him, wounding him in the head with a grazing bullet. Rambo covers his wound with another trademark look—the headband.

And then in this upside-down world, we see what Rambo truly can do. The police corner him in a forest, believing they’ve got him. Rambo systematically puts down the attacking Dobermans, and then the men. He doesn’t kill them, only incapacitates them one by one, including Teasle. He warns the cop that in town he might be the law, but out in the wild, it’s Rambo.

Rambo holds his hunting knife to the sheriff's neck
“In town you’re the law; out here it’s me. Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe.”

The stakes raise as the State Police and the National Guard are called in. The situation is even being broadcast on the evening news, going public.

Special Forces Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna), a full bird-colonel from Fort Bragg, shows up. He and Teasle have words. The black ops colonel suggests that the police diffuse the situation by “letting Rambo go” to save lives, and then put out an ABP to apprehend him peacefully. Insulted by the notion, Teasle disagrees. But he does suggest a way Trautman can help possibly bring Rambo in alive.

Richard Crenna meets with Brian Dennehy and another cop in First Blood
Colonel Sam Trautman intervenes to stop his “machine that blew a gasket.”

Midpoint: Rambo has a false victory as he’s found shelter in an old mine. He’s built a fire, and enjoys roasted wild boar. He’s also monitoring the police radio. Trautman gets on the radio back at the makeshift field base and calls in the old Baker team that Rambo was a part of. Trautman gives a roll call of all the soliders. “They’re all dead, sir,” Rambo says as he breaks radio silence and answers the call. He has a conversation with Trautman, tying A and B stories together.

Bad Guys Close In: As Rambo and Trautman chat, Teasle has the National Guard get a fix on Rambo’s concealed position by triangulating the radio signal. The next day, a company of the weekend warriors march out to apprehend the wayward Special Forces soldier.

Rambo and the Guardsmen get into a gun battle. Rambo’s skills are no match for the men. However, the M16 he uses, stolen off Teasle, runs out of ammo. Using a M72 LAW rocket launcher, the guardsmen “kill” Rambo by blowing up the mine.

Rambo lights a fire in an old mine
Rambo’s rebirth—the soldier navigates the old mine toward redemption.

All Is Lost: Teasle and Trautman arrive at the caved-in mine, which is nothing but rubble. There’s a whiff of death in the chilly Pacific Northwest air as it’s believed Rambo is no more. Teasle is angry at the National Guard—as he lost his shot at a personal vendetta. Trautman is upset as Rambo’s a war hero who was “killed for vagrancy in Jerkwater, USA.”

Crenna and Dennehy sdit at a table in a bar
Trautman and Teasle talk “dead Rambo” over drinks.

Dark Night of the Soul: Surprise—Rambo’s alive! He’s worse off than he was at the beginning of the film, but he’s survived. He manages to find some kerosene from some miners lamps deep in the mine and makes torches. He searches for a passage out, negotiating cramped quarters, chilly water, and rats which bite at his exposed flesh. In a Campbellian moment, Rambo finds a passage out and climbs up an old wooden ladder—it’s almost a rebirth from his “death” as he emerges back into the lush greenery of life.

Stallone as Rambo in the jungle with blood running down the side of his face
Rambo escapes the tunnel—and is ready to execute more battle.

Break into Three: Rambo manages to commandeer an Army deuce and a half truck hauling an M-60 machine gun in the back. His goal: to return to the town of Hope, Washington and take revenge on Teasle. The sheriff learns of Rambo being alive and has a police barricade set up, tying A and B stories together. Rambo busts through barricade, crossing the same bridge he did in the first reel of the film—but this time better prepared and armed!

Five-Point Finale:

Gathering the Team – As night falls, Rambo crashes the truck into a gas station. He pulls out the M-60 machine gun and ammo boxes—a one-man army on a mission. In the police station, Teasle does some gathering himself as he loads up his M16 to prepare for the inevitable Rambo onslaught. Trautman warns Teasle that he will die if he does this, but the colonel’s recommendation falls on deaf ears. Trautman says that Rambo trusts his former commanding officers… and that may be the only edge he has that the rampaging Frankenstein’s Monster won’t kill him.

Richard Crenna as Sgt Trautman in First Blood
Trautman warns Teasle that Rambo will kill him.

Executing the Plan – Rambo uses the machine gun to knock out power transformers, blacking the town out for a tactical advantage. And then he wreaks havoc on prideful Teasle’s town, destroying several buildings with gunfire and improvised explosives.

High Tower Surprise – Rambo heads to the Hope Police Station for a vengeful mano e mano with Sherriff Teasle. And find Teasle he does…. waiting on the roof with a rifle.

Dennehy waits on the roof with a rifle
Teasle hopes to snipe Rambo from the roof.

Dig, Down Deep – Rambo blasts the police station and makes his way inside the destroyed building. After a brief shoot out, Rambo fires through the roof and caps Teasle. The sheriff crashes through the skylight, wounded. Lording over the officer, Rambo is about to kill him. Colonel Trautman shows up and orders him not to. The private war between John J. Rambo and Sheriff Will Teasle is over.

Rambo and Trautman inside a room with shattered windows
Trautman confronts his wrathful creation, Rambo.

Executing the New Plan – Rambo doesn’t kill Teasle, but as the bullet-riddled station is surrounded by police, the vengeful soldier breaks into the weapons’ stores—and plans Rambo’s Last Stand. However, Trautman, like a father figure, diffuses the “monster” he created. Rambo breaks down emotionally when he talks about all the friends he lost, and how he can’t even keep a job parking cars back in the world. Trautman convinces the battle-weary soldier to surrender, saving the life of the last member of Baker team from certain death. Like a good commanding officer, and father, he listens to Rambo. And that’s what John Rambo needed to heal, redeem himself, and transform… a little understanding.

Final Image: Covered in the colonel’s trench coat, Rambo does the perp walk in handcuffs out of Sherriff Teasle’s shattered police station. Teasle survived, but he was bested by Rambo. As the reprise of Jerry Goldsmith’s “It’s a Long Road” bookends the film, it may seem like the end of the elite special forces soldier as he heads to prison to do hard time. But it’s only the beginning… as he’ll appear in four following films.

Trautman leads Rambo out of the police station in First Blood
Rambo walks with Trautman. “Son and father,” they’ll be back for more later.


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