Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

They forgot they were dealing with Rambo! First Blood, Part II (1985)

(Another rewritten repost from my own blog)

To paraphrase my friend Ross Bagby, some books and movies are ground-breakers, going where nobody’s gone before. Other fictional works don’t break fresh ground but they colonize it, becoming the archetype of a particular genre even though they weren’t the first. 1983’s Uncommon Valor was the first film to have Vietnam veterans rescuing the mythical POWs still in Vietnam; Rambo, coming out two years later, became the archetype.

Michael J. Allen’s Until the Last Man Comes Home is an excellent book on how Vietnam POWs became a national obsession when we had fewer men captured than previous wars and they made up a smaller percentage of the troops. Over the course of the war, peace groups, military families and the North Vietnamese themselves all made use of POWs as political bargaining chips. Nixon did too, arguing that we had to fight on as long as there were prisoners to rescue. As part of that, he suggested that MIA soldiers be regarded as presumptive POWs, which upped the number we were fighting for considerably.

After the war ended, families whose members hadn’t been accounted for began clinging to this idea β€” maybe MIA didn’t mean they died in a jungle where nobody could find them. Maybe the Vietnamese still held them! Reagan, who lied that we were heroes in ‘nam with nothing to feel regret about, called on Vietnam to account for every last man missing in action, something physically impossible (that’s a lot of jungle to search!).

Many years ago, I asked one POW I knew about this. He confirmed what I’d read: prisoners worked to memorize the names of everyone held in their camp, so any man who got released could give information on who was left behind. There’s no way hundreds or thousands of prisoners got left out. Nevertheless, the myth got plenty of pop-culture traction in the Reagan era. Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent) in Airwolf is convinced his brother is still alive in ‘nam and wants confirmation. An issue of Sable has John Sable unsuccessfully hunt for POWs, unaware as he finally gives up that one of them is so close … And then there’s Rambo.

At the end of First Blood, Rambo’s rampage through a small town ended up with him in prison. At the start of the sequel, his former CO, Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna), gets Rambo released for a secret mission. Rambo’s going back into Vietnam, where he’ll take photos of a prison camp that might still hold American POWs. Rambo’s cynical question: “Do we get to win this time?”

Spoiler: no. The government knows Vietnam is still holding POWs because the United States welched on its promise to pay war reparations (this is one of the popular theories why we can’t get our boys back). Nobody in Washington wants to advocate for paying our former enemies so there’s no way to bring the soldiers home. Murdoch (Charles Napier) has organized this mission to show the government cares but he’s sending Rambo to a prison camp we know is empty. Even if it doesn’t kill the myth, it shows Washington is concerned about the issue.

Ooops. Turns out the Vietnamese periodically shift prisoners between camps and when Rambo arrives, accompanied by pretty native guide Red Shirt β€” er, Co (Julia Nickson), he gets photos. The Vietnamese don’t want this going public (funny, you’d think solid proof would ratchet up pressure for the US to pay up) so they hunt Rambo and Co as they flee to their pickup site. Murdock, realizing everything’s gone wrong, calls off the rescue, abandoning them to their fate. The Vietnamese gun Co down, but that’s preferable to the brutal torture they inflict on Rambo. Then the soldiers’ Soviet paymasters take over and the torture gets worse. But you can’t cage the spirit of the American fighting man β€” Rambo breaks free and guess what? He does get to win!

Stripped of the cutting-edge tech he started with, Rambo reverts to the kind of low-tech warfare β€” ambushes, pits, booby-traps, bow and arrow β€” the North Vietnamese used against us effectively. Now the dynamic is reversed: the Vietnamese have the modern weapons, but Rambo’s a better jungle fighter than the Vietcong ever were. Take that, henchmen of the evil empire!

It’s a Western trope historian Richard Slotkin describes as “the man who knows Indians” β€” the cowboy or cavalry officer who understands Native American ways well enough to anticipate them and even beat them at their own game. Eventually Rambo wreaks enough havoc on the enemy that he’s able to free some of the POWs, take a helicopter back to the base he started from and give Murdoch a message for Washington β€” get the rest of our boys out!

I’ll pause here and note that POW and POW escapes have been a staple of WW II and Korean War films. A number of WW II films such as Von Ryan’s Express (1965) show the POWs escaping or at least defying their captors. Vietnam War POWs have to wait for a negotiated release, or for a hero such as Rambo to save them β€” left to themselves, they’re broken sheeple. Film scholar Eric Lichtenfield suggests this ties in with old American tropes about Native Americans taking and breaking captives. This makes some sense β€” the portrayal of the sadistic, malevolent Vietnamese here isn’t that far from the way we stereotyped the Japanese forces in WW II. They’re primitives, savages, not that far removed from the supposedly subhuman Native American tribes.

The Vietnamese are clearly villains here; instead of freedom fighters they’re part of the international communist conspiracy, just like our leaders insisted while the war was going on. They not only keep their prisoners in non-Geneva Convention approved conditions, they torture people. Several million Vietnamese died in the war but according to Rambo they weren’t the victims β€” it’s our soldiers, forced to fight for a lie, who suffered! There’s no suggestion stiffing Vietnam on war reparations was wrong or that paying them to settle things is the obvious solution; the movie offers no solutions to rescuing the POWs, only insists that we do.

Politics aside, Rambo is crap. The action is clunky and dull; the enemy troops go down so easily, it might as well be a video game. The only adversary who stands out is Murdock. Stallone’s Rambo is a monosyllabic killing machine, though his physique is certainly an impressive special effect. Predator (1987) has a similar climax, with Arnold Schwarzenegger going from high-tech warrior to jungle barbarian (I can’t believe Rambo wasn’t an influence) but it’s a much superior movie.

I don’t know if Rambo has any lasting appeal for people too young to remember the war or the Reagan-era politics it draws on. But for a brief while, Rambo was a legend.



      1. Greg Burgas

        First Blood is a terrific movie. One of Stallone’s best. It’s actually kind of fascinating, because both the book (which was published about a decade earlier) and the movie came out during that time when the army’s popularity was at a low ebb, so the way Brian Dennehy and his deputies treat Rambo, a veteran, is almost shocking given the way we worship soldiers today. So it’s not only a very good thriller/action movie, it’s a strange time capsule of the period.

  1. conrad1970

    Yeah First Blood was actually quite good if you put your brain in neutral.
    The series quickly went down hill after that.
    Demolition Man was great fun.
    Those were the days when Sandra Bullock looked stunning, unfortunately she looks more like Michael Jackson’s love child these days.

  2. HAL 2000

    This is a brilliant post, Fraser, your best.
    The racism in Rambo: First Blood Part II is really interesting isn’t it? The Soviets have to come in as they are the bad guys behind the bad guys. The Vietnam war is portrayed as a sort of proxy war between the sneaky Soviets and the lily-white boys of the U.S. The notion that the U.S. was beaten by the Viet Minh is apparently too horrible to contemplate because – Egads! – they were Asian. Therefore the Vietnamese cannon fodder uh villains are just there to be unthinkingly sadistic while the Soviets are the end of game bosses.
    Rambo is pretty insidious as a movie for the reasons you state, it’s dumb but any enjoyment that might be derived from it is considerably dulled by the bullshit notions and politics it espouses. That the insane P.O.W. myth gained such traction in the Reagan-era is both ludicrous and sickening. The worst episodes of the entertaining Magnum pi buy into that obvious garbage, post-Rambo there was even a two-parter that used the POW plot. “Our Boys” are always right while the Vietnamese on either side either don’t REALLY matter (unless they want to be American) or are monsters. Yeuch.

  3. HAL 2000

    Follow-up remark: First Blood isn’t bad but it bowdlerizes the book in order to make Rambo totally right (in the book his mind is broken and he becomes a psychopath, bringing the killing behaviour that was approved of in the soldiery in Viet Nam back home) and likeable because Stallone suffered from Steve McQueen-Tom Cruiseitis in which he had to be the HERO. Rambo only kills one person in the movie, even thatt is fixed so that he isn’t really responsible for THAT death and the guy was a sadist/asshole anyway. Can’t have Rambo killin’ (white) Amuricans! Wait for the sequel, he’s back in Viet Nam and has dozens of “legitimate” targets to mow down *wink wink*. Oh, and Steven Berkoff as the power behind the throne (he’s much better ranting “The West is DECADENT and DIVIDED!” like a cartoon prototype Putin in Octopussy).
    It’s funny that St John Hawke does indeed turn out to be alive as a POW in Airwolf and then turns up as the new lead in the dire fourth season (probably wishing he WERE dead!).
    I would lay my money on some of the people who were exercised about the actions of the “Evil Empire” in the Eighties not being bothered by the evil carried out in Russia’s name now… What are the chances of that happening…! *Cough*

    1. Yes, the reveal Hawke’s brother had been on some kind of super-secret mission all that time did not work at all well. Of course, neither did that season.
      And yes, it’s kind of horrifically fascinating watching conservatives tongue-bathe and defend Putin’s regime. Apparently Putin’s manly manliness and crushing of gays make up for a lot.

  4. Jeff Nettleton

    A few points here, cautioning against absolutes. 1, the Vietnamese had a historical precedent in holding prisoners longer than agreed, after a negotiated peace, after the defeat of the French. Two, the numbers of MIA include a significant portion who were last seen near Cambodia and Laos, either near borders or in those countries (aircraft crashes, recon units). Three, there have been numerous instances of Vietnamese refugees and other civilians coming forward with stories of Europeans being held prisoner in remote camps. The official total of those listed as MIA at the end of the war was about 1600. Now, I don’t believe that 1600 POWs are being held prisoner in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China, Thailand or even on the moon. However, that doesn’t preclude that some of those sightings, within 5 to 10 years of the cessation of hostilities, weren’t true and that there were some American soldiers still being held prisoner. Not hundreds, but maybe a few.

    Realistically, most were probably lost in combat actions, with the areas of their disappearance incorrectly recorded, in the heat of battle. There was also a certain percentage that came from recon and special warfare units, on clandestine missions, in areas where we were not officially fighting. The CIA-run Shining Brass program had American personnel leading Chinese Nung soldiers in recon missions in Laos, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, advising on troop movements.

    It was not a huge stretch to say, maybe there were a half dozen still alive, used as forced labor, in a remote area, forgotten by the government that held them prisoner. That was the basis for some of that fiction. The bigger problem was how the DOD conducted an accounting, the antagonistic attitude that families of MIAs and listed POWs faced, the politics at the heart of the war and the human need for closure, of some kind. many charlatans preyed upon it, many honest people tried to help as best they could, many with resources didn’t give a crap, because they didn’t sacrifice.

    I served in the military in the late 80s and early 90s. We still honored the unaccounted, because they were left behind, likely dead, but definitely alone. To a soldier, that is a deep shame. That drove a lot of grasping at straws. It didn’t help that there were actual conspiracies, like the Watergate break-in, going on in the Nixon Administration, to dispel other conspiracy theories, especially where that administration and the CIA, in general, was involved.

    In regards the film, it is ridiculous superhero crap. I howled with laughter as an arrowhead, the size of a mini liquor bottle, carries enough explosives to blow up a truck or an armored vehicle. Uncommon Valor actually had some decent advice in the filming and the tactics they used were more on the believable side (acting was a hell of a lot better, too).

    The original First Blood novel is pretty good and the film is also pretty good. There are cliches and typical Hollywood BS; but, it is way more realistic than any that followed. Oh….SPOILER……at the end of the novel, Trautman kills Rambo. David Morrell, the author, also wrote the novelization of Rambo FB Pt II; he inserted a note at the beginning, explaining the ending of his original vs Hollywood and why Rambo is back, in his hands. His novelization, isn’t quite as ludicrous as the film; but, it wasn’t a patch on the original.

    Prior to all these films (including Uncommon Valor), there was a novel, called Mission MIA, by JC Pollock. Pollock was an ex-Special Forces non-com, who also served with the CIA-run Special Operations Group (aka Studies and Observation Group). His novel has word of two Americans, one Special forces, come out of Vietnam and smuggled to the man’s wife. She contacts his former A-Team leader, who had also served as a mercenary soldier in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. He gets the remnants of the team together, with the financial backing of the woman’s father, and arranges to do a HALO jump into teh Vietnam/Laos border area, and do a recon of the alleged prison camp sight. If they determine they are there, they effect a rescue and radio mercenaries in Thailand for a helo extraction. Of course, they run afoul of the CIA. Much of the plot turned up in Uncommon Valor, in some form. Pollock followed with a couple of other novels, dealing with former SOG soldiers, one now a civilian, one serving with the 10th SFG, in West Germany, before the Wall came down, who has to get a defector across the Czech border. His books are worth reading, if only because he had some expertise in Vietnam-era special operations.

    One final note; you mentioned Von Ryan’s Express but left out The Great Escape? For shame! 8)

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