(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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — ambushes, pits, booby-traps, bow and arrow — 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” — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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.