Forty years ago, then 36-year-old Sylvester Stallone was riding high on the success of Rocky III, which was released in May of 1982. An enormous box office success, it even surpassed the gross of its predecessor and would go on to be the fourth highest-grossing of film of 1982. Yet, reviews from critics proved mixed. Stallone already wanted to break out as an actor and prove he could play more than Rocky Balboa. But his efforts thus far remained mixed.
First Rambo Movie Turns 40
His 1978 directorial debut, Paradise Alley, didn’t connect with audiences while critics compared it unfavorably to the original Rocky. That same year, Stallone had starred in the neo-noir crime drama F.I.S.T., which was loosely based on the Teamsters and their former president, Jimmy Hoffa, but Stallone wasn’t taken seriously as a dramatic lead. However, 1981’s Nighthawks, which co-starred Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer, did show that Stallone could do action films.
Just six months after landing a knock-out punch with Rocky III, Stallone was a box office draw again in the post-Vietnam War film First Blood, which told the story of a troubled and misunderstood veteran who is forced to rely on his combat and survival skills after a misunderstanding resulted in a police manhunt in the woods of Washington state.
Even as initial reviews were mixed, the film was another box office hit for Stallone and launched a franchise even more successful than Rocky. It spawned four sequels, an animated television series, a comic book series, a novel series and multiple video games, as well as a Bollywood remake.
Enter John Rambo
Compared to what was to follow, the “Rambo” franchise began with what was actually a rather low-key film based on the 1972 novel First Blood by Canadian-American author David Morrell. It told the story of a troubled homeless Vietnam War veteran, known only by his last name: Rambo.
Morrell had been inspired to write the novel after hearing of the experiences from some Vietnam vets and the troubles they had re-acclimating in society. The author later said that he had heard the stories of how Audie Murphy—the most decorated American soldier of World War II—reported having to sleep with a loaded gun under this pillow. According to Morrell, the character’s name came from the Rambo apple, which his wife had bought while he was thinking of a suitable name for his character. Along with “Rocky,” it practically fit Stallone like a glove.
The novel had been a minor hit, earning praise from reviewers and was later used by author Stephen King in his creative writing class at the University of Maine. Seeing the potential for a movie early on, Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to First Blood soon after it was published for $175,000—equivalent to more than $1 million today. As the war was still underway, the film languished in the so-called “development hell.”
Warner Bros. Pictures subsequently acquired the rights, and after getting the green light, it was suggested that Robert De Niro or Clint Eastwood could step into the role. That didn’t pan out of course, but De Niro would go on to star as Travis Bickle, a 26-year-old honorably discharged U.S. Marine and Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD in 1976’s Taxi Driver while Eastwood famously took on the role of Dirty Harry.
Various other Hollywood A-listers were suggested for Rambo including Paul Newman and Steve McQueen while Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin were considered for the role of the villainous Sherriff Teasle. At one point, Bette Davis was even floated to play a psychiatrist!
Al Pacino reportedly turned down the role, finding the Rambo story too dark. Still, others that made the shortlist to play the lead included John Travolta, Dustin Hoffman, Powers Booth, Michael Douglas and Nick Nolte. Gene Hackman and Charles Durning were possibilities for Sherriff Teasle while the role of the small-town sheriff ended up going to Brian Dennehy, who proved perfectly cast.
Colonel Sam Trautman
George C. Scott actually came under consideration for the role of Colonel Sam Trauman–a demotion of sorts for the actor who played General George S. Patton so famously a decade earlier. Instead, screen veteran Kirk Douglas signed on to play John Rambo’s close friend and former commander. But Douglas later bowed out over script concerns. They even approached Rock Hudson. Finally Richard Crenna became a last-minute choice.
Te Kotcheff, involved in the project since 1976, became the film’s director. He had worked in several low-budget action films and would later go on to direct Weekend at Bernie’s (1989). But they still needed a star to play Rambo.
Stallone Signed On
The project finally moved forward at Carolco Pictures, and Stallone signed on to play John Rambo. Additionally, Stallone added star power, then also took on the rewrites, making significant changes.
Stallone proved not only to be a bankable Hollywood star but also an accomplished screenwriter. Though he is known for his tough-guy roles, Stallone had become just the third man in Hollywood history to receive Oscar nominations for both Best Actor and Best Screenplay, something only previously accomplished by Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. For good or bad, Stallone would go on to write all six Rocky films and took on co-screenwriting duties for the adaption of First Blood. He reportedly did an estimated seven revisions of the script, and in many ways, it improved upon the source material.
Key Changes From the Source Material
In Morrell’s novel, Rambo killed many of his pursuers, and in one of the original pre-Stallone drafts of the screenplay, the main character would rack up a significant body count, killing at least 16 and injuring many others. Stallone sought to soften the character, and in the movie, Rambo doesn’t directly cause the death of any police or National Guardsmen. That fact certainly made it easier to make the animated series (see sidebar).
Another change Stallone made, possibly seeing from the success of the Rocky franchise, was to make John Rambo survive the film. While a suicide scene was even filmed, the final cut saw Rambo turn himself in, which allowed for a sequel that was even bigger than the original.
Interestingly, it was the fact that Rambo lived that drove Kirk Douglas to bow out. But perhaps the screen legend wanted an ending closer to Spartacus.
Back To Vietnam
First Blood was just one of the post-Vietnam War films that included Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which chronicled the efforts made by the veterans of the war to fit back into society. John Rambo’s story pushed the extreme edge–alongside Taxi Driver. It also marked the transition to another film genre–the “Lone Wolf.”
Along with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris, Stallone launched the “one-man army” story, where the hero can take on enemies around the globe with little if any assistance. However, John Rambo was a bit of a latecomer in terms of going back to Vietnam.
Just a year after the release of First Blood, the 1983 film Uncommon Valor, starring Gene Hackman, also directed by Kotcheff, kicked off the “return to Vietnam films.” These stories centered on the search and rescue of prisoners of war left behind since American withdrawal a decade earlier. Then came Norris’ Missing in Action a year later. Finally, 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II proved the worldwide hit. It opened at a then-record 2,074 theaters and broke international box office records.
Most Critics Were Cynics
Though many critics proved unkind in their reviews of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune actually gave it three out of four stars. He described it as “very good at what it does, but what it does isn’t always that good.” The official Razzie Movie Guice, which chronicles bad movies, called it one of the The 100 Most Enjoyable Bad Movies Ever Made.
The ultimate “praise” may have come from the Soviet Union, where the Ministry of Culture criticized the film’s anti-Soviet and anti-Vietnamese tones and for its depiction of Russians. Noted Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko even compared Stallone’s portrayal of Rambo to “pornography.”
Rambo And The Taliban?
The third film in the series, fittingly titled Rambo III and released in 1988, saw Rambo head to Afghanistan, where he and best friend Col. Trautman joined forces with a band of Afghan Mujahedeen rebels in fighting the Soviet invaders.
Some suggested, following 9/11, Rambo aided the Taliban. The same argument nearly targeted James Bond for the 1987 film The Living Daylights, where 007 joined forces with the lead of the local Mujahedeen to fight the Soviets.
However, such an argument would imply that every Afghan fighter was a member of the Taliban, which they were not. The Mujahedeen comprised a significant number of pro-Western forces. Meanwhile, the Masoud character, who aided Rambo, drew from the very real Ahmad Shah Massoud.
No 9/11 in the Real Massoud
Massoud fought the Soviets, also serving as the leading opposition commander against the Taliban. He fought until his assassination, September 9, 2001—just two days before the 9/11 attacks.
Rambo fought the Soviets, but he (and Bond) certainly didn’t aid the Taliban.
Final Rambo Films
Rambo III didn’t enjoy the same success as the prior entry. So 20 years elapsed until the release of the next film in the series in 2008. In many ways it happened because Stallone had put on the boxer trunks and gloves again, appearing in 2006’s Rocky Balboa, where the now-widowed prizefighter returned to the ring at age 60! It became a surprise hit, partly because it showed a widowed Rocky dealing with his post-boxing life in his twilight years.
Seeing that audiences could accept Stallone as an over-the-hill boxer, the actor/screenwriter opted for the return of the one-man army where the character heads back into the familiar jungle locations that proved a hit with Rambo: First Blood II. Simply titled Rambo—sticking with the theme—the title character was also past his prime and living a simpler life. Rambo, now a snake catcher in Thailand, looked to put the past behind him. Then he took on a rescue mission to save Christian missionaries held by a local warlord in Burma.
As with Rocky Balboa, Stallone took on the writing and directing duties for Rambo. It was a modest success at the North American box office, but due to disputes with the film’s distributor, it underperformed at the international box office. Not surprisingly, Burma (Myanmar) banned showing the film. But it remains a cult favorite in the country, where bootleg DVDs sell.
Closing Out the Rambo Saga
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film is that for the first time, John Rambo mentions his estranged father and the film ends with Rambo returning home to see him. Stallone already turned 62 years old when making the film. So one questions how old the character’s father must be.
All good things do come to an end, and in this case, it was 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood, where the title character ventured to fight Mexican drug cartels. While Stallone has hinted that there is the possibility of a Rambo prequel, he has said that the franchise has gone full circle. Yet, considering that the Rocky series spawned the spinoff Creed and Creed II in which the Italian Stallion trained his former rival/best friend’s bastard son, we’ll say anything is possible. As long as Stallone is alive and kicking—and able to work on a screenplay—there is always hope we’ll see John Rambo again.
RAMBO FOR KIDS
First Blood also led to the largely forgotten Rambo: The Force of Freedom. The animated series debuted in April 1986 as a five-part miniseries before renweal as a daily cartoon later that year. Meant to compete with the G.I. Joe animated series, it featured John Rambo leading a special unit called “The Force of Freedom” against General Warhawk’s paramilitary terrorist organization dubbed S.A.V.A.G.E. (Specialist-Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion).
Stallone didn’t return to provide the voice for John Rambo. He actually became annoyed at the prospect of the animated version of Rambo for kids. Instead noted voice actor Neil Ross stepped in and provided a reasonable facsimile of the character’s signature grunts and expressions.
While the animated adventures of Rambo ran for an impressive 65 episodes, the show wasn’t without controversy. It actually became the first animated series adapted from an R-rated film. Producers toned down the violence considerably to meet Federal Communications Commission decency standards. The show added fictional countries and back-stories to the storylines.
WANT MORE RAMBO??? Check out this story, Survival Knives: Anatomy of the Blade Rambo Made Famous.
This article originally appeared in the June-July 2022 issue of Ballistic Magazine. Get your copy today at OutdoorGroupStore.com.