Don’t laugh, but at one time Sylvester Stallone was considered the next Marlon Brando. Following his role as Rocky Balboa in the Oscar-winning Rocky in 1976, Stallone was being acclaimed for his Oscar-nominated role. He was tapped to write and direct the sequel to Rocky, which was a success at the box office and with critics. And then he went on to make other movies that weren’t as successful.
The 1970s ended and the 1980s began and Stallone found himself being tapped to appar in First Blood, based on the book by David Morrell. The adaptation had gone through development Hell in the 1970s with everyone from Robert DeNiro to Clint Eastwood being considered to play John J. Rambo. Directors such as Sydney Pollack, John Frankenheimer and Mike Nichols were considered to direct. But unfortunately, Filmways, which owned the rights to the book, were acquired by Orion Pictures. Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, of Anabasis Investments were able to secure the rights of the book as well as the script that had been written by Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim. Orion would still distribute the movie.
When Stallone came on board, he wanted to rework the script. In the book and in the previous scripts, Rambo is a very violent person, killing a lot of people. However, Stallone felt the character shouldn’t be as vicious and the only death in the movie happens as the result of an accident. Kirk Douglas had been hired to play Col. Sam Trautman but quit shortly before filming when the ending of the movie got changed. Richard Crenna was brought in as the last minute and even during certain scenes had to be fed his lines off screen.
The production commenced in the mid-Fall of 1981 in Fraser Valley of British Columbia. Filming lasted until the spring of 1982 due to delays caused by weather. Also, the initial cut of the movie was a lot longer than the theatrical version with Stallone not wanting it released and going so far as to see if he could acquire the movie negative to destroy it. The rough cut by director Ted Kotcheff reportedly ran over three hours long, before it was cut down to a small 93 minutes with credits. Some scenes that were cut have later been show in the TV versions.
The finished product gives Stallone one of his best roles and possibly his last serious role until Copland in 1997. Rambo is a Vietnam vet who was a non-commissioned officer as a sergeant in charge of his own squad who has fallen on hard times since returning home. Most of his friends he served with are dead. And he’s had bad luck with jobs. As he tells Trautman, he can’t even get a job parking cars.
He goes to a rural side property in the Pacific Northwest that is where a Vietnam friend live only to find out that he died of cancer a year earlier. The cancer was caused by exposure to chemicals in Vietnam. Sadden by the lost of another friend, Rambo takes off walking again until he comes into the town of Hope, Wash. where he is met by the local Sheriff William Teasle (Brian Denehy) who functions as more of the town bully.
Teasle takes Rambo out of his jurisdiction telling him he’s not welcome in the town because he doesn’t like drifters. There was some cut parts that Teasle was a Korean vet himself and didn’t care for Vietnam vets. But when Rambo refuses to keep walking out of the sheriff’s jurisdiction, Teasle has him arrested for “resisting arrest,” vagrancy and carrying a concealed weapon when he discovers his survival knife.
Back at the sheriff’s station, he is booked into the jail and treated even worse by a supervisor, Sgt. Arthur Galt (Jack Starrett) who uses brutal ways to get Rambo to comply which include beating him with a night stick and using a high-powered hose to wash him. In the end, Galt almost chokes Rambo with his night stick as another deputy attempts to shave him. Yet, Rambo who is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, has flashbacks at he was a prisoner of war and overcomes the deputies, escaping the jail and sheriff’s station taking his knife with him.
Obtaining a dirt bike, Rambo makes it to the wooded mountain area outside of the town with Teasle and others on his trail. Disobeying orders, Galt attempts to shoot Rambo from a helicopter. But when it becomes dangerous lowering into a ravine, Rambo is able to throw a rock at the windshield which causes Galt to fall to his death. Initially seeking shelter, Rambo decides to turn himself in when the deputies track him down. Claiming innocence for Galt’s death, one deputy fires by mistake and Rambo is able to leave into the wilderness.
He incapicatates the deputies but doesn’t kill them, just wounds them. He even corners Teasle and tells him to back off before disappearing. But by now, the National Guard and state police have arrived, as has Trautman. He tries to encourage Teasle and state police Capt. David Kern (Bill McKinney) to stand down. Trautman tells them that Rambo was trained to adapt to whatever terrain or surroundings around him. He can live off the land and eat just about anything. Trautman tries to encourage the authorities to leave so Rambo can make it out of the wilderness where he’ll be found in a bigger populated area at a later date.
Rambo has obtained a deputy’s radio and breaks radio silence when he hears Trautman. But he refuses to turn himself in because of the brutality of the sheriff’s department claiming “They drew first blood.” However, the authorties refuse to follow Trautman’s advice and the National Guard is not as organized. They corner Rambo in the entrance to an abandoned mine shaft and fire a rocket-propelled grenade at it causing a lot of damage.
Yet Rambo survives and he’s willing to take down the sheriff’s department and Teasle by using an M60 machine gun he obtained. In the end, Teasle is wounded but Rambo by now has gotten so lost in the madness, when Trautman does appear in person, Rambo has lost touch with reality as he’s prepared to take on the state police as well. He finally breaks down in front of Trautman crying about how he’s not been able to assimiliate back into civilian life and still has horrible memories of watching his friends die.
It’s a great scene that shows Stallone could add depth to the character, something that has been missing in the sequels which seemed to be nothing more than shoot-em-up blow-em-up action movies. All this is set against ther Christmas season which adds a nice contrast to the season of love, peace and joy as a sheriff’s department operates as a goon squad. Rambo is more of an anti-hero here. This makes the ending where Rambo turns himself in more realistic.
As for Teasle, I feel he’s a man who’s gotten used to be in charge so long, the power has messed with his ego. In a deleted scene, Teasle tries to show sympathy to the girlfriend/partner of a young deputy, Mitch Rogers (David Caruso) who was somewhat concerned about Rambo’s treatment while in custody, but she kinda brushes Teasle off. Teasle shows anger and hatred for Rambo after seeing Galt and even mocks the Medal of Honor Rambo has been awarded. He’s a bad guy but his fate is left up in the air.
In the ending that Douglas preferred, Rambo and Teasle both mortally wound each other. Trautman puts Rambo out of his misery and sits with Teasle as he dies. This is the wrong ending. In the book, Rambo commits suicide by shooting himself. This was filmed and was actually shown in the fourth movie Rambo. I think it was the wrong ending for the movie considering that Rambo doesn’t intentionally kill anyone so it would be wrong. It might have worked in the book where he did kill people, but not here.
Sadly, Rambo and Rocky movies would be Stallone’s bread and butter to salvage his career after his attempts at directing Staying Alive (one of the worst sequels ever) and appearing in a comedy, Rhinestone, almost sunk his career. In 1985, he made Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II and from there built himself up as an action star. Like Brando, Stallone would be more concerned about the payday than his work. He reportedly made Over the Top because he was offered a lot of money.
After passing on Beverly Hills Cop, he went and used the script he had written for that movie in the 1986 action thriller Cobra. Yet, Brian Thompson, who played the villain, said it wasn’t a good filming experience as Stallone was in his trailer watching a ball game when he was supposed to be filming a crucial scene. Like most actors, he’s had his highs and lows. As the 1980s ended, it seemed his career was over too as he began the 1990s making one of the worst movies ever, Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot.
But he came back with Cliffhanger and Demolition Man and then appeared in James Mangold crime thriller Copland alongside DeNiro, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta. The 2000s and 2010s brought some highs and lows with The Expendales being the highs and Eye See You, a movie that sat on the shelf for three years, being one of the lows. He currently has a career high with his TV show Tulsa King as well as voicing King Shark in The Suicide Squad with a role as ravager Stakar Ogord in the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. With roles in both the MCU and DCEU, Stallone at 76 seems to be having one of those great revival moments actors love to have in their later years.
However, it could have been very different if First Blood had failed. Produced on a budget of $15 million, it made over $125 million at the time. That would be more than three times that amount in today’s dollars. But aside from the action and big dollars, there’s also the scenes where Stallone really showed he was capable of acting.
What do you think? Please comment.