The Axis Of Action is back, and this week Jonathon Dabell takes a look at First Blood (1982) starring Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy and Richard Crenna.
Few films can boast a production history as chequered as First Blood. The original novel by David Morrell was published in 1972, and screen rights were promptly snapped up by Columbia Pictures. Over the following decade, an extraordinary number of actors were attached to the project – stars considered for the role of John J. Rambo, the film’s anti-hero, included Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Powers Boothe, Michael Douglas, John Travolta, Terence Hill, Nick Nolte, Al Pacino and Brad Davis. For the role of Colonel Trautman George C. Scott, Lee Marvin and Rock Hudson were all approached. Kirk Douglas eventually accepted the part, but took a hike when he learned the book’s ending was going to be drastically altered. And for the role of Sherriff Teasle, various names were bandied around including Gene Hackman, Burt Lancaster, Robert Duvall and Charles Durning. In the end the three roles went to Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna and Brian Dennehy respectively.
Various film companies held the rights to shoot it at different points, and a range of producers and directors became attached, then unattached, to the troubled project. Richard Brooks, Sydney Pollack, John Frankenheimer and Martin Ritt were each in the frame to direct at one time or another; and the script underwent endless rewrites and revisions. Reports suggest as many as twenty different screenplays were written before one by Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim and Stallone himself was finally settled upon. Ted Kotcheff was the eventual director chosen for the movie.
Even after principal shooting had wrapped, the turmoil continued. The three-and-a-half-hour rough cut of the movie was considered so bad by Stallone and his agent that they discussed buying it to destroy the negative, believing it would irreparably hurt the star’s career. After extensive editing by Joan E. Chapman, Kotcheff finally released the film at 93 minutes.
Given all this to-ing and fro-ing, it’s a minor miracle that First Blood emerges as good as it does. The film as eventually released was a sizable hit; moreover it spawned a lucrative franchise (none of the sequels match the original, though) and has become a cult favourite as well as a very influential entry in the action genre.
Vietnam vet John J. Rambo (Stallone) arrives on foot in a coastal village in Washington state, hoping to visit an old comrade in arms. He learns that his friend has died, and heads despondently back to the nearest town.
In the town – Hope, Washington – Rambo is intercepted by the local sherriff, Will Teasle (Dennehy), who doesn’t like the look of the stranger. He drives him straight out of town, refusing Rambo’s request to be allowed to eat in a local diner. Rambo marches defiantly back into town, and is promptly arrested on a vagrancy charge. After being beaten and taunted by the police, Rambo finally snaps and makes a desperate escape. Seeking refuge in the neighbouring forests and mountains, he engages in a game of cat-and-mouse with his pursuers.
When one of the chasing pack is tragically killed, Rambo finds himself in desperate trouble. The National Guard are called in to assist the manhunt, while Rambo’s former commanding officer, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), arrives to attempt to resolve the situation.
First Blood benefits from being done in a way which creates empathy for its violent hero. Early scripts – and the book itself – portrayed Rambo as an unhinged menace, wronged by the police but equally wrong himself in his bloodthirsty vengeance. In the film, he is more of a victim – pushed, bullied and provoked into his eventual course of action. Note how he attempts to trap and maim his pursuers, not kill them; the one cop who ends up dead actually dies due to an accident. There is some attempt here to justify Rambo’s violence by looking at the wider problem of returning wartime veterans failing to reintegrate into society. The police in Hope won’t accept him as a peaceful man who is merely passing through; the danger he poses is ultimately proven true, but it is the police themselves who are the root cause of what follows.
As an action piece, the film is exciting and richly photographed on spectacular Pacific Northwest location. Andrew Laszlo’s cinematography ensures the film is a treat to look at throughout. Jerry Goldsmith provides a fine dramatic score. For its first half in particular, the film is right up there with the best the genre has to offer.
The second half sees a slight dip in quality. The arrival of Crenna’s character works against the film – prior to his entrance, the film is a little far-fetched but never fully stretches the realms of reason. To hear Crenna making remarks like: “you’re sending 200 men after him? Make sure you’ve got a good supply of body bags”, plus other similarly overblown claims, hurts the film’s credibility and upsets the tone that has been established early on. There’s nothing wrong with Crenna’s performance – indeed, he’s pretty good in the film and it’s one of his best remembered roles – it’s just that some of the lines he’s asked to say are cheesy beyond belief.
All in all, though, First Blood is a strong action entry by any standards.
And it’s by far the best film in the Rambo franchise. Subsequent entries see the Stallone character becoming increasingly invulnerable and cartoonish, virtually a parody of himself, but in this series’ opener he’s much more ‘human’, and the film is all the better for it.
MoM Rating 7.5/10