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First Blood


‘…Ted Kotcheff’s terse action thriller is a significant American film that changed culture and politics back in 1982, and still packs an 89 minute punch today…’

It’s July 2023, and to get our celebrations of the good old US of A swinging, let’s separate First Blood from the sequels and all that came later; Ted Kotcheff’s terse action thriller is a significant American film that changed culture and politics back in 1982, and still packs an 89 minute punch today. Put expectations aside, since this is an unusually serious movie, based on a book written in 1972 by David Morell, one which attracted a number of directors and stars; the role could have been taken by Dustin Hoffman. It would certainly have been interesting to see what Bette Davis would have brought to this narrative if Richard Brooks had his way, and the Vietnam vet turns violent angle might have seemed like a natural next step for Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. In the event, Sylvester Stallone stepped up to the plate for director Ted Kotcheff, and the result is a backwoods Die Hard and a proper Christmas movie for all to enjoy.

You’ll barely recognise the character of John; the first thing we see him do is smile as he traverses a mountainside towards a Norman Rockwell community, where he speaks softly and cracks jokes as he questions an local woman about the whereabouts of a ex-veteran friend. ‘He’d take up the whole picture that’s how big he is’ he says as he offers up a photograph of his pal, but she knows the friend John is searching for is already dead. ‘Welcome to Hope’ says the banner above the small town that John finds himself in, but there’s little respite; John is quickly identified by Sherriff Will Teaste (Brian Dennehy) as an aesthetic problem, ‘You know, wearing that flag on that jacket, looking the way you do, you’re asking for trouble around here, friend.’ he says. What’s the problem? John has a Native American mother, and that ethnicity in itself seems to make John so problematic that Teasle won’t even let him get a meal in Hope. Having driven John to the state border, Teasle is annoyed when John heads back towards town, and has him arrested as a vagrant; as with the John Wick movies, the audience have the superior position of realising what a grave mistake has occurred; ‘You sure picked the wrong guy to mess around.’ ‘One of your machines blew a gasket,’ is the warning that Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) gets when he arrives at the escalating battle between law enforcement forces and our protagonist. The Colonel is assured there will be ‘no shooting’, a promise Kotcheff undercuts with a shot of cops cheerfully machine-gunning their quarry in an abandoned mine; there’s also a neat satirical side-swipe at the fake-news inaccurate tv reporting of the whole incident.

‘This what happens when people start f**king around with the law,’ is a reasonable summary of what transpires; Teasle only gains any respect for John once it’s far too late, and the Sherriff has to take the Colonel seriously when he says ‘I came here to rescue you from him.’ But John Rambo is no super-hero, but a fairly ordinary man who finds that, when push comes to shove, he’s got no rights at all; there’s a revealing throwaway shot in the climax where John examines a poster of a grinning Santa and ‘have a Coke and a smile’. The consumer-based, capitalist society was built on the freedoms that he fought for, but Trautman knows that John has been treated as a second class citizen. ‘In Vietnam, you can bet that Rambo and I got pretty confused. But we had orders. When in doubt… kill!’. Rambo may only kill one person, and that’s an accident, but seeing him use trucks, motorcycles and other implements to defend himself against an officious protagonist makes him a unlikely combination of both a criminal and a hero, Cool Hand Luke style. Battle-lines have been drawn further since 1982, but First Blood still has a raw, anti-social edge that works today; when the law is abused for personal gain to oppress innocent people, carnage is the inevitable result.


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      • I actually think Crenna is hilarious. He gets all the best lines and he spikes the football each time. This movie is oozing with testosterone due to the Dennehy-Stallone face-off and all the weekend warriors running around but Crenna shows up halfway through and goes all gas, no brakes. I saw it when it came out and it was actually a little mind-blowing, both for Rambo’s ingenuity and for the continued deconstruction of the movie soldier from the John Wayne image of earlier decades.

        • Great comment. I can totally imagine this as being huge with say, Kirk Douglas, but it would have overshadowed the whole finale. Crenna’s dry wit really seems remarkable given that he went through the same trauma as Rambo, but I guess he just reacted in a different way. Having listed a number of military flops of the 70’s when writing about Escape, this revolutionized the idea of what a soldier is; he’s at war with law enforcement and we’re on his side! My mind was similarly blown…

  1. Another one that took the box office by storm. Couldn’t get futher away from Rocky and was the beginning og stars becoming recognized in two franchises rather than one. Far deeper than the mere actioner it was often dismissed as. Stand aside Brando: a new mumbler is in town.

  2. sigh

    It isn’t July 4 yet. It’s July 1. Canada Day. So are we celebrating that this is a movie based on a book written by a Canadian, directed by a Canadian, and shot in Canada? Noooooooo . . .

    • It’s July 2023, and to get our celebrations of all things Canadian swinging, for Canada Day let’s separate First Blood from the sequels and all that came later; Canadian Ted Kotcheff’s terse Canadian-shot action thriller is a significant Canadian film written by a Canadian that changed Canadian culture and Canadian politics back in Canada 1982, and still packs a Canadian 89 minute punch today on Canada Day in Canada.


  3. I never saw first blood, only the sequel where the action was super ramped up.
    I have read enough by Morrell to know how the story would go though. Personally, I like Rambo the Commando better than Rambo the poor misunderstood vet.

    Yet Vietnam vets got the raw end of the stick on both ends, politicians running the war hand in hand with the UN instead of letting the generals actually try to win it and many vocal civilians at home calling for the soldiers blood. I think this movie would show that well.

    • Nothing wrong with liking Rambo the Commando at all, have reviewed 2, 4 and 5 here and they all have merits. I was 13 when I saw this and couldn’t understand why JR was seen as such a negative influence before he’s even opened his mouth, but I can see it more clearly now. Fully agree that vets of Vietnam, or other wars, gets the worst of it, and that’s the thesis that this film makes a great case for. You should check this film out, it’s a cracker!

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