Damaged Vietnam veteran, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), goes in search of the only other surviving member of his unit deep in the mountains of North West states, only to find that he is the last. He re-enters civilisation and meets small town sheriff, Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), who mistreats him along with the rest of the police department. Rambo snaps back to his Vietnam years and takes to the woods, bringing a personal war down onto the National Guard and this isolated region.
Most cinema goers know the genre defining moments in movie history - Marlon Brandon responding to the question, "What're you rebelling against, Johnny?", with, "Whaddya got?"; HR Giger's Alien sculpting the look of science fiction horror; or Sam Peckinpah's revising of the Western in The Wild Bunch - and at the moment Rambo leads the pursuing police into the mountains on an appropriated motorbike, action films were permanently altered.
This was the birth of One Man Army movies that dominated the eighties and filtered down into the decades that followed. Here was the embodiment of the American faith in the possibility of anything with enough self belief, that capitalist dream that has launched countless businesses and enterprises, why Brits like the inventor of the iPod will take their ideas to the states to escape the cynicism of their own nation.
First Blood arrived at the perfect time, tapping into the mood of a nation that had just elected Ragon to power. The posters portrayed their gungho hero cradling a heavy weight machine gun, making him a symbol of militaristic supremacy.
The weapons of the film are treated lovingly, the script taking any opportunity to mention the specific class of gun, showing them off like new toys, and - especially considering the sequels to this film - you would be forgiven in viewing it as an elegy to the excesses of the coming eighties. But here is where First Blood shows its confused politics.
Rambo is the product of a system that has used and abandoned him. He has retreated from the world and when he enters the small town of Hope in the opening scenes, we have no indication as to the length of time he has dwelt in the wilderness. When hunted in the woods, he makes use of his knife and nature around him as a defence. Trees and rocks remove the threat of rifles and even a helicopter in an exceptionally well shot scene.
Even when Rambo lays down his knife and picks up various elements of the US Army's arsenal, he turns it on the elements of Hope's capitalist society. This final assault could be interpreted as military tactics as he eliminates the town's energy and food supplies, then their defensive possibilities, but the film lingers on these moments in a confused sense of delight in carnage, and destruction of American mainstays. He goes out of his way to bring Vietnam to the people who sent him there.
This was a film that could not escape the disenfranchisement of its forerunners - it shares more than a passing resemblance to aspects of The Deer Hunter along with it, and Deliverance's aesthetic - but it also reveled in the new era of American military might. It wanted to be an old fashioned war movie, but felt compelled to continually nod towards anti-war sentiment, as if to say, "It's okay, you can enjoy this, we hate war too!".
There is no denying that First Blood is a good film, and it is worth noting that it pre-dates Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. It wallows in flights of fancy, but also carries an emotional heft, and the superb cinematography belies the director of photography's (Andrew Laszlo) background being primarily in television.
The only real tragedies are the terrible song that taints the credits, and the sad fact that the director (Ted Kotcheff) went on to make Weekend at Bernies...