Monday, February 04, 2008

Antiwar, radical, conspiracy theories, doesn't trust the government... No wonder I always dug Rambo. Red Dawn, too.

A well thought out, counterintuitive look at the Rambo films.

Reason Magazine - The Ghost of Rambo:
"...But there was more to the movie than that. That's the second thing people forget about the Rambo series: The first installment is explicitly anti-war and surprisingly radical.

The film opens with Rambo learning that one of his war buddies has died of exposure to Agent Orange. Right after that, when the sheriff starts to harass the soldier, Teasle tells him that "wearing that flag on that jacket, and looking the way you do, you're asking for trouble around here." The reference to the flag seems to signify an intolerance toward veterans, but the second clause implies that Teasle doesn't like Rambo because of his appearance—i.e., because he looks like a hippie drifter. When the sheriff's men finally find out that Rambo is a Green Beret who served in Vietnam, one of them exclaims, "Jesus! That freak?"

This identification of Rambo with the counterculture is a residue of Morrell's novel, which was partly inspired by a news report. "In a southwestern American town," Morrell writes, "a group of hitchhiking hippies had been picked up by the local police, stripped, hosed, and shaved—not just their beards but their hair. The hippies had then been given back their clothes and driven to a desert road, where they were abandoned to walk to the next town, thirty miles away....I wondered what Rambo's reaction would be if, after risking his life in the service of his country, he were subjected to the insults that those hippies had received."

The most jarring thing about the movie's politics comes later. Everyone remembers Rambo's much-quoted soliloquy at the end of the film, the one where he complains about "maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting on me, calling me a baby-killer." What isn't quoted as often is a conversation between Teasle and Col. Trautman, the Special Forces officer who trained Rambo. Trautman, played by Richard Crenna, describes his student's immense skills as a fighter, and he suggests the police should defuse the situation by letting Rambo escape, waiting a few days, then putting out a nationwide APB and picking him up later. Teasle refuses.

Trautman: You want a war you can't win?
Teasle: Are you telling me that 200 men against your boy is a no-win situation for us?
Trautman: You send that many, don't forget one thing.
Teasle: What?
Trautman: Plenty of body bags.

A small but committed guerilla force humiliating a larger power that doesn't comprehend the fight it's in—the comparison to Vietnam is obvious. It's also a little discomfiting, because it puts Rambo in the role of the Viet Cong. Morrell was wrong: The movie did transpose the Vietnam war to America. It just did it in a radically different way than the book did, and with radically different implications. It asks the audience to cheer for a guerilla hero.

This was surprisingly common in the allegedly right-wing cult movies of the '80s. Consider John Milius' Red Dawn (1984), in which a small group of Colorado high school jocks battle a Soviet occupation. The film outraged liberal critics, but further to the left it had some supporters. In a witty and perceptive piece for The Nation, Andrew Kopkind called it "the most convincing story about popular resistance to imperial oppression since the inimitable Battle of Algiers," adding that he'd "take the Wolverines from Colorado over a small circle of friends from Harvard Square in any revolutionary situation I can imagine." The one sympathetic character among the occupying forces is a Cuban colonel with a background in guerilla warfare. At one point he tells a Russian officer, voice dripping with disgust, that he used to be an insurgent but now is "just like you—a policeman." Increasingly sympathetic to the Coloradoan rebels, at a key moment the Cuban allows two of them to escape.

...Rambo: First Blood Part 2 starts with the title character being freed from a prison "hell-hole." Dangling the possibility of a pardon, Trautman asks if Rambo is willing to go on a covert reconnaissance mission to find MIAs in communist Vietnam. Rambo accepts with just one question: "Do we get to win this time?"

So begins the movie everyone remembers; or, rather, the movie everyone thinks they remember. If Stallone's speech about the mistreated vet serves as a screen memory that conceals the more radical implications of the first Rambo picture, then the hype and hysteria around the follow-up film has done something similar for First Blood Part 2. Yes, it's an ultraviolent story about a supersoldier refighting the Vietnam war. Yes, it implies that we could have won Vietnam the first time around if our hands hadn't been tied by liberals back home. Yes, Ronald Reagan co-opted it, joking at the end of one hostage crisis that "After seeing Rambo last night, I know what to do the next time this happens." The word "Rambo" entered the language, in phrases like "Rambo foreign policy." Some veterans picketed the picture. One vet—Gustav Hasford, author of the book that became Full Metal Jacket—called it "Triumph of the Will for American Nazis."

All of which makes it easy to forget that this movie is as cynical about the government as any 1970s conspiracy thriller. Indeed, the POW/MIA rescue genre evolved directly from those post-Watergate pictures... In First Blood Part 2, likewise, we learn that Rambo was never supposed to find any prisoners; he rescues them only by ditching the authorities' plan and setting off on his own. (I haven't read Morrell's novelization of the film, but it apparently includes a scene in which Rambo chuckles darkly as he informs the disbelieving POWs that Ronald Reagan has become president. He "couldn't bring himself to tell them that Vietnam was about to change its name to Nicaragua.")

...When the Cold War ended, Sylvester Stallone's movies lost their hold on the culture and decayed into '80s kitsch. But that distrust of the government didn't disappear; if anything, it intensified and crossed what used to be sharp ideological lines. (In the early '90s, it wasn't that unusual to hear left-wing radicals pondering the possibility of a POW coverup—or right-wing radicals touting the powers of hemp.) Since 2001, the balance has tipped back and forth. When the wounds of 9/11 were fresh, the outrage of the heartland populists turned outwards again; since then, the failures of the Iraqi occupation have driven many of them back to an anti-government stance..."

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