It’s a Long Road, part 2

Ok, so where were we? Ah yes, Rambo. Last week I laid the basic groundwork for what we’ll be talking about now, including a pretty full summary and analysis of the first film. Don’t worry, I won’t be analyzing every movie in the series with that kind of depth. For one, most of the films defy analysis on their own, and for another, we don’t have that kind of time. So here’s the quickie versions:

In Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (terrible title, I know), Rambo is released from prison on the condition that he perform a mission for the government: head back into Vietnam to gather intel on (and later rescue) a group of POWs still being held.

In the third film, Rambo 3, Rambo (now living quietly in Thailand) is approached by his old CO, Colonal Trautman, to participate in a mission to bring weapons into Afghanistan. When the mission fails and Trautman is captured by enemy combatants, Rambo must save him single-handedly.

And finally the fourth film, simply called Rambo, finds Rambo again attempting to live a quiet life in Thailand, this time chartering boats. When a group of missionary workers who previously asked Rambo for transport are kidnapped by a bloodthirsty warlord, Rambo must again take up the sword (not a metaphor, he actually forges a sword in this one) and rescue them. It should be noted that in this film Rambo kills exactly 236 people, a far cry from First Blood‘s zero.

I mentioned last week that over the course of the films Rambo’s tactics change somewhat drastically from stealthy and cunning to more conventional warfare tactics. Conventional for an action movie, anyway. By Rambo he basically becomes a walking gun emplacement, fighting almost the entire ending battle behind a machine gun turret.

But something else changes from First Blood in the later films, and hopefully from my descriptions you’ve picked up on it. First Blood depicts Rambo and his violent actions as a negative force. Rambo was portrayed as a man locked in an endless cycle of death and violence, one from which he cannot escape. And this is shown as a tragic situation. Sure, we can root for Rambo as he takes down the sheriffs, but he ultimately is not something to aspire to or praise.

The later films reverse this completely. Suddenly Rambo’s aptitude for violence becomes a means to an end, a way to accomplish goals. Granted, they are goals that are worthwhile, and I doubt the evil warlords and such could be stopped by anything but violence, but the thematic use of violence has nevertheless changed. In First Blood, Rambo was tragic because of his traits.

In the later films, his aptitude for violence becomes a heroic feature. The trailer for Rambo calls him “a legend of war” even. He is a hero, and his violent actions are devoid of any of the tragic undertones of First Blood. He becomes infused with a potency and for lack of a better term machismo that he didn’t have before.

And therein lies the great poignancy of the Rambo franchise, dear readers.

If you cast your mind back to part one of this little romp, you’ll remember my idle speculation that had there been more soldiers trained in the combat style Rambo was trained in (according to First Blood, mind), the war may have gone differently for the US, enabling them to fight the VC more effectively.

The Rambo of later films portrays him, as I have said, as using more conventional tactics, less stealth and guile and more shooting anything that moves and using only the basest of stealth techniques. Put simply, this is the attitude toward combat that largely lost the Vietnam war for the United States. The use of blunt force over precision, the glorification of the commando who meets his enemy head-on in open combat.

And what happens when Rambo makes this leap from Guerrilla to Commando? He is transformed from a tragic hero to a simple hero. Gone are the days when he is run out of town for simply wanting to buy a coffee. Gone is the crying, the psychological torment, the brokenness. In comes potency, heroism and glory.

The Rambo series stands as a testament to the inability of the US (especially during the 80s and 90s) to understand why they lost the war. The continual glorification of the “walking tank” and condemnation of intelligent warfare. Now before you ask, NO it is not intentional. That’s what makes it so poignant, really.

I call it “loving the wrong and hating the right.” The testosterone spewing, jar-headed grunt is canonized as a “legend of war” and the stealthy, intelligent guerrilla soldier is carried off in chains.

And what became of Rambo? The occasional rumor to the contrary, for now the franchise is over, so how did our hero finally end up?

While otherwise nothing special, the 2008 film did offer a powerful closing shot, and probably as fitting an end as we’ll get to the tale of this lost soul. After the climax of the film, Rambo returns home to a somewhat stereotypical looking farm, finally ready to reconcile with his only living relative: an estranged father. The closing shot of the film is our hero slowly trekking up the long dusty road toward the distant farm.

The closing theme of First Blood was a slightly cringe-inducing tune called It’s a Long Road, a mournful song set to the Rambo theme song. I chose to name this analysis of the franchise that partly for that song and partly for that closing shot from Rambo.

The road walked by John Rambo is indeed long, and lonely. But the final film in the series offers a glimpse of hope, a reconnection with his lost humanity. With any luck, this will remain our final glimpse of John Rambo, and this hopeful ending can be left intact.

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