In May of 1986, my mother handed me $10, money allotted for to buy a souvenir while on a field trip to New York City. I spent that money on a poster, one I found inside a gift shop high atop of the World Trade. This poster ran 24 x 36, a photographic rendering of Ronald Reagan’s head superimposed on Sylvester Stallone’s body. The President was cradling an M60, bullets draped like cloth across the outside of his wrist. “RONBO,” The poster shouted, each letter stenciled in blood-red.
As a 12-year old, my connection to that poster had nothing to do with its underlying connotation. At the time “Born In the U.S.A” was still an anthem (three years after its release), Casualties of War and Born on The Fourth of July were looming large in pre-production. There was a prevailing sense that Vietnam had done us dirty, the conflict’s heroes viewed like vagrants, approached with apprehension in America’s small towns.
First Blood – released in 1982 – represented a scathing indictment of that culture, departing as it did from David Morrell’s original 1972 novel. The Rambo of that novel was an unrepentant killing machine, climactically gunned down by Colonel Trautman, his creator. It was this specific difference in the screenplay that caused Kirk Douglas to abandon the role of Trautman, altogether, Richard Crenna stepping in to fill the void with zero notice.
What remained vastly unchanged between the book and the movie was Rambo’s post-traumatic haze, exacerbated by gray bureaucrats who pushed and pulled until they forced him over the edge. This tug-of-war suggested a bold new wrinkle in America’s man-against-the-system genre. First Blood, while not as celebrated as, say, Badlands or The Deer Hunter, remains a great deal more satisfying, particularly because it grips you by the throat, declaring all-out war on hypocritical small-town values. With a running time just over 90 minutes, this film gets in and out at break-neck pace, its protagonist proving sympathetic enough to incapacitate without killing. The location shoots (i.e., British Columbia) look sensational, Goldsmith’s score sounds patriotic, and Sylvester Stallone oozes pure vengeance in his great turn as the lead.
All told, First Blood unleashed some powerful juju, delivered at an opportune time to an unsuspecting audience. The movie made its mark – thanks in part to strong reviews – raking in continued box office well into 1983. The following summer, Bruce Springsteen began appearing just like Rambo while onstage. Four months later, President Reagan co-opted Springsteen – as well as the Vietnam veteran – during a speech in southern Jersey. Two years later, I stood inside a gift shop high atop of the World Trade, purchasing a poster that featured Reagan as the quintessential bureaucrat, his head positioned firmly on the shoulders of another.