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Stanley Kauffman on Films: Now, About Rambo....

“Symbol of the American Spirit." That's the headline in the ads for Rambo, which is about its hero's foray into Vietnam today to rescue American POWs. The subject has been used before, in Uncommon Valor with Gene Hackman, in Missing in Action and Missing in Action II, with Chuck Norris: but Rambo outdistances them. Three facts: Rambo is the current box-office champion in the country. ("Rambo Ahead by a Mile," Variety, June 5.) Like the second Norris film, Rambo is a sequel. (In the earlier one, First Blood, also starring Sylvester Stallone, Rambo, a returned Vietnam vet, went on a rampage against civilians and National Guardsmen because of mistreatment of Vietnam vets.) Rambo is cinematically no piece of schlock; it was made with prime professional skills. (Cinematography by Jack Cardiff, an Oscar winner.) In credibility, the action is as ludicrous as old Saturday-afternoon serials; in execution, the skills help it to skate over the incredibilities.

Rambo's character is constructed with equal care. Stallone wrote the script with James Cameron, using materials devised by David Morrell, and the recipe is right. Rambo is of half-Indian, half-German stock. The Indian blood, I suppose, explains his wilderness skills, his prowess with a knife and with a (modernized) bow. In this simplistic genetic formula, the German half is apparently meant to explain his talents with modern weaponry and with aircraft. From this union, perhaps, Rambo also has enormous biceps and pecs that, day or night, gleam.

The "American Spirit" that Rambo symbolizes is strong, taciturn, self-reliant, and wronged. At the start, he is breaking rock in a penitentiary, where he is doing time as a result of his adventures in First Blood. His release is negotiated by a colonel who knows him and wants him for a special mission in Vietnam. Rambo asks: "Do we get to win this time?" (Read: "Will we be allowed to win this time?") Rambo has already personified the slighted Vietnam veteran; now he carries forward the stab-in-the-back theory, and it leads to political complications.

The mission, on which he is sent via helicopter and parachute from a U.S. base in Thailand, is to spend 36 hours taking photographs of a Vietnam camp that he knows only too grimly well—to check if there are any American POWs. As soon as Rambo has left, his friend the colonel asks the civilian chief of the base, Murdock, about the existence of such POWs. Murdock doubts it. Evidently he wants his doubt confirmed. But Rambo finds half a dozen, rescues one, and gets him back to the "extraction point," the place where a helicopter is scheduled to lift him out. When the approaching pilot radios the base that Rambo has a POW with him, Murdock orders the pilot to abort the mission—to abandon Rambo and the POW.

At the base the furious colonel storms at Murdock, who explains that the appearance of a POW back home might start agitation for armed invasion: that North Vietnam had wanted $4.5 billion ransom for prisoners back in 1972, that the money was not forthcoming then, and is even less likely to be paid now. Soon Rambo is captured by a squad of Soviet soldiers, who are not only Vietnamese allies but supply them with arms. The Soviet chief has him tortured to try to make him broadcast a false message to the U.S. base. Despite torture, Rambo refuses; his only broadcast message is to tell Murdock that he is coming back to get him. Helped by a Vietnamese girl who had been secretly briefed to guide him, Rambo escapes. (The girl is soon killed, so Rambo is left uncluttered by affection.)

Thus he has three political enemies: the Vietnamese, who want to kill him; the Soviets, who want to kill him; and the American Murdock, whom he wants to kill. Many explosions later, he gets all six of the American POWs out, is himself unhurt, and corners the frightened Murdock, whose life he contemptuously spares.

Rambo tells the friendly colonel that there are more Americans in Nam camps. (How does he know?) When the colonel asks him to join up again and help, he refuses. Apparently he is now a disillusioned loner. The colonel asks him whether he loves his country, and Rambo replies fiercely that he and all other Vietnam vets love their country—what they want is for their country to love them. As he walks away, the colonel asks how he will live. Rambo: "Day by day."

Obviously, then, Rambo is not just one more guts-and-glory series of impossible exploits. It's a statement of political beliefs, genuinely held or cynically utilized. America lost the Vietnam War but could not have lost it fairly: Americans don't lose fairly fought wars. They must have been betrayed—by elements in the government and the public that are still manipulating and betraying. The Vietnam experience bred a corps of veterans who are stalwart, long-suffering, deeply resentful. (Of course Rambo was made before the many recent moves to restore veterans' morale.) If given the chance, they can and will prove that history is not a closed book.

Some other matters loom out of Rambo. I can't argue here with the back-stab theory or any other political aspect of the quagmire. Nor do I want to be offhand about a misery that, along with hundreds of thousands of others, took 60,000 American lives. But Rambo and its film kin demonstrate that Vietnam today has become a mythological place, somewhat akin to those territories on ancient maps marked "Here there bee tygers." One after another, the heroes set off into that mysterious land to try their courage, to risk their lives in exploits without the complications of war, morally sanctified because the quest is humane and the enemy monstrous. Who needs Westerns now? In fact, quite adroitly, Rambo ingests the Western by making its hero half-Indian.

And there's another appeal in Rambo. Simplicity. Successful action justifies all. Are you frustrated by the plagues of complex politics? Do you feel cut off from the chance of immediate physical release by the gigantic finality of nuclear war? Take comfort—find promise, even—in those gleaming pecs and the modernized bow.

This article originally ran in the July 1, 1985 issue of the magazine.