THE CHARACTER OF JOHN J. RAMBO and the media he inhabits hold a special place for me. I’m a child of the 80s, and there are few characters that are more visually evocative of that decade—with his signature bandana (a carry-over from something soldiers in Vietnam typically did that just happened to be in line with 1985 trends) and bigger than life heroics—after the second movie, the character was elevated to a place few have been able to go, especially in the pre-Internet age.
He became a brand, an idea, and an icon. A good number of people know the word, Rambo, and know that it has something to do with a bunch of action movies without even realizing it’s the character’s name. The word “Rambo” has also become synonymous with violence and aggression. Look up the word on dictionary.com and you get: “a fanatically militant or violently aggressive person.”
This is, at best, and undeserved connotation, which is obvious to anyone who knows the series. The John Rambo from the 1972 novel, “First Blood,” by David Morrell more closely fits this definition, but not the movie Rambo, especially when compared to other hyperviolent characters from action movies of the 80s and 90s.
In the first film, he was a victim of police brutality while suffering from acute PTSD, only defending himself from people who come after him. He only “attacks” when he’s ultimately pushed too far by National Guardsmen who almost bury him alive in an abandoned mine—and when he does, he destroys a bunch of property and wounds the sheriff who menaced him the whole movie. Point of fact, in First Blood there is only one fatality—the sadistic Deputy Art Gault, who falls from a helicopter after unbuckling his restraint in the second act.
One could say John Rambo is not aggressively violent in any of the films. In the first, he only attacks after being attacked. In the rest of the films, his missions are always to rescue an innocent being held by aggressors.
First it’s a group of POWs still being held in Vietnam over a decade after the war’s end; then he sets out to save his mentor, Col. Trautman and a bunch of Afghani civilians/rebels being held by the Soviets, then his mission is to rescue Christian missionaries who had been abducted by a sadistic Burmese Army leader while offering medical aid to villagers—and now in the upcoming fifth installment, it looks like he’s setting out to rescue some children from a human trafficking ring run by a Mexican cartel.
That said, it is true, that once the violence begins for whatever reason, Rambo becomes a force of nature, especially in the most recent installment. You might scoff at some of the things he does on screen as fantastic and impossible, and they are action movies, after all—but I challenge you to read some Medal of Honor citations from WWII, Korea, and Vietnam and see if some don’t illicit the same disbelieving reaction. Sure the movies are over the top, but there were far more unrealistic and outlandish actions movies from the same era of movies—and since.
All that said, Rambo does kill a lot of people in the series as a whole, making him an extremely unusual character to head up a kid’s cartoon called “Rambo: Force of Freedom” (see the animated intro sequence above), especially one with a “Remember, kids…” PSA at the end of every episode. But such was the 80s. There was a complete toy line based on an amalgamation of the cartoon and the film series, along with enough Rambo-branded merchandise to give GI Joe a run for his money, (I had the Thundercats Big Wheel bike, but I always wanted the Rambo one with the twin toy machine guns on the front) not to mention a couple successful video games.
What keeps the character fresh, and the sequels interesting after nearly 40 years (including a 20-year hiatus), is the story behind it all. While not overly complex, its evocative and can even be deeply emotional for some.
I was pretty close to the father of a long-time girlfriend in my youth. He was a decorated Army veteran who served in the Vietnam war as an M60 gunner—he was a grunt who spent more than enough time in the jungle being shot at.
He never talked about his service and had avoided watching most war movies, but he liked watching them with me for some reason. One Sunday, he wanted to watch the first two Rambo movies. After the second one ended, after Rambo gives his somewhat saccharine speech about what vets want from their government, I turned to see the man was crying a little. He said, “I’d give anything to be able to go back and fix all of it.” It never occurred to me that someone would take this movie that I’d been watching since I was a young child so seriously.
That’s what the character was for him, the embodiment of the complicated ball of emotions, regrets, and impulses shared by many veterans of that war—and a desire to put the wrongs of a very complicated war right once and for all.
And that’s what the second movie was about, and why it was so powerful. Sure it’s a violent fantasy that isn’t very realistic, but at its core its about a man with some vengeance in his heart and a bit of righteousness on his side going back to the place that had damaged him so much to try and bring home a handful of men being held captive like he once was. He faces down the enemy that dealt his country its first major loss on the battlefield in its short history. The movie celebrates the devotion of U.S. soldiers to their country, but at the same time, is critical of the government, which it blames for the biggest wrongs of the war.
The third movie is much more of a fantastic spectacle in my mind, taking place in a universe where Rambo is like a hardcore warrior James Bond. Like the second, it’s a vivid and bright film that relies on exotic locations and huge action scenes quite a bit more than it relies on story, and the only thing that makes it personal for John is the involvement of his mentor, Col. Trautman.
I saw the third one as a young kid at my first and only drive-in movie experience. I remember it being epic, and actually being worried that Rambo had died when the tank crashes into the helicopter at the end.
The movie wasn’t as much of a runaway hit like the second one—some say because of its subject matter. The story focuses on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and when production began, it was the center of news in the U.S. But by the time the movie came out, the Soviets had actually just announced their withdrawal from Afghanistan just days earlier, taking some wind out of the movie’s sails.
After that, Stallone moved on to other projects and then said he wasn’t going to be doing action movies anymore in the mid-90s. In the meantime, the production company that owned the rights to the Rambo character, Carolco, went bankrupt and the property bounced around a little bit until it ended up at Mellinium films. Fast forward 20 years and Stallone was ready to make another sequel. Everything lined up and the simply (perhaps too simply) titled Rambo was made as an independent film, shot on location in Thailand.
It is the most similar to First Blood in the series, but represents an extreme shift in tone for the series. What had been an action adventure title for two films and more than two decades, spawning toys and cartoons, was reintroduced as a gritty depiction of civil war in Burma with a look and story more closely tied to reality. It opens with real news footage of atrocities committed in the region. The violence is ugly and not cartoonish (unless you count the somewhat garish CGI blood effects), the explosions aren’t bright and packed with extra gasoline for big fireballs. In fact, its one of the few movies I can remember where we see the killing of children on screen during a jarring scene showing the Burmese army attacks a Karen village that feels more like the beginning of Saving Private Ryan than Rambo III.
John Rambo himself is more violent, angry, and brutal than we’ve ever seen him, struggling with the internal demons a lifetime of violence and isolation has left him with.
It was a welcome surprise for many filmgoers, and the movie went on to be a big hit. For some longtime fans, it’s a little difficult to reconcile this character and this version of the character with the previous two films—which now seem more like trumped up legends of the character we meet in the 2008 movie.
Stallone, now in his 70s, had toyed with the idea of doing a fifth movie with a sort of bizarre science fiction angle based on another property, but he ended up backing away from the series again for a full decade.
The end of Rambo found John finally returning home for the first time since the war, walking down the long driveway to his father’s horse ranch in Arizona where he was raised. The fifth film, released in 2019, finds the character 11 years after the events of Rambo. He has lived on his family’s ranch since returning with his old friend and former employee of the ranch, Maria, and her teenaged granddaughter having settled into a relatively peaceful life, but his demons are, by no means, banished.
When horrifying violence is visited on his adopted family and himself by a gang running a human trafficking ring, Rambo gives in to the impulses he’s been keeping a lid on for over a decade and gives up all pretense of civility, embarking on an outright vengeances mission that gets bloodier than any other movie in the series.
Personally, I have Rambo to blame for getting me into guns, knives, and bows. Yes, as a kid I had the plastic knife, the toy compound bow and plastic arrows, and an array of toy guns with the red “RAMBO” logo on the side. Eventually, those were upgraded to a youth bow and a Western knife with a brown handle and silver pommel when I got my side-by-side Savage deer gun at 12.
When I had my own money to waste, I bought every single screen-accurate Rambo knife replica I could get my hands on. (My mouse hovered over the “purchase” button on a vintage Hoyt compound bow almost like the one used in Part 2 for a good long time…maybe more than once, but I never got one.) And if I could afford an actual M60, it probably would have happened by now.
This might sound a bit odd, especially in this day and age, but I starting watching the second Rambo movie at about age 3 or so, as far as my mother can tell from some vintage home movies. I couldn’t read, but I knew which home-recorded VHS tape held my favorite movie, because my dad had written the titles on the back in bright blue pen, while the rest were all written in black. It was the second of three movies on the tape. If I rewound too far, I’d have to hide my eyes through the ending of Jaws, if I let the tape run past the Rambo credits, I’d wind up watching Cocoon—perhaps just as damaging.
It was the seed for a series of lifelong obsessions and hobbies for me that eventually became a career, such as it is, and every once in a while, I still rewatch them all, and I don’t like them any less.
It’s truly amazing to me that now, 37 years after First Blood first hit theaters, a new Rambo movie, Rambo: Last Blood just premiered in September of 2019. The movie divided some audiences and its violence was definitely of a higher order than any other movie in the series, giving it an entirely different tone—but you can read my full review of the newest movie in its section below.
As you might imagine, there have been a lot of guns used on screen in the four films to date, and we’re going to take a look at as many as we can in the galleries below: