Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Rambo Revolution

Before winning the Vietnam War and joining the Mujaheddin, John Rambo fought the law. People often forget this first chapter in the Rambo saga, since it has the lowest body count and keeps its reactionary politics under wraps until Stallone's climactic monologue. Those politics have been better scrutinized elsewhere, so I'd like to talk about the subversive streak in the movie that introduced the Rambo character, First Blood.

Beginning with dialogue-free scenes of John Rambo drifting across small town America. It sets a somber mood, putting the audience in the shoes of a socially alienated vet in the dreary fringes of Reagan's America. Where the Carter malaise still lingers and the local sheriff is the sort of power fetishist who will harass and jail anyone who looks weak and unimportant.

The sheriff in First Blood is a villain that couldn't exist in the present time, despite being much more timely. Such sheriffs certainly exist in reality - from Joe Arpaio to the wannabe fascist who ticketed you this morning - but the Police lobby is much too vocal these days. And the whole culture is much more policed, especially since 9/11.

Not so in the First Blood era. People forget but in the years following the Vietnam debacle and the Watergate scandal, police and other symbols of power were a dirty word in American discourse. Nixon and Reagan had to work over time to make "law and order" - the sheriff's mantra for his own doomed pursuit of Rambo - a palatable concept to the public at large. Their base were already fans of course, because their base were just the sort of atomized suburbanites who cheer police shootings and vote for Trump. The mindless, moronic fascism of ordinary people.

Rambo, in his first iteration, didn't fit that paradigm. Clothes too dirty, hair too long, the sort the "law and order" types always target because the order they seek is an ordered appearance. As the sheriff says, "We have a nice town." And keeping it nice means keeping out the undesirables.

It doesn't stop there, of course. It can't because just by existing, Rambo threatens the sheriff's sense of order. He must be broken down, made to fit in if not disappear completely. He doesn't, he rebels, and the whole power of the police-state descends upon him. All because he wanted to eat in a diner in peace. Rambo's desperate cries of "I didn't do anything!" fall on deaf ears because he has no voice in this system - like more and more Americans in this ever more authoritarian and neoliberal state.

So he takes up arms. It's the only logical path, when reasoned argument and civility did nothing to dissuade a police state that is not so much corrupt as corrupting, the power it confers with a badge really just license to continue being the schoolyard bully into adulthood. This is also where the film finally breaks with reality - at least our sick and sad modern reality - as Rambo is a product of the military-industrial complex.

What you call home, Rambo calls Hell.

A full-bird colonel - meaning a company man - arrives late in the third act to talk up Rambo's battle prowess in the exaggerated manner of all stunted twerps who provide fascism with its shock troops. In the original ending of the film, as in the book, the colonel kills Rambo as he's nothing but a defective part in the machine that bombed and massacred the Vietnamese for the crime of wanting to be something other than American. In the film, Rambo surrenders peaceably after a largely bloodless rampage, setting up the cartoonishly jingoistic sequels.

But in this first film, even with the lost cause malarkey at the very end, Rambo serves as the everyman caught between the insatiable Pentagon empire and a homefront dominated by the democratic feudalism of respectable neighborhoods and pigs with badges. It's very weird how films can age.

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