Rambo (1985): Stallone’s Vietnam Actioner

President Reagan’s era almost demanded a single, simplistic screen hero to embody the decade’s macho mentality: a strong, rugged man of action who would express the traditional ideas and values.

That actor who symbolized the country’s contemporary–and wishful–conception of itself was Sylvester Stallone, who had achieved his initial fame in 1976 playing Rocky Balboa, a populist hero and lovable loser in a pessimistic anti-Establishment film, which insisted the American Dream was attainable. Future films in that series reinforced this political message, as Rocky emerged a winner in the cruel and competitive boxing ring.

But it was as John Rambo, a self-styled Superman and avenger of America’s damaged post-Vietnam reputation, that Stallone captivated the public’s fancy by conveying the attitude that patriotic flag-waving was once more in fashion.

Rambo was introduced in the 1982 film First Blood, a popular movie about a scruffy Vietnam vet hassled by a small-town sheriff (Brian Dennehy). That film suffered from the conflict between its director, the more serious-minded Ted Kotcheff, attempting to make a more realistic tale, and Stallone, who clearly wanted Rambo to emerge as a superhero. But the films unexpected commercial success allowed Stallone to control the content of the sequel.

During the intervening time, Stallone had gone through cosmetic surgery and bodybuilding, announcing that, in his estimation, the ideal film would have only one line of dialogue: “Yo!”

The film begins by John Rambo being rescued from hard labor by his former Green Beret commander, Major Trautman (Richard Crenna), who enlists his finest soldier for a daredevil mission, slipping into Cambodia as a literally one-man army. Rambos mission is to rescue the MIAs still held captive there, with only a beautiful young Cambodian woman (Julia Nickson) as his guide.

She was killed off quickly, so that there wont be time for romance, allowing Rambo-Stallone to waste his enemies without distraction. Rambo realizes, while accomplishing his mission, that he’s been betrayed by his superior (Charles Napier), who represents the government’s desire not to bring the boys home but to close the book on them.

At the finale, Stallones Rambo delivered an impassioned speech about the plight of American vets. Up until then, though, the actioner plays as a Road Runner cartoon and Two Fisted comic book, due to George Cosmatos’s focused direction, and Stallone’s presence in the lead.

Rambo tapped some deep national nightmares, which had recently come to consciousness in magazine articles and TV reports, about the possibility that Americans were still held prisoner. That fear so dominated the public that Chuck Norris was able to make it the subject of his picture Missing in Action, which also did brisk business, while Kotcheff himself treated the subject in Uncommon Valor.

Like Rambo, those films also touched the country’s collective nerve about the presumably missing Americans in East Asia, but none attained the success or impact of Rambo, which simplified and distorted the whole situation as a one-man show, a hero who single-handedly saved the POWs.

Clearly, Rambo was a fantasy figure, in tune with President Reagans right-wing politics (and some of the movies he had made in the 1940s). Some Vietnam veterans, who were not happy with the way they were depicted in other American movies (the leftist Coming Home, for example), rallied around Rambo. However, rather quickly, their spokesmen (like Senator John Kerry) began speaking out against the film, which implied Sylvester Stallone could, in one day, get a job done at which the armed forces had failed, an unintentional putdown of our fighting men.

Ultimately, Rambo was mostly supported by teenagers who had been too young to know about Vietnam, and thus enjoyed seeing the war being reduced to a comic-book fantasy action, a contemporary cowboys-and-Indians saga. Rambo captured the spirit of a country that during the past decade had a chip on its shoulder, perhaps looking for a war (and finding it in Grenada) that could easily won.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Sound Effects Editing: Frederick J. Brown

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winners were Charles L. Campbell and Robert Rutledge for “Back to the Future.”


Executive producers, Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna; produced by Buzz Feishans; directed by George P. Cosmatos; written by Sylvester Stallone and James Cameron from a story by Kevin Jarre; photography, Jack Cardiff; editors, Mark Goldblatt and Mark Itelfrich; Running time, 92 minutes. Rating: R.


John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone), Major Trautman (Richard Crenna); Murdock (Charles Napier); Co Bao (Julia Nickson); Podovsky (Steven Berkoff); Ericson (Martin Kove).