03 May 2010

I want a re-make of First Blood. Seriously.

Sylvester Stallone has confirmed this week that, despite some chatter to the contrary, he isn’t planning on doing another Rambo movie. The previous installment in the series, which was simply titled Rambo, did well enough that a fifth wouldn’t be out of the question. Stallone had mentioned possibly doing a science-fiction geared outing (basically, “Rambo vs. Pseudo-Predator”), and then changing over to Rambo shooting up people in Mexico. But Stallone apparently no longer believes there’s more material to mine from the cinematic Rambo.

He’s probably right . . . as far as the Stallone-continuity “John Rambo” is concerned.

But what about the “No-First-Name Rambo” from David Morrell’s original novel First Blood?

Yes, I’m going to advocate for something that I usually oppose: a re-make.

I want a new version of First Blood. Period-set (early ‘70s) and staying closer to the book than the 1982 movie.

If you’ve never read Morrell’s 1972 book, I can’t give a high enough recommendation. It’s one of the best popular literature novels from its decade that I’ve read. The 1982 movie adaptation starring Stallone that started the character on his journey to ‘80s iconography is a very good piece of work—easily the best of the four films in the series—but it made major changes to Morrell’s book. Principally, it toned down the violence. This sounds amazing: a Sylvester Stallone movie that’s less violent than its source material? Considering how many people Rambo guns down, explodes, and knifes into cucumber slices in Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III, and Rambo, this seems an incredible statement.

Yet it’s true: John Rambo in the film First Blood maims many folks, but is responsible for only a single death, the accidental knocking of a rifleman from a helicopter. In the novel, No-First-Name Rambo kills . . . well, even Morrell admits that the death toll is “uncountable.” I would put the slaughter at somewhere around sixty people, but I can’t be sure if the author isn’t.

Morrell’s original intention in writing the novel was “to bring Vietnam home to America.” The bloody, insane wilderness violence of Vietnam would manifest itself in the drowsy Midwest. For this concept to work, huge numbers of people had to die in bush warfare.

It’s clear that the 1982 movie was trying to make Rambo an underdog figure an audience could cheer on, much like Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. The character simply couldn’t brutally slaughter U.S. law enforcement officers and National Guardsmen in droves and expect the sympathy vote from viewers. At least, not in ‘82, before Platoon changed how people viewed Vietnam-themed films, and not with Stallone in the part. So the killer Rambo became less lethal, and his adversary, Sheriff Teasle, was changed into a nasty, irredeemable redneck jerk.

That’s another aspect of the novel First Blood that will surprise first-time readers: Teasle is the co-protagonist with his own complex character arc. He’s much more sympathetic than Rambo, who is truly a murder machine unleashed on a quiet Kentucky countryside. (The movie shifted the location to Washington State, mainly for weather considerations. Then a snowstorm temporarily shut down production because nature loves to screw with people like that.) Nearly half the novel centers on Teasle as a POV character as he struggles with a personal crisis in the middle of a public crisis that has changed his legal jurisdiction into a blood-splattered war zone all because he hassled some longhaired kid on the road.

The poles of the Teasle/Rambo conflict make the appearance of Trautmann, Rambo’s former C.O., much more ambiguous and mysterious. Trautmann is not a POV character, and because of it he is this almost sinister force. It’s very different from how Richard Crenna’s Trautmann appears in the movie.

And then there’s the ending. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that it would make a sequel rather, uhm, tricky to pull off. The movie did shoot a conclusion similar to the novel’s, but ditched it for what appears on screen now. (The DVD contains the unused ending among its bonus features.)

The usphot of all this: there’s still a great story to be told from Morrell’s novel, and a version of the story set in 1972, with a younger Rambo who kills kills kills, and the sympathetic Teasle, could be astonishing. It would take a brave group of filmmakers, however, since the name “Rambo” is so closely connected with Stallone’s iteration and ‘80s politics. This movie would have to sell itself with a campaign telling people to “forget everything you’ve seen before.”

Filmmakers might be lured to update the story to modern times, making John Rambo a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan. I hope they resist this temptation and make it a period film set in early ‘70s. There’s a huge appeal in showing a story of the U.S. losing its innocence in the slaughter of the very confusing Vietnam conflict. The story is powerful without having to get updated to make it “current.” If this re-make does happen—and I don’t think it’s likely to occur in the next five years, at the very least—I would urge its makers to keep it in 1972.

I’m sure that I am not the first person to think about re-filming Morrell’s book. Somebody in a position of power in Hollywood has thought of it as well, and thought of going ahead and doing it. Now that Stallone has said there will be no further movies about his Rambo, it’s time to consider going back to well. There’s no way they could possibly make it more violent than the fourth movie, which is the most graphically over-the-top mainstream action film I’ve ever seen.

If I haven’t made it clear already in this post, the novel First Blood is more than worth your time. I may not love it as much as my cousin does—it’s his favorite book and he owns a first edition—but I still love it.