Franchise Expansion Or Implosion: First Blood

by Ben Martin

Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)

Sylvester Stallone is a cornerstone of the action genre. Throughout his career, Stallone has created two of the most beloved underdogs ever. One of these underdogs is, of course, John Rambo. A character who, for better or worse, has become an American icon. The return of Rambo is right around the corner with the latest (and presumably final) installment in this movie series, Rambo: Last Blood. But, before we get to that, we’ll look at the ups and downs of everyone’s favorite fictional veteran, throughout The Rambo Franchise! To start, I’ll draw out my opinions on First Blood (1982)!

In this sociopolitical era of extremist viewpoints and a seemingly evaporating area of middle ground, there is one bright spot. The accepted ability of many Americans to respect the troops while being simultaneously opposed to whatever the current war might be. While holding two such sentiments may seem strange, it can be done. Alas, that was not the case when The Vietnam War (1950-1975) concluded. At that time, many American citizens felt the war was a travesty and rightfully so. Unfortunately, though, members of the U.S. military who were merely doing their jobs by serving over in Vietnam received nothing but hatred from some of their fellow Americans upon returning home. Instead of being treated like the human beings they are, many of these soldiers ended up being treated as if they were hideous monsters by many.

Such disenfranchisement reached then college professor David Morrell in 1968. At the time, many of Morrell’s students were returning Vietnam vets; several of whom were suffering from PTSD. Beyond that, these soldiers turned college freshman had trouble respecting their instructor’s authority. Not surprisingly, the disconnect between himself and these students became an issue for Morrell. Seeking understanding of the problem, had in-depth conversations with the veterans in his class. It was these conversations that eventually led Morrell to pen his 1972 novel, First Blood.

Frankly, if history is any indication, there are only two ways to tell a story about returning Vietnam veteran. You can play for thrills, ala Taxi Driver (1976) and Rolling Thunder (1977). Or, you can go the seemingly less popular dramatic route, like Coming Home (1978) and The Deer Hunter (1978). In the case of his novel, Morrell took the arguably exploitative approach. In the book, the roles of the main characters are reversed. Rambo is a veteran gone mad in a small American town. Teasle, on the other hand, was the police chief who saves the day.

Upon its release in 1972, the novel received a myriad of mixed reviews at best. With one critic even going so far as to deem Morrell’s book, “Carnography.” Still, the story was a hit, and the film rights to the novel were initially purchased for $75,000 by Columbia Pictures shortly after its publication. While the studio attempted to adapt that source material faithfully, they never could get First Blood off the ground.

Eventually, First Blood went into turnaround, and Warner Bros. bought the film rights from Columbia for a quarter of a million dollars. As any major studio is want to do, The Brothers Warner had various screenwriters taking a crack at carefully adapting Morrell’s novel. Meanwhile, the studio was doing its best to get the ball rolling on the flick. Despite not having a finished screenplay, they brought on Sidney Lumet (Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead) was brought on to direct. Thus,  he proceeded with attempting to cast the picture. 

To bring some more gravities to the project; the role of Colonel Trautman was offered to Gene Hackman (Uncommon Valor), Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now), and Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen) respectively. All of whom quickly declined the opportunity to play a military man yet again. At the same time, the part of Rambo was being offended, respectively, to the leading men of the day, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro (both of whom will appear in the upcoming The Irishman). Both leading men declined the role of Rambo; with Pacino citing that he didn’t want to run around the woods for a year. Shortly after these rejections, WB and Lumet’s version of First Blood dried up.

It turns out that the third stab would be the one that stuck when the heads of Caralco Pictures, picked up the rights and fast-tracked drawing First Blood. They quickly hired Ted Kotcheff (Weekend at Bernie’s) to helm the project. The producers and director were on the same page when it came to casting Sylvester Stallone; who was fresh off his Award-winning Academy success with Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979) a few years earlier. This casting came together rapidly as Stallone accepted the role after reading the script over a weekend. At this point, Stallone is the triple threat of actor-writer-director that he makes a suggestion that will be key to the big-screen adaptation of First Blood. Stray away from the book and reverse the roles to make Rambo the hero of the picture. That way, audiences would get behind him. While such a move certainly isn’t altruistic on Stallone’s part, he was right. 

Along with screenwriters Michael Kozal and William Sackheim (The Hard Way), Stallone worked to take the screenplay in the new direction. In total, there were 27 drafts of the screenplay, with many written by Stallone alone. In any end, the incarnation that made it to screen maintained the plot of Morrell’s book, despite the role reversals. First Blood follows decorated Green Beret and Vietnam veteran, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) who has finally returned stateside. Rambo is making his way through a small town in the Northwestern U.S. It’s in this tiny town when he is hassled by Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) and his abusive officers. The matter quickly spirals out of control as Rambo escapes police custody and flees to the mountains to defend his life.

With the story finally, in place, First Blood was then fast-tracked into production;  despite the fact that the essential role of Rambo’s former commanding officer, Colonel Trautman, had yet to be cast. Mind you; the producers wanted a name to play the colonel. Well, they got it when Kirk Douglas (Spartacus (1960)) accepted the role. However, the actor soon departed from the picture due to his demanding changes to the script  to make the film more in-line with its source material. Finally, Richard Crenna was brought on board to play Trautman. No doubt, Trautman was an interesting transition from the effeminate role Crenna had just finished portraying on broadway.

Shooting on First Blood, which took place in the beautiful town of Hope, British Columbia, turned out to be a longer, and more grueling process than expected. Production on the film ran so long in fact that it forced the pre-production of Rocky III (1982) to get pushed back. Along the way, Stallone broke a couple of ribs doing his stunts. Alas,, even with all that work, the star of First Blood thought the efforts of himself and all involved might be in vain. Sylvester Stallone hated the first cut of the film (which ran over 3 hours) and thought it might ruin his career. The actor supposedly tried to purchase the movie from its producers to destroy it. Not surprisingly, Stallone’s offer was immediately dismissed. However, they did allow the actor to have a lot of input during the recut process, which would eventually result in the theatrical cut we have today.

It’s this same film that audiences took to with great enthusiasm; making First Blood Stallone’s first box-office success outside of the Rocky franchise. Despite initially being budgeted at $11 million, the movie ended up costing $17 million. Even so, First Blood was a smash-hit, grossing $125 million at the box-office. During its theatrical run, the film remained number one at the box office for three weeks and went on to become the thirteenth highest-grossing release of 1982.

First Blood deserves all of the success it has garnered. Frankly, I think it’s a revolutionary movie in many ways. See, the film in review was the first action movie to honestly examine PTSD in a severe fashion as opposed to just the genre fare. Unlike the franchise that will follow, First Blood is most definitely grounded in a sense of reality by director Ted Kotcheff. As such, the entire cast gives exquisite performances as quite realistic human characters. No doubt Stallone and Dennehy deliver some of the best performances of their respective careers. It’s thanks to this amount of realism and exquisite cinematography by Andrew Laszlo (Poltergeist II: The Other Side) that you’ll feel like your in the film when watching it.

As far as action flicks go, First Blood is also one of the best and most unique. The movie is action-packed but still believable enough. First Blood is also truly special in that it’s not overly violent. Believe it or not, the body count in the film consist of one character. Thus, helping us, the audience, sympathize with Rambo and his unfortunate plight. He’s not some crazed veteran; instead, Rambo is simply a man trying to move on with his life. Thus, it is Rambo’s humanity gives this flick its heart.

Perhaps I’m merely not being critical enough of First Blood. If anything, I feel it might occasionally suffer from some pacing issues. Frankly, though, I’m not sure that the pacing is an issue as much as it is a part of the movie’s DNA. What I mean by that is this. To me, this film is one of the final bridges between the dark, contemplative cinema of the 1970s and the movies of the 1980s, which are primarily imaginative, genre thrill-rides. First Blood is one of the few movies out there that manages to be a little bit of both. It’s for these reasons that I think First Blood is not only one of the best action flicks ever made; it’s also one of the best films of the 80s!

As with any movie as well-received and financially successful as First Blood, a sequel was inevitable. For better or worse, it’s these sequels that would make John Rambo an icon more so than the film in review. In the upcoming columns, we’ll look at the evolution of the character of Rambo and how the decades influenced these sequels. Next up, Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985).


Rambo: Last Blood, Hits Theaters Friday, September 20!

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