Reagan, machine guns, and men
Growing up, I knew exactly who John J. Rambo was, even though I had never actually seen a Rambo film. Rambo was a strong and unstoppable warrior who stopped communism with big guns, bigger explosions, and sustained shirtlessness throughout the 1980s. He was violent. He was tough. He was a man.
But then I actually watched First Blood, the original Rambo film, and instead of that indomitable super-soldier I saw a lonely Vietnam veteran driven to terror by psychological trauma and police brutality. Obviously he was still an incredibly capable combatant, but this Rambo from First Blood was so much more vulnerable than the unyielding hero I thought he was. Wondering where this meatheaded version of Rambo I was familiar with had come from, I proceeded to watch the sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II. Ah, there he was.
I actually felt betrayed—the complex and tragic character that John J. Rambo originally was had been virtually replaced by an unfeeling automaton of war. I wanted to know why this shift happened. It turned out it was because of two things. First, a lot of people in the United States of America were still really, really upset about how their boys got hurt while invading Vietnam. And second, the President at the time was Ronald Reagan.
The Reign of Ronbo
A famous western actor before becoming a politician, Ronald Reagan enjoyed a long and prolific position as one of America’s “manly men,” alongside figures like John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and of course, Sylvester Stallone. It was part of his charm as a politician—following several political embarrassments in the seventies under disappointing beta cuck Jimmy Carter, America yearned for a chad. Susan Jeffords’ invaluable book Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era describes the phenomenon as the “Reagan Revolution” in which the Gipper and his administration leveraged excessive masculine swaggering to win over voters.
Reagan won his first election in 1980, but in 1984 he won by the largest electoral college margin in history and the largest margin of the popular vote since. It cannot be stressed how much the numbers say that people fucking loved Ronald Reagan. As a queer trans person writing this in 2018, I wish that I didn’t understand why—but it’s critical to the evolution of Rambo. The conflicted and heartbreaking First Blood was released in 1982, but the unabashedly bombastic Part II stormed into theaters in 1985, hot on the heels of that thunderous reelection.
America ended its direct military involvement in Vietnam in 1973, but the lingering emasculation of that defeat was at the core of both the Reagan presidency and the Rambo franchise. The role of “Vietnam veteran” in these films isn’t just social commentary on the war itself, but metonymy for the Reagan-era man in crisis, in which “soldiers” represent the desirable epitome of hard-bodied masculinity and “Vietnam” is the hellish gyre in which they were socialized and brutalized. The weak men died and the strong men were Rambo. If Rambo himself was disgraced by defeat, how could masculinity rehabilitate itself?
The answer was to send Rambo back to war to try, try again.
“They drew first blood, not me.”
The Rambo of First Blood is hardly stoic and swaggering. Instead, he is a melancholic and miserable drifter, and that lonely drifting is what gets him arrested—and then tortured—by the law enforcement of Hope, Washington, triggering an intense post-traumatic flashback that thrusts him into a fight-or-flight panic. The police chase Rambo into the forest, get themselves killed by falling out of helicopters, grievously wound themselves in Rambo’s improvised traps, and generally eat their hats over the whole affair. Throughout, Rambo has two refrains: he didn’t do anything (true) and to let it go (good advice).
Whether this depiction of PTSD is particularly accurate mattered little to the filmmakers. In First Blood, Rambo’s trauma is an excuse to let him rampage while keeping our sympathy—he isn’t a bad man, and doesn’t want to be a bad man, but Vietnam made him one. The deputies of Hope, however, couldn’t be happier with how horrible they are. Their blind confidence in their own ability to get away with antagonizing anybody with less power than them is what caused them to be so surprised when Rambo fought back and proved them powerless against a “real man,” not just someone pretending to be one.
These are amateur men, and the contrast between the two reveals how different masculinities clash in conflict with each other—there’s an instant struggle for dominance, where attempts to back down for the greater good are punished, which is why the police ignore Rambo’s attempts at deescalation. And it’s not like Rambo is enjoying the battle from his mud-covered hideout in the woods—even though the “real man” may win through sheer attrition, it’s always a mutually destructive battle.
This conflict continues until Rambo acquires his iconic machine gun and carries it through the center of Hope. It’s an image that has been perverted into something awesome and heroic from its original impact as something unnatural, incongruous, and dangerous, like Michael Myers in Haddonfield. When he’s finally cornered by police and confronted by his former commanding officer, Rambo breaks down and weeps, revealing how painfully aware he is of the myriad of ways in which his service has rendered him not just obsolete in a normal, healthy society, but also aggressive and isolated, emotionally and psychologically shattered, and rebuked and excluded by others.
This monologue is an admission that the masculine violence he was trained to incite and enact is untenable and unacceptable, but also that he can’t turn it off. As is, all he knows is causing pain and suffering. His violent skills set the standard to which flexing cronies like the policemen of Hope aspire, and those cronies will inflict it on him if he doesn’t inflict it on them first. His commanding officer can’t respond in any way that would help, and only silently escorts Rambo outside where he is arrested and sent to prison, quarantining the monster he made without doing anything to help him. Everyone wants to be a warrior, but a world of warriors is a warzone, and no one wants to live in one.
The Unwinnable War
First Blood was a modest success, but Part II was a bona fide blockbuster. In this sequel, Rambo is sprung from a military prison to perform a reconnaissance mission in Vietnam for leftover prisoners of war. Rambo’s mission is successful, but he was set up to fail by a corrupt bureaucrat so that Congress could leave the P.O.W.s to rot. He also ends up fighting Soviet agents that were bankrolling the Viet Cong, because this was 1985 and communism was super scary. The movie ends with a cathartic re-victory against Vietnam and Rambo walking triumphantly back into the jungle, where he plans to live “day by day” for the rest of his sweaty, rippling life. Unlike Hope, it’s where he belongs.
The lessons learned in First Blood about the psychologically and emotionally shattering effects of hyper-masculine warzones, both symbolic and otherwise, have been thrown away in favor of morally unambiguous patriotic crusading and revenge. Since the sequel puts Rambo back in Vietnam, he can be as violent as he wants to be, because he needs to be and he’s supposed to be. As Rambo walks through the valley of death, he fears no evil, for he will blow evil up with a rocket launcher. He is man, hear him grunt.
This radical shift in ideology between the two films runs parallel to the Reagan Revolution cued by his 1984 reelection and soaring approval ratings at the time. There was no more room for the trepidation of First Blood in Reagan’s roaring second term, encouraging a particular rehabilitation of Rambo that didn’t undermine either hard-bodied masculinity or Reagan-era jingoism. There’s nothing subtle about Rambo asking whether “we get to win this time” before returning to Vietnam.
First Blood, taken fatalistically, is a eulogy for the men irreparably damaged by living in warzones. Part II is a fantasy—not a fantasy about doing something different that could make men less miserable or violent or dead, but about reenacting the same aggressive battle plan, and imagining that if it was even more aggressive, it could work with no consequences at all. Casting a political bureaucrat as Rambo’s antagonist is a perfect echo of Americans’ cries for Congress to get out of the way and “let Reagan be Reagan,” because they didn’t want a President or diplomatic solutions, they wanted an authoritarian cowboy who could kick enough ass to fix America. Part II is a facile, action-packed plea for the preservation of hyper-masculine heroism on all fronts, a make-believe play put on in its rubble.
Even more than a fantasy, Part II is a propaganda film. Rehabilitating Rambo to be a heroic figure is a move to make men more like Rambo. And what kind of men are those, the men who dream of being Rambo-like warriors but without the Rambo-like perspective on how hellish war is? They’re wannabe warriors—like the petty, abusive police officers of First Blood and the increasingly militarized law enforcement of today. Part II went out of its way to inspire a whole generation of men, and the men that generation would raise, to be just like the villains of the first film.
The tragedy of Rambo is the tragedy of every man in a society dominated by masculinity—the loneliness, volatility, aggression, and destruction are all familiar. Rambo was the canary in the coal mine of the ways in which the machismo of the Reagan Revolution would backfire, but the warnings were ignored and Part II hastily compensated for First Blood’s blaspheming of the patriotic patriarchy. Every man in those theaters looked up at Rambo, shirtless, muscular, and scarred, blowing Vietnam back to the Stone Age, and accepted him as the new definition of manliness.
And it’s still happening. Almost forty years since his rampage in the Reagan years, the upcoming Last Blood sends Rambo to Mexico to rescue a friend’s kidnapped daughter from the cartels. Rambo will carry a big gun and shoot lots of the non-white non-Americans du jour and make a swaggering authoritarian and all the people who voted for him very pleased about themselves, yet again. The 2018 remake of Death Wish, featuring Bruce Willis murderizing all the crime in Chicago, was prelude.
Sometimes I think about John J. Rambo and the life that was stolen from him both in fiction and in filmmaking. I think about the very brief moment in the opening of First Blood when he arrives at his army buddy’s address, not yet knowing that he’s dead, and sees children playing outside. I think about how Rambo smiles, warmed by the thought that at least someone from his unit made it out okay but troubled by how he can’t relate. It’s a horribly sad moment.
Later, in the middle of the manhunt, as the sheriff continues to send more and more men in search of Rambo despite the gruesome and mounting toll, he’s asked if he wants a war that can’t be won. I weep for the war that we have, and I worry whether or not we can win it.