Tuesday, December 06, 2005

First Blood

Dir: Ted Kotcheff


I was at a demonstration to protect a 200 acre old growth (older than 800 years) forest last week. It was the classic attempt to prevent loggers from entering the gates of the forest, complete with chains on the gates and moms and their kids kneeling in front of logging gates.

Of course, the cops came through, moved us all across the street, cut the chains on the gate and then guarded the loggers as they drove through to cut. Some of the trees in this grove of forest are 40 feet around, overwhelmingly beautiful, and many of the protesters began emotionally breaking down as the loggers started heading into the forest.

In small logging towns, the police interests are synonymous with the logging company interests. The cops harass forest protectors, and in many cases pretend not to see when loggers throw tree sitters out of old growth trees.

So it was with great pleasure when we watched one of the Pacific Lumber logging trucks back into a cop car at a good clip.

The tail was down and the front of the cop car was trashed. Across the picket line I saw folks smiling for the first time that day.

Later that night I saw some other organizers. They asked about the morning’s demonstration and I mentioned the cop car accident with a grin. “Yeah, we heard about that,” said my friend returning the smile.

Humor at the expense of police is rare these days. In the era of September 11th, when NYPD have been rhetorically transformed into superheroes with their own action figures, police are sacred. A movie like the Blues Brothers could never be made today.

Even rarer is a movie where the police are the real BAD GUYS. Perhaps for films set during segregation era, cops can be the enemy, but certainly not today.

First Blood is a movie that could never be made today. Sylvester Stallone plays troubled Vietnam veteran John Rambo who wanders into a small town and runs afoul of the local sheriff, played by Brian Dennehey. After a bogus arrest, Rambo escapes to the woods where he uses his counterinsurgency skills to escape and then defend himself against his pursuing posse.

Dozens of cops die in terribly graphic ways, as Stallone grunts and stares into space remembering Vietnam. Stallone, whose performance in this movie and its sequels helped to define the popular understandings of what POWs were like, creates a troubled character who flashes back to his times in a Vietnamese prison camp in order to help explain his situation.

Unlike First Blood II and III, this film is free of much of the attempts to redeem the United States war crimes in Vietnam. The war is presented as a terrible, almost unspeakable event which left terrible scars in the soldiers asked to fight. The movie opens with Rambo discovering that all the other soldiers in his Green Beret unit have died.

First Blood is a movie that became overshadowed by its sequels. When Ronald Reagan used Rambo as part of his rhetoric of redeeming the spirit of Vietnam, the film itself became overshadowed by its meaning. Rambo became the universal trope for a gung-ho pro-war/military attitude. But this film itself conveys something else.

Under the grey tones of the foggy sky the director brings the terrible weight of Vietnam home. Like the Weather Underground Organization whose bombings attempted to show the United States public what living in Vietnam would be like, Rambo’s destruction of the small town transposes what we did in Vietnam to Northern California.

These might be reasons to give this movie another viewing. Edward Said argues that it is useful to examine the impact colonialism had on both the colonized and the colonizers. This film is a chance to look at the story of the United States in Vietnam. It offers a way to think about what Vietnam taught us, and how we have been retelling the story through the years.

It is also worth remembering what happens to those soldiers who fight American wars when they come home. Keep in mind that SWAT teams were created to respond to the dissent of the late sixties and used the counter-insurgency terror techniques practiced in Vietnam on the streets of Chicago and Los Angeles. Rambo style killing certainly happened – but the victims weren’t usually white.