Mud, Blood and Torture

When American President Ronald Reagan mentioned that he had watched Rambo: First Blood Pt II prior to a press conference in 1985, it catapulted the character of John Rambo into popular culture. He became an icon of the 1980s. Even today, most people know who the character is – their memories being refreshed by a sequel in 2008, and even The Expendables evokes Sylvester Stallone’s cinematic past.

Rambo captured the imagination of the public by being an old-fashioned hero who lived off his wits and the land. As the world became more and more high-tech, the Rambo films went to pains to prove that sometimes the old ways were the best. This is highlighted at the beginning of First Blood: Part II, when he is about to parachute into Vietnam armed with an arsenal of high-tech equipment. As he jumps, he gets tangled and is being dragged along behind the plane. The solution is to cut away (and discard) all the modern devices, and go in with little more than a bow and arrow, and a knife.

John Rambo echoes another hero – the un-named hero of Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, who finds that despite being an English aristocrat, with high-powered friends, the city; the modern world are unable to help him. Instead he chooses to fight his battle on his own terms, in the countryside; and environment he is familiar with – the old fashioned way.

Rambo vs Rogue Male

PLEASE NOTE: I have not read the book First Blood by David Morrell (an oversight on my behalf). Therefore the Rambo references below are taken from the original Ted Kotcheff film (and its sequels).

Obviously Vietnam veteran John Rambo and the un-named hero from Rogue Male, who I’ll call Robert Hunter – lifted from the 1976 film for simplicity sake – are two very different characters. But there are a few very striking similarities that are worth investigating.

Firstly both stories are ‘manhunts’, although the reasons for the hunts are very different. Robert Hunter is being sort after a failed attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Rambo is being pursued for breaking out of jail, after being arrested for vagrancy. The difference is quite apparent. Hunter was the instigator of the events which lead to his pursuit, however Rambo was the innocent (?) victim due to the over-zealous action of a small town police Sheriff. But when Rambo is pushed, he chooses to push back, making him temporarily the aggressor. It’s this action that makes him the object of his particular manhunt.

Both men fear incarceration from their pursuers, due to having been tortured. Hunter was severely tortured by the Gestapo or SS (it is never really made clear) after being captured. Upon capture, if he is extradited back to Germany, he can be assured much worse will happen. Rambo was captured by the Viet-cong during the war and tortured. And while the Viet-cong are not pursuing him in First Blood, Rambo has been psychologically scarred – possibly unhinged – due to the experience. When the police rough-house him at the station, he flashes back to Vietnam. Unreasonably, for him, the police become the same as the Viet-cong.

Next, both characters feel the best place to allude their pursuers is not the crowded city, but the isolated natural forest (and countryside) environs in which they feel comfortable. Both men are more than capable of living off the land. It could be said that both men are ‘hunters’. Hunter (the choice of name probably gives that away!) of big game, and Rambo, of men. They can blend into natural landscapes, and in some ways, due to their hunting experience, anticipate how their pursuers will react within the environment.

Hunter and Rambo both seek refuge in a cave. And they also both trapped in their caves by their pursuers, but are able to find ways out of their individual confined predicaments.

Where the characters and stories diverge is at the resolution and what each of the characters want to achieve from the conflict. Hunter simply wants to be left alone, hopefully so he can escape to Latin America or Africa, where he can start a new life. Rambo, however, has had some kind of switch flicked in his head. He is in ‘war’ mode. There is no sense of purpose or objectives in his actions beyond ‘fight’ and ‘survive’. An interesting comparison may be drawn between Rambo and Hunter at the beginning of Rogue Male, where Hunter was in ‘survival mode’ but he certainly didn’t have the skills or the strength to fight.

It could be argued that were it not for the intervention of Colonel Trautman, Rambo would have kept on fighting and possibly killing. It must be pointed out though, that in First Blood, only one man is killed (compared to First Blood: Part II where Rambo kills fifty-six people). Even then, in First Blood, the killing is an accident, when Rambo throws a stone at the helicopter pursuing him.

Sir Robert Hunter, may seem like a more sedate character than Rambo, but he in fact kills two people in Rogue Male, first the assassin at Aldwych train station, and finally Major Quive-Smith at the very denouement.

You may think I am being a little bit extreme in trying to link the character of John Rambo and the nameless character in Geoffrey Household’s novel, but even David Morrell has freely acknowledged that Rogue Male was a big influence on his story First Blood, – you can read an interview with Morrell at Book – The March 23, 2007 Interview is of the most interest – it’s about half way down the page.

Tomorrow I will look at another author whose work has been heavily influenced by Rogue Male. But until then, here’s some footage from the opening of the 1976 BBC adaptation of Rogue Male, starring Peter O’Toole. Uploaded to Youtube by prsurr1066

Mud, Blood and Torture