From Novel to Film pt. 5: First Blood

Novel (1972) written by David Morrell.
Film (1982) directed by Ted Kotcheff and written by Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Sylvester Stallone.
I hadn't read First Blood since I was twelve, which makes it yet another damn thing from the mid-80s that I am revisiting through a blog, darkly. 


I was surprised at how much of it I remembered. Most things that I do not re-enforce with a re-read/ re-watch are pushed over the precipice of mental recall; revisiting them is like experiencing them for the first time. But not so, here - I guess it made more of an impression on my younger self than I thought. By way of comparison: I read Peter Benchley's Jaws the same year I read First Blood and never revisited it, either, but outside of Hooper and Brody's wife sleeping together, I couldn't tell you anything about Benchley's book. 

(I considered doing Jaws for this From Novel to Film series. Maybe I will. I don't own the book, though, and I'm trying to avoid picking up anything new. Well, "new." Anyway.)

David Morrell's stated intent in writing First Blood was "to transpose the Vietnam War to America," and in this he was mostly successful. I say "mostly" only because any book with that intent and topic is going to be handicapped somewhat for having been published in 1972. Vietnam wasn't quite the known quantity it became in the years after. But it didn't have to be. Nothing in this novel relies on any understanding of Ho Chi Minh, the Phoenix program, Nixon, or anything like that. The idea of a maladjusted vet-turned-drifter who is hassled one too many times by the local authorities and snaps is applicable to just about any era, but it has a certain enhanced resonance coming out of the 60s. 

Morrell wrote an essay on the subject, Rambo and Me, which you can purchase here if you're so inclined.

On the off chance you're unfamiliar with the plot, here it is: John Rambo, a Green Beret who has walked from points unknown to Kentucky to visit a fellow vet (whom he discovers is deceased,) is picked up by the local Sheriff and told to scram. Rambo doesn't, nor does he make any effort to identify himself as a veteran or volunteer any information at all. 

When Teasle arrests him and threatens to throw him in a dank jail cell, Rambo's memories of being a prisoner of the North Vietnamese are triggered and all hell breaks loose.
He kills one cop and wounds several more.
In the book, he's naked when he makes his escape, but more on that in a bit. (Incidentally, this look on Stallone's face is classic.)
When the police (and eventually the National Guard) chase him into the hills, he kills dozens more. His old Colonel, Sam Trautman, is flown in, 


and he tries to diffuse the situation. Rambo damn near blows up the whole town, before Trautman manages to blow his head off with a shotgun. The Chief dies of a heart attack. (His heart trouble being a symbolic motif throughout the novel.) The End.

John Rambo and Chief Teasle mirror each other pretty well throughout the book. Both suffer hidden scars and stubbornly pursue their courses of action against their own better judgment and ultimately at the cost of their lives. 

Both are drawn sympathetically.

The chapters alternate between their point of view, a very useful narrative device for the story. Here's Rambo from early in the book:

"Dead animals lay here and there along the roadside, likely hit by cars, bloated and speckled with flies in the sun. First a cat, tiger-striped - looked like it had been a nice cat, too - next a cocker spaniel, then a rabbit, then a squirrel. That was another thing the war had given him. He noticed dead things more. Not in horror. Just in curiosity of how they had come to end."

And here he is at the end, as he begins to realize he's going to die:

"(...) What a lot of horseshit, freedom and rights. He had not set out to prove a principle. He had set out to show a fight to anyone who pushed him anymore, and that was quite different - not ethical, but personal, emotional. He had killed a great many people, and he could pretend their deaths were necessary because they were all a part of what was pushing him, making it impossible for someone like him to get along. But he did not totally believe it. He had enjoyed the fight too much, enjoyed too much the risk and the excitement. Perhaps the war had conditioned him, he thought. Perhaps he had become so used to action that he could not ease off."

Teasle gets many similar inner monologues. Part of the novel's effectiveness comes from his and Rambo realizing things about themselves and their worldviews independent of one another. This next section, though ascribed to Rambo, could just as easily be from Teasle's p.o.v.:

"If he had really wanted to control himself, he could have. He simply had not wanted to control himself. To live his way, he had been determined to fight anyone who interfered. So all right then, in a way he had fought for a principle. But it was not that simple, because he had also been proud and delighted to show how good he was at fighting. He was the wrong man to be shoved, oh yes he was, and now he was dying, and nobody wanted to die, and all that he was thinking about principles was a lot of crap to justify it."

(Incidentally, in the last Rambo film (Rambo, 2008) Stallone, in conversation with the author, mentioned how he wanted to return to the tone of his original novel rather than the emphasis on action in the second and third. How successful he / the movie was in this is beyond my scope here, but it's worth mentioning that there's at least one line that echoes all of the above: "I didn't kill for my country. I killed for myself. And for that, I don't think God can forgive me.")

Also a nice moment: Rambo ends with Stallone walking along a country road, wearing the same clothes he wore at the opening of First Blood (above.)
Before I move on to the film, there's one scene in the novel that made little sense to me. After he escapes from the prison he is as aforementioned naked as the day he was born. He wanders through the Kentucky hills until nightfall and then, to draw attention to himself, he starts screaming and hurling obscenities into the darkness. This brings him to the attention of a man and his son operating an illegal moonshine still. He explains to them he just killed a cop and needs help. Whereupon the man sends his son back to their house to get him some clothes and an extra shotgun.

Is that at all believable? You come across some naked man, hurling obscenities at no one in the dark, who then admits to killing a cop, and you agree to help him, no (or at least few) questions asked? I guess we're supposed to think they have being outlaws in common, since the man has an illegal still, but... really? Surely there was a better way to solve the problem of Rambo's getting clothes. The film, wisely, excises it altogether.

"There are no friendly civilians."
David Morrell discusses the differences between his novel and its bigscreen adaptation in a documentary on my DVD and on the commentary track of the blu-ray:

"The film switches the locale from Kentucky to the Pacific Northwest. It removes the importance of Teasle’s war experience in Korea and the medals he received there. It makes Rambo a victim rather than somebody who’s pissed off about what happened to him in Vietnam. Finally it changes the ending. But for all that, I love the movie. Ted Kotcheff’s direction, Jerry Goldsmith’s music, Andrew Laszlo’s photography, Sylvester Stallone’s acting, Richard Crenna, on and on. It’s a terrific movie that seems more realistic with each year because its action scenes don’t use computer effects. The realism of the stunts is amazing."

100% agreed on all of those points. 

Particularly the stunts and the cinematography.

But as he notes, the biggest difference is in its tone. In the novel, Rambo is unfairly harassed, but he's a bit unhinged to begin with. The training he received in Vietnam and his experiences there warped him to such a degree that he was a time bomb. In the film, he is forced to use his training to defend himself against the cops who keep coming after him. His body count in the novel is huge; in the film, he only kills the one dude, shooting at him from the helicopter (above) and in self-defense. 

There's also the big ADR-dubbed speech at the end, which I can never hear without remembering my buddy Chris from junior high cracking me up in study hall/ on bus trips: "HE AIN'T GOT NO FUCKING LEGS!!"

Said Roger Ebert at the time:

"(...) the screenplay gives Stallone a long, impassioned speech to deliver, a speech in which he cries out against the injustices done to him and against the hippies who demonstrated at the airport when he returned from the war, etc. This is all old, familiar material from a dozen other films clich├ęs recycled as formula. Bruce Dern did it in Coming Home and William Devane in Rolling Thunder. Stallone is made to say things that would have much better been implied; Robert De Niro, in Taxi Driver, also plays a violent character who was obviously scarred by Vietnam, but the movie wisely never makes him talk about what happened to him. Some things are scarier and more emotionally moving when they're left unsaid."

While all of that is true, I'll give Sly not just an A for effort, but I'm also going to go out on a limb and say he's probably not gotten his due for his performance in First Blood altogether. Whatever else it is, his awkward emotional outpouring is very genuine, and it's a satisfying end to the character's arc. 

Compare it to the end of Rambo, First Blood pt. 2, not just in tone but in execution. Speaking of:

Different scene, but you know, while we're here. Man! Never gets old. 

Other differences?

As Morrell notes, Teasle is much more one-dimensional in the movie, even though I've got nothing but praise for Brian Dennehy's performance.
Also: Rambo doesn't look very much like a hippie, does he?
But, as with Emmett's Agent-Orange-acne-covered face vs. Bruce Willis's handsome face in the adaptation of In Country, I can understand why they wouldn't want to hide their leading man's recognizable image too, too much. Of slightly greater impact is the fact that Rambo (and Teasle) survive.

To the tune of "It's a Long Road," no less. (Vocals by Dan Hill.)

All of these things certainly do undermine the message of the novel, but it's such a fantastic film that it's easy to forgive this.

Fans of CSI: Miami and Miami Vice will see a couple of familiar faces:

David Caruso
and Michael Talbott
The DVD has this curious feature where you can pause the movie at various points and access "Survival Mode:"

I didn't utilize it more than once or twice.

Two last things:

1) Apparently there's an off-Broadway play that discusses the differences between the novel and the film. Here's David Morrell with more info:

"The play is called Flooding With Love for the Kid, a line from the last paragraph of the novel. Zachary Oberzan wrote and stars in the one-character play. He pretends that the stage is his 200-square-foot living room in Greenwich Village and that the people in the audience are friends who’ve come to visit. For 90 minutes, Zach discusses the differences between my novel and the film. He portrays all the characters as he acts out scenes from the book, leaping off sofas, stripping off his shirt and whipping himself, using candles as dynamite sticks, etc. It’s wild. Zach goes all over the world, performing the play. If you Google “flooding with love for the kid,” you can see some of his performance."

and 2) More than once while reading, I thought to myself imagine if Rambo was black

I'm actually surprised no one has rebooted the story and cast an African-American (or any non-white) combat vet in the role. Normally this sort of race-swapping gives me a serious eye-roll, but really, make Rambo non-Caucasian and the novel's concerns are brought even more to the surface. It'd be a very provocative film, to say the least, but good-provocative, not just mindlessly so. You could even add the scene with the father and son and illegal moonshine still back in, so long as they, too, were non-Caucasian, and it'd work. Hell, even if they remained Caucasian - lots of dimensions to that scene whether they are or not, wouldn't you agree?

Update everything to nowadays in addition to making Rambo non-Caucasian? Now you're cooking with gas. A whole slew of intriguing stuff to work with: changed perceptions of vets, "We thank you for your service," prisoner torture, police brutality, the media's effect on the narrative and stoking outrage, etc.

Law and order / black and white, turned on its head?
Potentially savory food for thought. I wouldn't trust just anyone to make it; I nominate (the contemporary) Steve McQueen. (And Tarantino can steer the hell clear of it, please and thank you.)


  1. I can see what you mean by the idea of a non-Caucasian reboot. The only misgiving I have isn't about your idea, but rather it's reception in a 24 hour news media culture.

    By that I mean that I have yet to see any issue that can't be trivialized just by simply plopping it down among a bunch of talking heads that are saying a lot of empty words without meaning. As someone else once pointed out, that kind of shtick just winds up hurting American discourse rather than rending any kind of valuable service.

    Too give a kind of symbol of what I mean, imagine Bill's Mahr and O'Reilly grinning at each other on two sides of a dressing room mirror with the glass missing. That I think is the kind of mentality that paralyzes a lot of conversation right there.


    1. I think there is a matrix of media (from Fox to, sadly, the New York Times, to Rolling Stone, to the Gawkers and Salons and whomever else) that is truly anti-journalistm and heavily vested in toxic narrative. Some computer somewhere must have come upon some formula that the elites are putting into practice via these organs; I don't claim to understand but whatever it is, it's working. People download their own outrage transmitters, and one of the above just activates it at will, and people dance (or more accurately, jerk back and forth as spasms of media-electricity shoot through their neural receptors) at will. The only thing I can think is - it's easy to control people when they are constantly reacting.

      Anyway! Their role in discussing said reboot would hopefully be a target of said reboot's blistering satire and provocation.

  2. I haven't seen the movie in eons, but it sounds to me like it'd be well worth revisiting.

    As for the novel, I've never read it. I like the excerpts you provided, though. Especially the bit about the dead animals; that's fairly haunting stuff.

    1. I found both to be worthwhile for revisiting.

      (I probably won't be revisiting Morrell's novelizations of Rambo FB pt. 2 or Rambo 3, though. Though I had those, too, back in the day.)

    2. He wrote novelizations? Oh, that's kind of a bummer. That's the definition of slumming it.

    3. He talks a bit about it in the intro to First Blood. I get the impression he undertook the assignment not for the paycheck or for lack of opportunities but because he wanted to preserve some of the character's humanity, since the films were going in a different direction. He felt an obligation to his creation. He's had some interesting things to say about it in various interviews. I'm sure that "Rambo and Me" e-essay has the definitive version of events, but I didn't pull the trigger on purchasing it, alas. Maybe someday.

    4. I suppose from his point of view, it would be an opportunity to at least do a better job than whatever hack they hired to pound it out in two weeks.

      I think we've spoken about this before, but I'm a firm believer in the idea that the novelizations need not automatically be crap. Thing is, there's no financial incentive for them not to be.

  3. It's interesting that you juxtapose the thoughts of Rambo as though they belong to the sheriff.

    It almost makes me wonder what would have happened if, say, the sheriff managed to hush the whole thing up, only to take off after Rambo all by himself, making it more of a case of a psycho being set off and going rogue in a different style.

    Don't know if that makes any sense.