In a Bangkok warehouse, a man defeats his opponent in an underground stick fight. In spite of incitement from bloodthirsty spectators, he doesn’t deal the fatal blow; instead, he offers his hand. He exits with his winnings and gives it to the Buddhist monks who wait for him to return to the monastery. This is John Rambo. Misunderstood by those in his fictional universe and misunderstood by us, he’s been reduced to an inelegant metaphor for U.S. imperialism, a beefy political cartoon. After the release of hostages in Lebanon, the character was co-opted by conservatives when Ronald Reagan joked: “Boy, I saw Rambo last night; now I know what to do next time.” Sylvester Stallone acknowledges this as the moment Rambo became a “banner boy for jingoistic nationalism and American aggression.” But Rambo doesn’t represent jingoism — he’s its victim, a casualty of war.
Rambo’s cultural legacy has been misinterpreted as a right-wing symbol of American superiority. Stallone clarifies that Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood was about “the disenfranchisement and disillusionment of American youth,” and Richard Crenna explained, “More often than not, what’s branded as being ‘Ramboism’ is directly opposed to what he, as a character, stands for.” Rambo’s a cog in the wheel, he has no control over his fate. The enemy isn’t the Russians or the Vietnamese: it’s hypocritical bureaucracy, exemplifying the banality of evil.
Rambo has been labeled many things: animal, freak, machine, Christ figure, corrupt imperialist. But Rambo most resembles Frankenstein’s monster: a superman assembled and used by his creators, then abandoned and denied love. Like the monster, Rambo suffers, he kills, and he longs for loved ones of his own. His narrative also parallels the myth of Philoctetes, the only Greek warrior brave enough to honor a dying Heracles’ wish to be burned alive on his funeral pyre. Heracles rewards Philoctetes with a magical bow (not unlike Rambo’s compound bow or survival knife). Later, Philoctetes is bitten by a venomous snake, abandoned on an island for a decade by his men who are unable to stand Philoctetes’ agony and the stinking rot of his wound. But a clairvoyant informs the Greeks that, as it turns out, they need Philoctetes and his magical bow to win the Trojan War. The myth explores the physical and emotional wounds of war, how that pain reverberates long after the battlefield’s been left behind. Philoctetes returns to the Greek army, but Rambo chooses to fight for what he himself believes in, defying the country that betrayed him.
Stallone’s two most iconic characters are both redemptive figures, but if Rocky Balboa is the underdog whose story is of triumph, John Rambo is the outsider, and his story is a tragedy — Rambo is fated to defend the American dream but never allowed to achieve it. Rocky succeeds with the help of friends and family, Rambo journeys alone. He suffers from PTSD, endures torture, martyrs himself for others. Stallone said, “[Rambo] could kill people but he doesn’t. He could annihilate you but he’s still teetering — there’s something that wants to be redeemed.” He redeems himself by defending people he cares for, who recognize his humanity, a surrogate family.
Colonel Sam Trautman is the most important person in Rambo’s life, “the closest thing to family he has left.” He’s introduced in First Blood as Rambo’s creator, both proud and remorseful. He arrives in Hope to protect the townspeople — yet Trautman knows Rambo is still alive when everyone believes he’s been killed and he tells no one, choosing instead to protect Rambo from the townspeople. But it’s not until Rambo’s emotional monologue at the end of First Blood that Trautman understands his creation has feelings. Rambo grabs Trautman’s hand like a son reaching for his father and pulls him into a tentative embrace. Trautman’s mouth trembles with emotion as he realizes Rambo isn’t a war machine, he’s a human being — that’s all Rambo needed. He leaves shielded by Trautman against those who vilified him.
Unlike the Rambo of David Morrell’s First Blood, a character who kills so many people that he must be destroyed, Stallone’s Rambo in the film adaptation kills no one: he’s softened, child-like, both defiant and vulnerable. If Rambo is like a child in First Blood, then George P. Cosmatos’s Rambo: First Blood Part II is a growing pain for the character. Not even Trautman can protect him from Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier), the living embodiment of bureaucracy. J.G. Ballard considered First Blood Part II to be “the most interesting of the American war films,” and its message is that, “all governments and military bureaucracies are corrupt, that the ordinary fighting man is an expendable victim, but that he alone loves his country and is prepared to die for it.” If there’s any doubt about this message, James Cameron’s first draft found Rambo in a psychiatric hospital for veterans. In this second installment of the franchise, Rambo recognizes the evil in his world and learns to fight it. He lost his brothers in war during Vietnam, and this is his shot at redemption, a second chance to save them by saving the lost POWs, and he succeeds.
Rambo finally finds inner peace in Peter MacDonald’s Rambo III. Trautman compares himself to a sculptor who didn’t create anything: the statue was always there, he just chipped away the rough edges. This is not an act of manipulation, it’s Rambo’s interior monologue. Stallone once told Roger Ebert, “I let the other characters do my talking for me. Instead of saying, I was once a piece of driftwood, and I carved myself, I let Colonel Trautman say that about me.” Trautman is like an aging father whose son exceeds him when he’s captured by Russians in Afghanistan, and Rambo must rescue him. When asked why he’s risking his life for Trautman, Rambo responds, “Because he’d do it for me.” As part of Rambo’s growth, he bonds with an Afghan boy named Hamid (Doudi Shoua), becoming a father figure himself. He fights alongside the Afghan people because he respects their honor, and the Russian enemies threaten families: they’ve taken Trautman from him, and they slaughter Afghan women and children.
The tagline for Rambo III is, “The first was for himself. The second was for his country. This time is for his friend.” But Trautman is more than a friend, he’s like a father or brother. When Richard Crenna died, Colonel Sam Trautman died with him. When Christian missionary Sarah (Julie Benz) asks Rambo in the Stallone-directed Rambo whether he has family and he replies with his thousand-yard stare, “Father maybe, I don’t know,” perhaps he meant Trautman.
Rambo’s headband is dismissed as a gimmick, a signal that “shit just got real.” But the headband has meaning: it’s a memento. Rambo explains to Trautman at the end of First Blood that his friend Danforth, who was blown up in front of him in Saigon, wore a black headband. And freedom fighter Co Bao (Julia Nickson), who listened to Rambo and did not believe he was “expendable,” rips her red dress to bandage Rambo’s wound in First Blood Part II; he wears it in Rambo III along with her jade buddha. In Rambo, Sarah becomes his surrogate daughter, a reason for him to fight, and she gives him her cross necklace that he wears as a bracelet. Rambo collects these tokens, memories of a family that might have been. His headband is iconic because it’s a reminder of people he loved, who loved him — that’s why it gives him the strength to fight.
Seen as the journey of a super-soldier, the imperialist boogeyman people misperceive him to be, Rambo’s arc between First Blood and Rambo III makes no sense. That’s because the trilogy is a coming-of-age story for Rambo, once a Green Beret and a war hero with a Medal of Honor, now just a man struggling with who he’s become, whose country was his whole world until that country abandoned him. In Rambo he remembers why he fought since returning from Vietnam — not for America, but for the people he loved: his brothers in war, Trautman, Hamid, Co Bao, Sarah. He defends the helpless against their brutal oppressors. Rambo speaks to anyone who’s felt “expendable,” that their world has forsaken them, who’s used their pain to do good. John Rambo’s story is simply about a man searching for himself, for human connection, and for his place in the world.