Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Rambo, the Enola Gay, and the Low Budget Film that Transcends its Origins

When I was reading about the Enola Gay disaster at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, I came across a historian's comment on a totally different subject, in which she lambasted the film Rambo. Marilyn Young of New York University said

In 1985 the movie Rambo, though set in the postwar period, took this logic to its conclusion, projecting the Vietnam War not as a high-tech U.S. invasion of another country but as a heroic American guerrilla effort to rescue captive Americans.  (1)

It is an article of faith among those of left-bent that Rambo is a series of films that is jingoistic, American right-wing response to defeat. I have read this comment and discussion of the Rambo phenomenon literally dozens of times in print in the most prestigious of intellectual periodicals or academic journals.

What is fabulous about this, what is so deliciously incriminating, is that it demonstrates that the people making the comments never bothered to watch the films, or at least never bothered to watch the first film that created the series. You see, your honor, Rambo did not come out in 1985. Our historian, Ms. Young, is talking about the sleazebag sequel, not the original film. The first film of the series is not called Rambo, it is called First Blood and it came out in 1982. In other words, this woman does not know shit, at least not about low budget action movies.  That is too bad. Should Mad Max be held accountable for the travesty that is Beyond Thunderdome? The first Rambo film is a wonderful example of a genre that I am very fond of: the low-budget film that transcends its origins.

I probably don't need to tell you that making a good film, let alone a great film, is a very difficult task. Many talented people have tried and failed, they gave it their best effort but fell short of greatness. Even films with a medium or large budget can run into problems and regularly do. But without money, then everything is made more difficult.

A low budget film is usually understaffed or minimally staffed. They have to make the most of every character, of every location, of every shot. Retakes are generally not an option. Even multiple takes of a single scene is usually not an option. A wise director of a low budget film knows to get a take for every shot and then move on.  They have a certain number of pages they have to shoot every day and if they do not get something for each of those shots then they are going to run out of money before they have the film shot, or worse, their backers will pull the plug because they see that the filmmakers are not going to make it and so why throw good money after bad?   Cast and crew are often working for less than their preferred rate and these people often have to work harder and under more difficult circumstances because that is all that the production can afford. In a low budget film, time is truly money, and there is rarely enough time to do your best work.

Our local police treats the returned veteran with dignity and compassion.

But there have been many entertaining films done for a low budget and in a few cases these films can transcend the difficulties of being a low budget film and when that happens, which is not all that often, then you can have an excellent film in spite of its origins.  These can often be especially entertaining or prized because of their circumstances and we should celebrate them.   Remember, from this side of the screen it is very hard to tell what they went through to get to where the final film that you see exists. 

Generally you find that when a low-budget film works that some or all of the following has happened. Often a successful low-budget film will have made very clever use of locations and sets because that is a large expense to a small film. These films often seem to be ensemble films which contain actors who are drawn to the project for some reason and may turn in their best performance, or one of the more notable performance of their career. In some cases, their appearance in this low budget film results in their career having a second life. Sometimes they are over the top and enjoying themselves and there is no time for another take. When it works, as in King of New York, or This is Spinal Tap or Repo Man, you look back at the movie and see many actors who became huge stars and when asked, refer to this low budget film as one of their favorites.

The sheriff and his deputies discover that their escaped vagrant is a former Green Beret

These films are often genre films in a way that makes them easy to market. Usually these films have one “bankable” star that allows them to presell international distribution rights, buy a completion bond, and get made. Once made they attempt to sell the film into other markets. I am pretty sure that is the case with First Blood.

First Blood, in spite of the buildup I have given it, is not the apex of filmmaking. It certainly has flaws, but it is much better than one might have expected. When Stallone saw the first cut of the film, he wanted to buy it to hide it from ever being shown. But they refused and Stallone suggested removing most of his scenes and let the story be told through the other characters. Which is what they did.

I need to explain the basic premise of this film so that you can see how delightfully off base the Rambo haters are, at least as far as this film is concerned.  There is something of a spoiler in what follows, though not much of one.

First Blood is the story of a returned Vietnam veteran who is indigent and is picked up for vagrancy in a small town in the pacific northwest. He does not cooperate with the local police who proceed to abuse him and he flips out, hurts some cops and escapes into the countryside. It turns out that the vagrant is a former Army special forces guy and had been captured and tortured by the N. Vietnamese. He has not happily reintegrated into life in America after his service in Vietnam. The man is desperate, he has no where to go, realizes that he is in deep trouble even though he was just defending himself, and tries to avoid capture. News of this manhunt gets out and the Army sends Rambo's former commander in Vietnam to try and talk him down before more people get hurt.

Brian Dennehy is fabulous in his role as the sheriff.

The film is not a jingoistic glorification of military anything.

It is about a man who was brought into a war he did not ask for, was trained to fight, and then discarded, had no way to make a living and has no future.

Its true that the sequels are silly movies about special forces rescues and other improbable things, but hey, its a movie, goddamnit, lighten up.

What a shame that our historian at the Smithsonian never watched the film that she attacks so vehemently. This does not bode well for the second act of our little melodrama, the saga of the Enola Gay.


1. From Dangerous History: Vietnam and the “Good War” by Marilyn Young in History Wars: The Enola Gay and other Battles for the American Past by Edward T. Linenthal.

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