You know that you’re aging when the music of your childhood re-emerges on the radio station. Not only because more often than not, it’s becoming “classic rock,” but because people your age are beginning to have the jobs making decisions about what gets played on the radio.
Our filmic research for Miss Saigon led us, unmistakably and repeatedly, to the 1980s. Of course. Enough time had passed for people to start making movies about Vietnam. So before I dig into the production itself, and what made it work and not work, what made it successful and what it has left me with in terms of my thinking about next steps and projects, permit me this digression. I will try and make it enjoyable.
I’m sure this has been written about to death by academics and fans alike, but I think that the 1980s are, more than anything else, what happened between First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood II (1985). I had never seen either movie, and thought of “Rambo” as nothing more than a hypersteroided action flick with a greased up Stallone killing people. What people, I didn’t have a clue about.
Like, I didn’t know that First Blood, based on a novel by David Morrell, was about a severely PTSD Vietnam Vet who, on a visit to an old war buddy, ends up in an extended war flashback, chased down by a patrol of small-town policemen. It originally was to be directed by Mike Nichols and star Dustin Hoffman. In the novel, John Rambo commits suicide. That was cut out of the movie, but still–it features a haunted, big-eyed Stallone verses the narrow-minded cops and ends with him going to jail.
Three years pass–and we get Rambo: First Blood II. The movie starts with jailed Rambo, cutting stone in a quarry (very Howard Roark), which of course makes him all glisteny and built. Richard Crenna comes and releases him from jail for a special secret mission–to be dropped into Vietnam to confirm the report of, and perhaps save, recently located P.O.W.s in a camp. Rambo looks at him: “do we get to win this time?” he asks. Which, of course, is the key to the whole movie.
Rambo: First Blood II is a nakedly obvious fantasy of winning the Vietnam War–from the P.O.W.s who get to be released, to the Russians who show up only to lose, to the hot Vietnamese chick who wants to be airlifted out with Rambo back to the U.S.A. (and whose English gets alternately worse and better depending on the complexity of what her character at that moment has to communicate).
The bad guys are both the commies and the American namby-pamby government bureaucracy, guys who probably went to some Ivy League school and never fought and don’t care about the vets.
The climax is the most patently absurd and hilarious. Every narrative about the Vietnam War that I read described America as doomed to failure–they couldn’t contain or defeat the Viet-cong, who knew their own terrain and people too well to lose it to outsiders. The Viet-cong traversed the jungle, hid and slipped away and attacked. They couldn’t win big mechanized battles, but it didn’t matter–they won by wearing down the Americans.
So at the climax of First Blood II, Rambo, who apparently knows the jungle better than any Vietnamese, picks off the soldiers from the prison camp one by one, using all the tactics that the Vietnamese used to defeat the Americans–he jumps out of trees and hides in the mud and sets up traps and waits in spider-holes. And he saves every last P.O.W., and kills every last Vietnamese, and glistens and shines and climbs into a helicopter and things explode–all the good guys win good things, and the bad guys get bad things, it’s uncomplicated and so jingoist and racist, so revealing in its subconscious desires that it’s almost unbelievable to watch–especially given its original source text.
What happened between Rambo I and Rambo II? The 1980s. Reagan. The conservative -libertarian myth of a single man, with all his bulging muscles and self-reliance, beating hte bad guys. In as big of a spectacle as can be imagined.