“They drew first blood, not me.”
“You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path.”
The road to the first Rambo movie being released in 1982 was a long journey. The novel First Blood was published in 1972 and reports are that the property went through three studios, 16 scripts, and a lot of high-profile actors and directors before it became Sylvester Stallone’s second franchise character (after Rocky). And though Stallone had become a superstar after the 1976 release of Rocky his other non-Rocky films (F.I.S.T., Nighthawks & Paradise Alley) hadn’t faired so well. Nor was the topic of Vietnam a popular one in ’82—the last U.S. troops pulled out of Saigon in ’75. There weren’t strong indicators that First Blood was going to be a hit film.
But producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, and director Ted Kotcheff, put together a team that would defy the odds, and created not only a film that would open #1 at the box office, but one that would go on to make $125 million worldwide, followed by three sequels—all creating the rare international iconic character, John Rambo.
The movie was based on the David Morrell novel First Blood that actually had Rambo as more of a killing machine. (The first movie while having plenty of actions, explosions and injuries, actually only has a few people dying.) The changes were made to make the character more sympathetic. Morrell was a professor of English at the University of Iowa between 1970-1986, which means the chances are good that the novel was written in the vicinity Iowa City. (Just learned that today as I was doing research on Morrell.)
“My intent in writing (First Blood) started back in 1968 when I was a graduate student at Penn State and I was watching TV one night when I was struck by the news by two reports that followed back to back. One which was of a Vietnam fire-fight with soldiers screaming, and shooting and bullets kicking up dust, and the other was about riots going on in American cities. That summer and the summer before there were many, many riots and many of them had to do with off-shoots of the Vietnam war. And I got to thinking what if we had a novel in which the Vietnam war came home to the United States and we sort of had a taste of what it would be like in our own back yard. Basically what the intent was was to write an anit-war novel about how I was not in favor of the Vietnam war. It was about how the establishment abused young men and took them over and made killing machines and then took them back and never retrained them.
First Blood Blu-ray commentary
His key model for the Rambo character was World War II hero Audie Murphy. Morrell has gone on to have a long successful career as a novelist. He received his undergraduate degree at the St. Jerome University (a Roman Catholic university in Canada), and his M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Penn State. He said on the DVD commentary that he always thought of First Blood as being a western and lists The Sheepman (1958) as a film that was a sort of parallel to First Blood.
Here is a summary of The Sheepsman found on IMDB:
A stranger in a Western cattle-town behaves with remarkable self-assurance, establishing himself as a man to be reckoned with. The reason appears with his stock: a herd of sheep, which he intends to graze on the range. The horrified inhabitants decide to run him out at all costs.
Morrell also was influenced by Joesph Campbell’s work on mythology in developing his character and story for First Blood. (Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces was also key to George Lucas years later as he would develop the Star Wars movies.) It’s not hard to read Campbell and understand the primal aspects that Morrell drew upon in creating First Blood. There’s the warrior fleeing into the woods, descending into the mine, starting a fire, and surviving swimming with rats, and ascending the ladder into the light. Morrell called it a “Hunter hunted story,” while Stallone has made references is to Rambo being a Frankenstein-like character.
First Blood was also a film that dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and while not giving any answers, Morrell says that he heard reports that many Vietnam vets wept for the first time since the war as the film somewhat depicted how hard it was to make the transition from solider to civilian in a country where they were often despised and rejected.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says “Son if it was up to me”
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said “Son don’t you understand”
Born in the USA
You may be also interested to know that Morrell picked the name John Rambo as a combination of the poet Arthur Rimbaud (A Season in Hell) and a type of apples called Rambo that his wife brought home one day while he was writing. Credited on the First Blood screenplay are Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, and Stallone.
You can find out more about Morell, and the 30+ novels and books he’s written, on his website davidmorrell.net.
P.S. For the person who has everything…the survival knife that Rambo uses in First Blood was designed by the late Jimmy Lile who was known as the Arkansas Knifesmith. For $3,500 you can have a knife like Rambo—it’s called the New Lile First Blood.