Monday, October 31, 2022

Happy Halloween!


Saturday, October 29, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

One reason I admire low-budget exploitation films so much is that, in many cases, writers and directors don't feel compelled to trot along happily with the Hollywood party line. 

A three-act structure patterned after the Campbell Monomyth may be tiresome de rigueur for the big budget extravaganza, but filmmakers such as Larry Cohen or Tobe Hooper are subversives and non-conformists. They marched to the beat of their own (distinctive) drums and, in the process, shatter audience expectations. 

Not every film they make is great, but every film they make is theirs, not the product of committee.  I prefer that approach because I'd rather see a unique, oddball effort than a "product" that looks the same as everything else out there.  I've seen movies like Thor or Green Lantern a dozen times. By contrast, there is only one Q: The Winged Serpent, to modify the tag-line from the 1976 King Kong.  The descriptors "strange" and "offbeat" don't even begin to do this 1982 film justice.

Q: The Winged Serpent, released in 1982, is a perfect example of a movie that, on cursory description, sounds like a lot of other monster movies, namely Godzilla or King Kong, but which as been gloriously corkscrewed by writer/director Cohen to play as a totally different, totally unique viewing experience.   

Most importantly, Cohen's point-of-entrance/attack on Q: The Winged Serpent is revolutionary.  The film features a small time crook, Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarity) as protagonist, if not "hero."   And it's not even that he's just a crook that's important. He's actually a coward too. In monster movies we've been conditioned to expect the square-jawed romantic hero, one who is courageous and noble.  Jimmy Quinn is a different...bird.

Additionally, Cohen -- on a low budget, no less -- reveals to audiences a visual aspect of New York City we've never really seen before in film.  It's an eagle's eye, roof-top view of the metropolis and much of the action occurs there.  Notably, such moments atop high-rises, including the vicious opening attack on a window washer, don't appear faked in terms of exteriors or stunts.  The real location shooting -- in Manhattan and atop the buildings -- thus grants the sense a film of gritty authenticity and legitimacy.  Watching Q, I appreciate the contrast between Jimmy Quinn -- a rat on street level --  with Quetzlcoatl, a winged monster in the sky.

Despite such virtues, critics by-and-large dismissed Q: The Winged Serpent.  Janet Maslin wanted to offer "only a very few words" about the film, as if it wasn't worth the energy of a full review.  She also viewed the script's humor as "inadvertent," an opinion I would strongly contest given the comedic sheen of Cohen's work in films including It's Alive (1973) and The Stuff (1985).  Meanwhile, Roger Ebert famously championed Michael Moriarity's tic-filled lead performance as Quinn while dismissing the rest of as "dreck." Chicago Reader's Pat Graham called the effort "curiously disengaged and sloppy."

Again, for me the very opposite holds true. 

I find Q: The Winged Serpent absolutely engaging because of its droll, edgy, unconventional nature, and because Michael Moriarty absolutely rivets the attention, though often in deliriously oddball fashion.  The conventional and disengaged approach, in my opinion, would have been to feature stalwart, heavily-armed heroes of the military and U.S. government battling Quetzlcoatl throughout, with scientists theorizing about how to destroy the dangerous creature.  Instead, Cohen takes the extraordinary route of weaving the story of Quetzcoatl -- an Aztec God "prayed" back into existence -- into the life story of a neurotic, twitchy crook who, perhaps, feels more at home in prison than among free men.   Again, this is a character who might have a supporting role in a "regular" monster movie, perhaps even played as comic relief.  But here, Quinn is Q's raison d'etre.

Can a movie about a giant, man-eating serpent actually be a terrific and illuminating human character piece?  Larry Cohen seems to think so, and in Q: The Winged Serpent he explodes long-standing monster movie cliches to make the point.

"What else is God but an invisible force that we fear?"

In New York City, something strange is happening.  A serial murderer seems to be flaying (willing?) victims in accordance with ancient Aztec rites of human sacrifice. 

Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) investigate these horrendous crimes at the same time that an urban legend multiplies in the city: the legend of a giant bird/serpent that strikes from the sky, and claims human prey as food.  People have gone missing, and blood has literally rained down upon the streets on occasion.

Meanwhile, small time crook Jimmy Quinn (Moriarity) has been seeking legitimate work at his girlfriend's (Candy Clark) insistence.  Unfortunately, he gets involved in a diamond heist (at a jewelry store called Neil Diamonds...) and runs afoul of both the law and his law-breaking cohorts.  After Quinn loses 77,000 dollars of diamonds in an accident, he hides on the top floor of The Chrysler Building and learns that the city's monster is no legend.

There, he discovers the nest for Quetzcoatl, the Aztec God of blood and human sacrifice.   Pursued by his former partners in crime, Quinn leads the crooks to The Chrysler Building...where they are promptly eaten.

The Quetzlcoatl attacks over Manhattan grow more numerous and brazen, and after Jimmy is arrested, he realizes he possesses a unique bargaining chip.  He offers to share the location of the monster's nest with the police if they give him a "Nixon-like" pardon and immunity, a million dollars, and exclusive book, movie and photograph rights to the monster's story...

"You are a betrayer and now you must humble yourself..."

At the center of Q: The Winged Serpent is Jimmy Quinn, the strangest monster movie protagonist you've ever seen.  He's a loser and a coward.  He "scats" at the piano, and creates his own bizarre musical numbers/voice-over narrations, such as the composition "Evil Dream." 

Basically, Moriarity twitches and gesticulates his way through the film in a manner that captivates the attention, and feels strangely authentic and real.  Quinn is neurotic and afraid: a rat trapped in the "mean streets"/cage of The Big Apple.   But he's not just your average crook, either. He's a hustler with delusions of grandeur and a creeping suspicion he'd be happier in prison, a place where he would be taken care of by the state, and perhaps do no harm to others. He'x an ex-junkie, an alcoholic, a loser...and yet you root for him to succeed.

In Q: The Winged Serpent, the audience gets to see all sides of Quinn, and some are appealing and some not.  For instance, as I wrote above, Quinn is trying to go "legit," and so the movie showcases his efforts to make it as a musician.  Efforts which are, I would estimate, pretty dire.   You haven't really lived until you've watched Michael Moriarity scat at a small bar piano.

And then, further de-romanticizing our already-unconventional protagonist, Quinn and his girlfriend argue over the fact that, on many occasions, he has gotten drunk and hit her.  This is a key part of Quinn's character.  When in a position of power, he's not just a small time loser, he's dangerous...and mean.  We see it in his treatment of his girlfriend, but also in the way Quinn holds the City hostage, and, of course, in his brutal, deliberate act of feeding two criminals to Quetzlcoatl.  He brushes off the latter act as self-defense.

Quinn clearly is against-type in monster movies, as I've enumerated above.  But what makes him truly fascinating is his dawning sense of self-realization that he is, to put it mildly,  a creep.  Cohen gives Moriarity a great monologue -- a clear analog to an important moment for Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront (1954) -- where he reflects that he's been a bum all his life, and that if things were different, he would change that fact.  "All my life I've been nobody," he reflects, "now I can be somebody."

Moriarity's Quinn is the glue that holds together Q: The Winged Serpent, and more than that, the very point of the movie.  Here's a guy who discovers a man-eating monster, and decides to use that knowledge to better his position in life. 

Importantly, Quinn's rather heartless approach to life is pointedly contrasted with the efforts of the ritualistic serial killer, who also uses the lives of others to remake the world in an image he prefers. 

Amidst all of this selfish behavior -- a perfect reflection of the young, upwardly mobile values of the early 1980s -- Quetzlcoatl and its just-hatched offspring seem like true innocents.  The real "monster" in this monster movie isn't the man-eating beast with razor sharp talons, but the kind of man who would use tragedy and pain to make a personal fortune.  There may even be a debate here about human nature.  The Q operates by its nature (to kill in order to survive), but what about Quinn?  Is he just acting according to human nature, or is he representative of the worst of human nature?

The special effects of Q: The Winged Serpent are clearly of their age, featuring very-good stop-motion animation from Dave Allen.  The monster really look pretty good in several impressive shots.  One of my favorite compositions in the film involves a nifty jump scare in which Carradine turns his back on an open window, and the giant serpent lunges in behind him (above).  The film's final battle, with police battling Quetzcoatl from perches atop The Chrysler Building, is also strong, and evokes clear memories of King Kong (1933) and the Empire State Building finale.   But the monster scenes are largely not the point.  This is a movie about what might really happen if a crook discovered a monster, not a movie about a monster's reign of terror. 

Another perpetual joy in Q: The Winged Serpent is the witty screenplay. Cohen's staccato, rat-a-tat, authentic "city" dialogue has been termed tongue-in-cheek in some circles, but in fact it plays as funny because it is so deadpan and earnest, so true.  If a monster were attacking New York City, wouldn't you expect to hear people asking questions like: "Did you find that construction worker's head yet?"  It may seem silly, but it is situationally-appropriate. In short, Q: The Winged Serpent accepts and internalizes its bizarre premise, and that forges amusing dialogue (especially for David Carradine's character) from that real situation. 

It's an equation that, for me, really works well.  This is one of those movies that may not seem great in a traditional or conventional sense, but which you just can't take your eyes or ears off of.

More than one critic has also pointed out how the 1998 Godzilla seems to play more closely on aspects of Q: The Winged Serpent than the Gojira mythos.  It's an interesting observation, and not entirely without merit.

For instance, both films end on the exact same cliffhanging note: evidence that an unhatched monster -- an egg -- remains even after the final, urban battle with the Mommy Lizard. 

But where 1998's Godzilla was a colossal, focus-group tested, market-driven blockbuster, Q: The Winged Serpent is a much more intimate and human-scaled film.  Again, this  approach is just incredibly unconventional in terms of the monster movie sub-genre.  When you consider the greats of the form, you begin to detect how the classics play with form and expectations.  Such innovation may be done with special effects (King Kong [1933]), a blazing political context (Godzilla: King of Monsters), or a man-on-the-street point-of-view (Cloverfield [2008]).  I'd argue Q: The Winged Serpent belongs on that select monster movie list precisely because it is so odd and so personal ,and because it uses the story of a giant serpent almost as background noise for the character study of a memorable creep.

Because Q: The Winged Serpent so expertly grounds its wildest fantasy concepts with a study of Moriarity's sleazy little loser, this film from 1982 truly mimics the soaring behavior of its titular flying serpent.

Q: The Winged Serpent flies so close to the sun, it momentarily blinds you.  

Monday, October 24, 2022

60 Years Ago Today: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

“There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not. I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselin-ism has come to stand for. I think, if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more harm to this country than he’s doing now.”

--The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

In every presidential election, the term “Manchurian Candidate” gets lobbed like a hand grenade -- by the press, and voters -- at some aspiring politico who is feared to possess allegiances beyond the American populace. 

Such a candidate -- a Manchurian one -- is widely defined as an individual “seeking elective office who appears to support one thing or group, but is actually supportive of another thing, or another group.”

Most of the time, accusations pointing out a real-life Manchurian Candidate are false, or fit into the terrain of  conspiracy theories.

The 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate -- now 60 years old -- concerns hard-right-wing candidate, Johnny Iselin, who is secretly (and perhaps unwittingly) the tool for Russian and Chinese communist interests.

Back in 1962, the John Frankenheimer film (based on the novel by Richard Condon) was generally considered far-fetched, imaginative, and wild in its plot and details. 

The Manchurian Candidate was remade in 2004, but it is the black-and-white 1960s effort which remains the superior work of art, in part because of the director’s careful use of symbolism (mainly images of Americana), and in part because of its use of contradictions, in terms of character and plotting, to constantly engender surprise and shock.

It’s true that the film has aged some, as all works of art do. 

Instead of casting a Korean man in a crucial supporting role, for instance, the filmmakers cast Henry Silva…a Sicilian, in that role. When this character speaks, he does so in the kind of broken English you hear in black-and-white World War II movies. Accordingly, the performance doesn’t translate well to today’s culturally-aware context.  Similarly, there’s a talk, late in the film, of sending a Christmas card to a Buddhist that is, if not in bad taste, at least unnecessarily insensitive.

These are very small things, however, when one considers the remarkable artistry of the film, and its weirdly prophetic nature. After all, consider the following: This film not only predicted the idea of a sort of right-wing double-agent running for President, but imagined -- the year before the assassination of JFK -- how a “loner” (or patsy) could be harnessed to inflict terrorism on a population.

“It’s the most rousing speech I’ve ever read. It’s been worked on, here and in Russia, on and off, for over eight years.”

In 1952, during the Korean War, a troop of nine American soldiers are captured by Russian forces, and helicoptered into Manchuria, where they are brainwashed by a scientist from the Pavlov Institute.  

Among those captured are Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), step-son of Communist-bashing, right-wing U.S. Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory).

The soldiers are returned to the U.S. believing a false story that Raymond saved their lives. He is decorated for this act of (fictional) gallantry, but in truth, he is now an agent acting against the United States, though he does not realize it.  

Instead, he is triggered to obey his American handler (his mother [Angela Lansbury]) when he sees a Red Queen in a deck of playing cards.

Disturbed by nightmares of his brainwashing experience, Bennett Marco investigates Raymond Shaw in his capacity as a military officer. He comes to befriend Raymond, a not very “loveable” or likeable loner.  

When Raymond is ordered to kill a U.S. Senator Harding (John McGiver), and Harding’s daughter, Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish) -- Raymond’s new wife -- he must obey.  But his hatred for his mother grows. 

When he learns that he is to be the assassin at a political convention, and pave the way for a “Manchurian” candidate, Raymond acts of his own accord, and earns the medal that his country awarded him. 

“I’m on the point of winning for them the greatest foothold they would ever have in this country. And they paid me back by taking your soul away from you…”

Although I have described The Manchurian Candidate as prophetic, it also takes inspiration from recent American history. 

The character of Johnny Iselin is based on Republican senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1989); a homegrown demagogue who made a name for himself in the U.S. Senate, and across the nation for his accusation that the U.S. Government had been infiltrated by communist agents and sympathizers.  

McCarthy undertook a witch-hunt to find and slime his enemies on those terms (as Angela Lansbury does in The Manchurian Candidate), and at one point claimed he had a list of “205 names” representing communist sympathizers in the U.S. Government. Later, he claimed to possess a paper with “57” such names instead.

In The Manchurian Candidate, Iselin first claims “207 names” and then, after seeing a bottle of Heinz 57 Ketchup, likewise modifies his claim to “57” communists. 

The shift to 57 is both a biting attack against McCarthy, and a joke at the same time. The number 57 is easy for Iselin to remember because of effective product placement. It appears on a ketchup bottle. And like Heinz and its ketchup, Iselin is similarly advertising himself as a kind of brand name: a brave communist hunter!

What The Manchurian Candidate suggests, via Iselin’s comical inability to settle on a particular number of communist infiltrators, is that the man is indeed a clown and buffoon, but a dangerous one who has the full attention of the national press.  

Reporters record and mindlessly transmit across the nation (via TV) the McCarthy-like senator’s every accusation, and that’s the point. Iselin is a huckster, one who dabbles in trumpery, but also one who understands how to manipulate television and thus make a name for himself.  

As Mrs. Iselin notes, no one questions that there are communist sympathizers in the government after Johnny Iselin’s televised “stunt.”  They only question the number of them. In political conversations and rallies, lies are accepted as facts, even without evidence, if they are repeated often enough. 

What The Manchurian Candidate comments on, then, is the dangerous power of the Mass Media to not only inform, but to mis-inform. The press can spread truth, or fiction with equal power. It can highlight the words of a statesman, or an unrepentant, attention-hungry liar. Many people in the audience cannot discern which they are seeing, honest patriot, or serial liar. That’s a big problem for democracy, and one not easily solved.

Iselin, after all, gets the vice-presidential nomination of his party in the film, not for statesmanship, not for political accomplishments, but for his crusade to find communists in the U.S. Government, a crusade built entirely on fictional accusations.  His lies are his experience.  His lies are his portfolio. And he nearly rises to the highest office of the land based on those lies.

As other reviewers and scholars have noted, Iselin and his wife are associated, throughout the film, with imagery of Abraham Lincoln.  

Not simply Americana, but specifically of our sixteenth President. 

Iselin’s reflection, for example, is seen in a Lincoln portrait at one point. And at a party for his son and Jocelyn, Iselin actually dresses as Lincoln. Throughout the film, busts of Lincoln are seen in the Iselin study too.

Why associate a McCarthy-esque charlatan with Abraham Lincoln, a man for whom so many hold such high esteem?  

Well, some scholars have suggested that the Iselins have selected Lincoln as a paragon to hide behind. They have gone overboard with their Lincoln love, only to cloak their true anti-American proclivities.  

After re-screening the film, I think there’s more specific commentary here. After McCarthy (and indeed, today), one must ask: what has happened to the party of Lincoln?  

This was the party that freed the slaves and ended slavery in America. How has it gone from the heights of Lincoln to the depths represented by McCarthy?  

How has it gone from holding the fabric of a nation together, to manipulating the press to tear that fabric apart for individual or personal gain? 

The multitudinous images of Lincoln throughout the film remind us how the noble have fallen, how a party has fallen from greatness. It’s not just that the Iselins’ hide behind Lincoln, it’s that they use his party as a base from which to launch an attack on the greatness of our nation. They appear to be extreme patriots, but are, in fact, betrayers. 

The Manchurian Candidate also associates the Iselins’ nemesis (a very responsible and noble member of the party of Lincoln, by contrast…), with a symbol of Americana even more ingrained in our national psyche than that of Lincoln: the bald eagle.

When Raymond declares his desire to marry Jocelyn, Senator Harding is seen in front of a huge symbol of a bald eagle, with wings unfurled. 

These wings seem to sprout, literally, from his shoulders. Similar eagle imagery is seen in association with him, later. When Raymond is a programmed assassin, he crosses the threshold into Harding's kitchen to murder the senator. Over the threshold, the symbol of an American Eagle is visible.

In the latter example, the symbol of the eagle showcases Raymond's point of transgression. The murder of Harding is the murder of liberty.

Also, consider the symbolism of Iselin wiping his cracker across the surface of a cake decorated as Old Glory, the American flag.  It's a desecration. Just as Iselin's rise to office is a desecration to democracy, the Constitution, and to America.

So what does the film’s symbolism reveal to us then, if taken in conjunction? 

Iselin is a McCarthy-esque demagogue who, if elected, would take the party of Lincoln down, and literally serve a foreign power. Harding, by contrast (a man of the same party) understands the real spirit of America, even though Mrs. Iselin has called him a “communist.”  

The battle in the film is thus between those who stoop to exploit patriotism and nationalism, and those who understand the real, true values of America, and seek to protect it. They can both exist in one party.

Raymond, similarly, appears to be a loner and assassin, but he is actually the courageous savior of American freedom, appropriately eulogized in the film’s moving coda.

I wrote in my introduction about the contradictions in The Manchurian Candidate, and how well they function to craft this particular.  

Consider, in this film, we meet a man who is a bitter, nasty loner, but who desires only to be lovable. Everyone seems to hate him, and he is a pawn of the villains. But, as noted above, he gives his life to save our country.  So the jerk and brainwashed assassin is also a great patriot, taking matters into his own hands when he knows the army and police are too late to act.

We also meet a nefarious communist scientist/agent, who loves a good joke. He is no Fu Manchu stereotype, but a jolly man who loves a good guffaw, and encourages humor in his compatriots. He doesn’t present as dastardly, but as jovial.

Similarly, we encounter a monstrous (and indeed, incestuous…) woman who hides behind the imagery of Abraham Lincoln, and calls out other Americans as communists when, in fact, she is a communist agent herself. 

Part of the joy inherent in viewing this film, even several times, is grappling with these contradictions, and the way they simultaneously shade and reflect character, or identity.  

What are we to make of the eerie coincidence that Jocelyn shows up at the masquerade party as the Red Queen, the very figure that “activates” Raymond, the wolf in sheep’s clothing?

For years, many have also speculated about Janet Leigh’s character, who befriends Marco and engages in a weird conversation with him that also seems to suggest, at least tangentially, that she is a spy sent to handle him.

This is a film with layers, and the contradictions are part of that layering. We are asked to look beyond the surface, and search for the truth.

And let’s face it, these contradictions are also a key part of the down-and-dirty fighting of American political campaigns. 

The camera records people and events, but it can’t tell us who is lying, or who is being truthful. It can’t expose the contradictions for us.

Instead, the camera goes to the loudest blowhard, not the smartest or most judicious individual.  Our very media, our method of discourse, appears to encourage and reward extreme behavior.

The Manchurian Candidate saw this problem clearly more than a half-century ago (as did A Face in the Crowd in 1957.)

The Manchurian Candidate is a well-made, well-filmed effort. Consider, the moment, for instance, at the Lady’s Garden Club, when the true nature of the event is exposed. Frankenheimer’s camera goes around in a circle. Upon the completion of the circle, the ladies have been replaced by the communist agents and audience.

Or consider the karate fight sequence, between Silva and Sinatra, which is masterfully choreographed and cut, and starts with a kind of lightning bolt or shock, as Marco recognizes Silva's character.

The film’s craftsmanship holds up well in terms of relating the twisting narrative to audiences, but the production’s use of symbol-laden imagery makes it a document of value and enduring truth in terms of understanding American politics. 

The Manchurian Candidate reminds us that the most independent, patriotic voice in the room -- or on camera -- may not, in the final analysis, be either.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: First Blood (1982)

In general, I am not the world’s biggest fan of the Rambo films.  

Parts II – III (I haven’t seen any after that…) serve largely as awkward polemics in which a fighting man who is not really a “thinker” is put in the position of making political statements, and quite awkwardly so.  

The grandiose, high-flying words just don’t feel right or ring true coming out of John Rambo’s mouth. He’s not a politician. And he’s not a deep thinker, either.

I’m certain others will disagree with me, but the blockbuster 1985 film Rambo: First Blood Part II feels more like a laundry list of flag-waving philosophical talking points than a fully-articulated movie.

However, I am an affirmed admirer of First Blood (1982) the film that introduced the world to Sylvester Stallone’s character, a Vietnam veteran named John Rambo. 

I resolutely admire this film not only because of the splendidly orchestrated stunts and action scenes, but because Rambo’s righteous anger is not directed at any one particular group or party, but at everyone in a system that has egregiously failed him. 

In this way, First Blood is neither a right wing diatribe nor a left wing polemic. 

Instead, it is an aching, emotional primal scream that transcends politics and partisanship.  

The brilliantly-staged film asks -- in a rage-driven bellow -- how the world could turn out this badly for someone who was only doing what he felt was his patriotic duty, and what he was called to do.

To put it crudely then, First Blood is simultaneously anti-war and anti-anti-war

The film vehemently derides the system that landed men into armed conflict without the resources they needed to cope with the violence they witnessed, and then abandoned them upon their return stateside. 

At the same time, First Blood decries the protest movement, which in some cases blamed soldiers for the decisions of their superiors, and the decisions of politicians in Washington D.C. 

There’s more than enough anger to go around, in other words. And make no mistake: First Blood is an angry, emotional, reactionary film.  

Indeed, that incredible passion is the engine that fuels this work of art and provides it tremendous energy.

By contrast, later Rambo films attempt to suggest that might is right, and that if only Rambo were “allowed” to fight unfettered, we would have won the war in Vietnam.  

“Do we get to win this time?”  Those films asked, and that’s a deflection.  It’s the wrong question, and the wrong point to focus on.

Whether or not one supported the Vietnam War, this focus represents a deeply unsubtle simplification or reading of history. 

Or described another way, First Blood is a veritable primal scream suggesting that the Vietnam War was a nation’s folly, and that elements of the anti-war movement are responsible for making it worse for those men who (bravely) fought in it than it already was.  

The later Rambo movies say, basically, if we could just re-fight the war, we’d sure win it this time

There’s a lot of space between those two different philosophies. I find the first admirable, and the second delusional.  

First Blood still impresses as a work of art today as well because it recreates -- in small-town America, no less -- the deep contradictions, divides, and paradoxes that bedeviled the country in the 1960s and early 1970s.

First Blood isn’t a gung-ho, macho, flag-waving cartoon, either.  That’s merely the caricature that Rambo became later.  To some extent, critics have retroactively imposed that popular image on this initial film, and a re-watch reveals it just doesn’t fit.

On the contrary, First Blood is an angry, righteous -- and necessary -- exorcism of a national tragedy; one in which there is plenty of blame to share on all sides of the debate. 

We aren’t hunting him. He’s hunting us.”

Some years after the end of the Vietnam War, former United States Army Special Forces soldier John Rambo (Stallone) goes to visit in his friend, Delmar, in the Pacific Northwest, only to learn that he has died due to his exposure to Agent Orange. Delmar’s death makes Rambo the last survivor of his unit.

Rambo continues his journey through the town of Hope, Washington, but is intercepted by the town sheriff, Teasle (Dennehy), who fears that he is a drifter, and a dangerous element. Teasle drives Rambo out of town and when Rambo tries to return to Hope, Teasle arrests him.  Teasle finds a knife on him, and charges Rambo both with vagrancy and carrying a concealed weapon.

While incarcerated, Rambo is treated brutally by Teasle and his deputies, including Galt (Jack Starrett), Mitch (David Caruso) and Ward (Chris Mulkey). 

This wretched treatment causes Rambo to experience flashbacks from his excruciating time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and to lose control of his impulses. His survival instinct kicks in, and Rambo injures several police officers, escapes the jail, and flees into the nearby forest.

Teasle and his deputies pursue Rambo into the wilderness, and before long, have a full-scale war on their hands as the Vietnam vet arranges for them to be fouled by booby traps and other dangers. 

Rambo incapacitates the entire group, and Galt is killed, though the circumstances are not precisely Rambo’s fault.  Rambo attempts to surrender to authorities, but is rebuffed by Teasle, and nearly shot in the head.  Later, Rambo captures Teasle and tells him to “let it go,” but Teasle will not back down.

Before long, Rambo’s former superior office, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) arrives in Hope to help negotiate a peaceful solution to the war that rages.  

But Teasle has already called in the National Guard and State Police.  

Matters are escalating, and before long, there’s a very real chance that this war will have no winners at all…only casualties.

“We had orders. When in doubt…kill.”

Adapted from David Morrell’s 1972 novel of the same name, First Blood boasts a truly clever structure in the sense that Rambo’s mis-adventure in Hope -- an ironically-named town -- seems to mirror directly much of the Vietnam War experience and context. 

In particular, Rambo runs up against a man, Teasle, who refuses to back down or to negotiate with him. Teasle’s only strategic move is to escalate, to the point that his own town is torn apart by his refusal to see reason, or to think outside the rubric of “total victory” over Rambo.  

In some fashion then, Teasle -- at least as depicted in the film -- symbolizes American leadership (from both political parties) circa 1964 – 1974 or thereabouts.  He represents unyielding, boot-on-your-throat authoritarianism.  It’s his way or the highway. If he cannot win with the forces under his command, Teasle will simply call up more forces and throw them at the cause too.  His “tactic” is overwhelming numerical advantage…and that’s it.

The paranoid quality of First Blood’s narrative arrives early, specifically in Teasle’s wantonly hostile actions in the film’s first act. He manufactures a reason to hate and fear Rambo on sight, trumping up charges of carrying a concealed weapon (a hunting knife, for Heaven’s sake…) and vagrancy.  

In keeping with the metaphor of the Vietnam War, Teasle’s trumped-up charges against Rambo serve as the equivalent of The Gulf of Tonkin incident… a manufactured reason to go to war.  Suddenly, Teasle has the excuse he needs to treat Rambo badly. 

Oddly, Teasle’s actions make almost no sense on a practical level. They are only sensible if one considers the Vietnam War allegory.  Rambo’s hair isn’t especially long or ratty.  He doesn’t appear especially unkempt, either. And all he wants in Hope is a hot meal.  That’s all he “hopes” to find there. 

But Teasle is unreasonably and irrevocably hostile to Rambo…even telling him that his jacket with the American flag patch on it is bound to cause a problem.  If we understand Teasle as an avatar for imperialism and authoritarianism, he makes, at least, a modicum of sense as a dramatic character.  He becomes consumed by what “could” happen because of Rambo’s presence, not who Rambo actually is.  

And frankly, this sounds a lot like the (now-discredited…) Domino Theory. If Vietnam falls to communists, other states will also fall to communists too, the theory went.  There are a lot of “ifs” in that scenario that don’t involve -- at least directly – either reality or the present circumstances.  

Similarly, Teasle sees Rambo as a future threat not yet fully materialized, but it’s hard to see exactly why. Does Teasle think that this Vietnam Vet is going to start killing babies in Hope?  Is that his hidden (and paranoid…) fear?

Uniquely, Rambo takes on the characteristics of the Viet Cong in a sense.  He is “one” with the natural environment, using the forest to his advantage and acting as a guerrilla soldier when the first shots are fired. 

He also sets booby traps for the pursuing officials, and many of his decoys and traps outlast superior firepower (the rubric of American forces in Vietnam).  At one point, Rambo even takes sanctuary in a mine or tunnel system, imagery which clearly evokes Viet Cong tactics.  

In more blunt terminology, both the Viet Cong and Rambo are deemed enemies of American authority in their respective wars. They represent some “outside” or “alien” world-view.

This shuffling of traditional heroic and villainous roles in First Blood effectively recreates the visceral confusion of the Vietnam War Era.  Americans were in Vietnam to fight the Viet Cong, and yet when stories came back about the behavior of some American soldiers, the tide of public opinion in the States turned against the war.

For instance, the My-Lai Massacre -- the murder of several hundred unarmed civilians by American soldiers in March of 1968 -- scrambled traditional concepts of right and wrong, heroes and villains.  How could people feel patriotic knowing that innocent people -- families -- were being murdered in their name?

First Blood is very much reflective of this complex and difficult dynamic. Watching the film, we expect to be on the side of the law and order, on the side of police, national guardsmen, and state police, but find that these expected authority figures are alternately despotic and cruel, or (as in the case of the guardsmen) inept, heavily armed buffoons.  

By contrast we sympathize with Rambo, even though he is launching a full-scale assault against civil and military authorities. He destroys private property, threatens other soldiers, and creates chaos.

Once more, traditional lines of sympathy are scrambled, and it isn’t clear who we should be rooting for. 

Should it be for the police to put down an armed threat who lays siege to an innocent town?  

Or for the wronged man fighting the system with every ounce of strength in his body?  

Of course, as the film’s central figure, we ultimately do root for Rambo, but he is clearly an anti-hero in this film (as opposed to the sequels, where he is the fully heroic arm of a resurgent right-wing establishment…). 

In First Blood, Rambo is fighting the system -- the very system that we cherish -- but one that has been co-opted by those who refuse to compromise or see reason.

In my introduction to this review, I noted that First Blood is an “aching” primal scream, an exorcism, and a necessary one.  

This becomes especially apparent in the final scenes.  I believe that Sylvester Stallone’s greatest silver screen performance arrives in First Blood, in the last act, when Rambo lays out the details of his life post-Vietnam. 

He can’t get a job, let alone keep one. 

He is tortured by images of friends and comrades dying in war.  

He is hurt -- psychically-wounded -- by the fact that his countrymen view him as a murderer and a baby-killer when he went to war, essentially, at their government’s behest (and demand).   

Rambo did what was asked of him, even though it was destructive to him personally, and now he is hated for having answered the call. 

Thus Rambo faces the true no-win scenario.  He is derided because the war was lost, and hated by both the establishment and the anti-establishment.

During Rambo’s rage-driven monologue, Stallone is as raw and open emotionally as we have ever seen him…as if driven mad by the contradictions of Rambo’s situation as a man without a country, even though he gave everything for his country. 

It is rare for an action movie to resolve in a scene of intense dialogue like Rambo’s in the police station in First Blood, but that’s precisely what occurs here.  We get this huge catharsis -- not out of violence meted -- but out of emotional release.  Rambo finally speaks at length about who he is, and what he is become…and is heard.  To some extent, that seems to be all he wants…to be heard.  

Later films in the franchise, as I’ve noted, ask Rambo to pull a lot of partisan baggage re-litigating the Vietnam War.  But in First Blood, we simply get a portrayal of an angry man who has been abandoned at every turn, and must now reconsider what his country stands for, and what he stands for.

First Blood is all about Rambo’s consuming rage, and the fact that he has been taught by his country that the way to express such rage is through violence, war, and blood-shed.  Trautman describes the philosophy as “when in doubt…kill.”

Only in the film’s finale, when Rambo unloads his emotions on Trautman, however, is Rambo’s war truly ended.  Violence and war ultimately resolve nothing, and that’s why First Blood is an anti-war film.  War did not make Rambo great.  On the contrary, war trained him to survive in only one heightened environment -- the battlefield -- but left him without the resources he needs to live among us, as a countryman, as a human being.

Although Rambo is described as “resilient” in First Blood, the opposite is actually true. He mounts a “private war” because he “just can’t turn off” the rage within him.  Accordingly, the final, haunting freeze frame of First Blood is a portrait of a man who -- years after the war is ended -- is finally taking stock of who he is, and why he is that way.

First Blood features involving, dynamic action scenes. Rambo’s escape from jail is a kinetic dance, a battle of violence that showcases John as a living, breathing weapon.  The scene on the cliff-wall, perhaps the most dazzling in the picture, is tense, and bereft of any obvious fakery or stunt doubles.  The action here is splendidly orchestrated, but again, the film’s real gut-punch comes in the substitution of Rambo’s self-expression for a deadly shoot-out.  The film goes out not with a blaze of fire-works, but a blaze of emotions and truth-telling.

Popular reputation to the contrary, First Blood isn’t a rah-rah cartoon or a two-dimensional action film like its successors. It’s the emotionally-affecting primal scream of a soldier hated and abandoned on all sides, who is just trying to mind his own business.

Sadly, he finds that he is to be denied even that modest freedom, and fights back the only way he knows how.

The way we taught him to fight.

Friday, October 14, 2022



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