Thursday, March 21, 2013

First Blood

First Blood, by David Morrell
September, 1982  Fawcett Crest Books

The cover of this Fawcett mass market paperback obviously ties in with the 1982 film, but the Rambo of David Morrell’s novel (originally published in 1972) bears no resemblance to Sylvester Stallone. We learn in the first paragraph that he’s “some nothing kid” with shaggy hair and a mangy beard, and in fact looks more like a hippie, enough so that conservative chief of police Wilfred Teasle is appalled by the sight of Rambo wandering through his little kingdom of Madison, Kentucky and promptly kicks the “vagrant” out.

Teasle’s hassling of Rambo is enough to make even the reader uncomfortable, as within the first few pages you’re already sympathizing with “the kid.” But the reader already knows that Rambo isn’t some hippie; he’s just back from ‘Nam, where he was a Green Beret who won the Medal of Honor. But Rambo was also captured and spent some time as a POW, finally managing to free himself and escape to American territory. During this ordeal though he sort of lost his marbles, and thus was discharged back to the States.

Now he wanders around the country, living off the land, unsure what to do with his life, barely into his twenties. Getting kicked out of small towns by redneck cops is nothing new to him, but this time with Teasle sets off a chord and Rambo vows that he’s not going to back down again. This time he’s going to fight back. Teasle keeps picking him up along the road and driving him to the town limits and Rambo keeps turning around and walking right back in.

Teasle could obviously just give in and talk to Rambo, but he’s a stubborn redneck bastard. Actually he’s more than that, as Morrell will later prove, but the novel hinges on Teasle’s stereotyping in the first pages, and the mistakes he makes thereafter. Actually Teasle comes off as more of the protagonist of the novel than Rambo himself does, with more of the “character meat” one would expect – more backstory, more subplots, more character growth, and more scenes from his point of view.

When Teasle forces Rambo to get a haircut before putting him in a cell, Rambo snaps back to his POW days, grabs hold of a knife, and guts a cop. From there it’s on, Rambo easily escaping the redneck cops and getting out into the woods. Morrell must be an outdoorsman at heart, because there is a lot of forest-life detail here, with vast portions of First Blood coming off like adventure/survivalist fiction as Rambo lives off the land, including a cool part where he kills an owl, hollows it out, and roasts its carcass on a spit! Every once in a while I hear an owl hooting out behind my house, and this novel now has me thinking…

My favorite part of First Blood has always been this opening section of Rambo in the woods, using his superior training and skills to take out Teasle’s cops. The movie neutered all of this. Here in the source novel Rambo is a true killing machine; there’s none of the “I just want to be loved” stuff of the film. He’s here to make a point, and he’ll kill as many cops as he wants. It’s not until later that he begins to regret it. But for now it’s very personal and he wants Teasle to get the message. The novel trades on the personal war that develops between these two men.

First Blood comes off like an action-adventure take on Moby-Dick, with Rambo and Teasle acting as both Ahab and the whale for one another. It operates on that vibe that powers Great Literature, with multiple readings possible in what is presented as an oridinary story of two men in a battle to the death. In Morrell’s hands this becomes a masterful theme, especially in how he makes neither Rambo nor Teasle the hero or the villain.

Teasle gets the majority of the narrative time, and as the story progresses you see more and more the nightmare he’s unleashed. As the bodies rack up Teasle begins to, correctly, realize that it’s all his fault. And yet you also feel sorry for the stupid old hick. He loses men he’s worked beside for decades,he loses his foster father, and he’s just lost his wife, who’s moved out and gone to California. But after escaping Rambo in the woods, Teasle becomes so obsessed with Rambo that it’s all he can think of, the wish to see “the kid” brought to justice being pretty much the only thing keeping him alive.

The middle half of First Blood is very heavy on the adventure/survivalist fiction vibe. One of the more memorable scenes in the novel has Rambo figuring out he can escape down into an abandoned mine – making this discovery just as he’s about to surrender himself to the National Guard – and then working his way on and on into the pitch-black shaft. Morrell proves his mastery with prose in a squirm-inducing scene where Rambo must get over a ledge filled with flesh-eating beetles, “putrid goop” all over the ground, and swarms of bats looming above him.

An interesting thing to note is that the character Trautman is much different in the novel. He has none of the “father figure” quality that Richard Crenna brought to the character. In fact, it’s implied that Rambo has never even met Trautman – Trautman was just the trainer of the trainers, not Rambo’s direct trainer. There are no moments where Rambo and Trautman meet face to face, and Trautman comes off as more cool and aloof, very much the professional soldier. As in the film he’s been brought here to help, but he doesn’t offer much assistance – Morrell understands his characters well enough to know that Trautman would in fact be proud of the hell “his boy” has unleashed, and indeed he is. It isn’t until the very end that Trautman sees that Rambo has gone too far, and thus decides to step in.

I think it’s pretty common knowledge that the novel has a vastly different ending than the film. Would it be considered a spoiler to give away the ending of a 41 year-old novel? In case it would be, I’ll leave it that both Rambo and Teasle have different fates here than in the film, the only fates Morrell has left possible for either of them. One thing I forgot to mention is the metaphysical bent Morrell also gives the tale, with Rambo and Teasle becoming so in tune with one another that they gradually find themselves dipping in and out of each other’s minds, with both knowing what exactly the other is thinking. This progresses to the point where Teasle even feels that he can see out of Rambo’s eyes. The metaphysical aspect finds its fullest realization in Rambo’s final moments, a scene which is downright touching.

Obviously the film version changed the majority of the novel. For one, Rambo doesn’t kill everyone in the movie, let alone the different fate he experiences. The film version of the character is also thoroughly softened around the edges. There’s no argument that the film version of Rambo is more charismatic and human. Not to say the novel version isn’t charismatic, but he’s been honed into such a killing machine that he operates most of the time on pure training, with none of the mercy the film version would show. Even toward the very end of the novel, when Rambo shoots a guy in the arm and doesn’t kill him, it turns out that it’s just a mistake – Rambo was really aiming for the guy’s chest, but his aim was off.

As for other stuff in the film but not in the novel…well, Rambo doesn’t stitch himself up here, so there goes that memorable scene from the film. In fact he suffers from swollen and possibly broken ribs throughout, and does nothing to repair them. He doesn’t have a survival knife, and there’s no point where he commandeers a National Guard truck or appropriates an M-60. No soul-barring moments between Rambo and Trautman, no protracted “man to man” dialog between Teasle and Trautman. In fact the entire second half of the film is different from the novel, and you guessed it, the novel is superior in every way. But then the two are wholly different animals and should be treated as such.

Morrell’s writing here actually reminds me of now-forgotten author John Gardner (of Mickelsson’s Ghosts and The Sunlight Dialogues, among others). Maybe it’s due to Morrell’s talent for getting in the heads of his characters, or how he brings to life Small Town, USA. But then even the style itself reminds me of Gardner, from the topical detail to the way the story unfolds. The only difference though is that if Gardner had written First Blood, the book would’ve been a bloated excess. Morrell is skilled enough and smart enough to keep it at a lean and mean 250+.

In the “you’ll never believe this” department, Morrell was actually contracted to write the novelization of the 1985 film sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II. I bought that one fresh off the racks at a WaldenBooks store in 1985, and still have my copy, which I will be reading next. I guess it would be a re-read, as I read it back then, but given that I was ten years old at the time I don’t remember much about it.


Jack Badelaire said...

I read First Blood perhaps ten years ago, so my memories of it are a little hazy, but I agree that the story functions on an entirely different level than the film. I put some of this on the need to appeal to a more generalized movie-going audience, and perhaps even more on the general sea change in storytelling of this sort that takes place between the early 70's and early 80's. When the novel is first written, you've got guys who are barely home from Vietnam, and the story is much more immediate - I don't think Morrell could sugar-coat the story as they do in the film, even if he wanted to.

By the time the movie is being made though, our general attitude towards violence in film has changed. We've moved into the "action movie" time period, out of the violent, gritty, and often times very bleak dramas of the 60's and 70's.

Sigh...I might have to find my copy of First Blood and give it another read...

Tom Johnson said...

I totally agree agree with your comments, both on the book and movie. The novel was far superior to the film. I remember the movie critics condemning the movie at the time for too much violence, and for it's time maybe it was it. But certainly not by today's standards. I never knew any "rambos" in Vietnam. Nor any "killing machines", as the lone man snipper/killer was a myth in men's action novels. Men were part of a team in Vietnam. I get a kick out of old Vietnam vets I meet today to spin wild yarns about their time over there, wearing black pajamas and going out alone in the jungle to kill VC. I credit a lot of this to the movies, and wonder if they truly were in Vietnam at all, but I let them spin their yarns. Oh, and there is always a bounty of a million dollars on their head now. I was part of the security surrounding the returning POWs (Welcome Home) in the early 1970s, and the Air Base where they landed in California laid out a red carpet for them and generals met them as they came down the steps to be greeted by their loved ones. After that, they were all taken to military hospitals where they were given medical exams, and we kept the news media and everyone else away from them. Yes, afterwards the POWs were pretty well forgotten, as were all the returning Vietnam vets. I think some of my own experience is the reason I can't read The Executioner series. Mack Bolan did not exist in Vietnam.

Marty McKee said...

Teasle comes off as a somewhat sympathetic character in the film, which I have attributed to Brian Dennehy, a great actor, but I have wondered how much of his portrayal came from the novel (which I have still never read). IIRC, the only person Movie Rambo kills is Jack Starrett, who is the film's real villain and "deserving" of his fate. I always thought that was a little phony, yet it couldn't really be done any other way and still have Rambo the "hero." Still, FIRST BLOOD is a genuinely great action film that holds up very well.

Brian Drake said...

You absolutely have to read Morrell's novelization of First Blood Part Two. Even if you only read the first ten pages. Morrell does more in those pages to make you feel for Rambo than any other author could as he recounts the events from the first novel. The change in relationship between Trautman and Rambo is a bit weird, because Morrell had to blend both versions for the movie book, but in the end it works. His take on Rambo III is also worthwhile.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments.

Jack -- It had been several years since I read First Blood, too. It made for a great re-read, so you'll definitely enjoy it if you find your copy. As for the film, I believe Stallone played the largest part in toning down Rambo's "kill machine" nature and making him more human.

Tom -- I really enjoyed your comment, thanks for sharing. I've known several Vietnam vets, all who have had pretty much the same comments -- how 'Nam was a much different place than what is presented in the mass media. My favorite though was my friend's dad, who ran a PT boat over there (just like in Apocalypse Now); his major complaint about Hollywood's interpretation of Vietnam was all of the drugs...he said he NEVER saw any drug use while he was over there. I always figured he just wasn't looking hard enough.

Marty -- Teasle is actually more sympathetic in the book. A lot of his character was gutted from the film, where he became just a simple redneck bastard. Dennehy proved the mastery of his craft by salvaging the character enough to make him somewhat likable. In the novel though he goes through a major character arc, and by the end he loves Rambo more than anyone else in the world. I do agree though that the First Blood film seems a bit's my least favorite of all the Rambo films and always has been, and I admit I am mystified that it is so regaled today. It's a good movie for sure, but in comparison to the novel it just seems like a copout...and Rambo's fight with the cops and the way it plays out just seems so naive.

Brian -- I actually have a review for Rambo First Blood Part II posting on Monday and one for Rambo III posting on Thursday. Rambo II was actually my favorite of all of Morrell's Rambo novels, and I agree with you completely about how he brings you into Rambo's character in the first pages. He based a lot of this opening section of his novel on James Cameron's original script for First Blood II, but added new layers...making for a great novel. And I also enjoyed his Rambo III but I have to admit I'm a bit weird and Rambo III is my favorite Rambo film, so Morrell's very different version of the story didn't entertain me as much as Stallone's actual film.

Anyway, thanks again for the comments!