Monday, March 25, 2013

Rambo: First Blood Part II

Rambo: First Blood Part II, by David Morrell
May, 1985  Jove Books

In my novel First Blood, Rambo dies. In the movies, he lives.

With this pithy introduction David Morrell launches into the novelization of the sequel to the 1982 film First Blood. It might sound obvious, but it’s worth noting that this truly is a sequel to the film and not Morrell’s original 1972 bestseller. Beyond the fact that Rambo is still alive (he got his head blown off by Trautman in the book), even the minor details are taken from the movie and not the novel. It should also be noted that this novelization is an excellent piece of work, and shouldn’t just be disregarded as a quickie cash-in.

In a recent ebook edition of Rambo: First Blood Part II (hereafter just Rambo for reasons of laziness…but then, that’s how everyone referred to it until the 2008 Rambo really confused things), Morrell provides an introduction where he explains how he came to write this novelization (you can read this introduction here). Finding that he still had more to tell about Rambo, Morrell crafted this novel from the workprint (he was given a video tape of the already-completed film by the producers), James Cameron’s original script, and his own ideas. Morrell’s intent was to make it seem that the movie had actually been based on the novel, as was the case with First Blood. And he succeeds in every way.

To put my bias out front, I much prefer Rambo to First Blood. In fact First Blood is my least favorite of all four Rambo films. Rambo though is just one of the best action movies ever made, and it’s hard to imagine now the excitement that overtook kids my age when it came out in the summer of 1985. Sure, I was seven or so years younger than the R rating permitted, but as fate would have it my brother’s seven years older than me, and so was able to get me in as my “guardian.” I can still recall the excitement that rippled through the audience in that Frostburg, Maryland theater, and promptly after the film I went out and bought this Jove mass market paperback at a WaldenBooks store.

I read the book then, and about the only thing I remember about that reading is that I got pissed off over the differences from the movie! I guess I was expecting a straight-up transcript, who knows. But anyway I still have my original copy, one of the few books I still have from my childhood (and it’s in practically new shape, a testament to my lifelong book nerdishness). I had a blast reading it again, all these years later. I’d even go so far as to say I enjoyed it more than First Blood itself.

Morrell’s writing here is leaner, tighter. First Blood was tight, too, but parts of it were very literary, very much of its time. Rambo on the other hand is straight-up men’s adventure fiction (obviously though of a higher literary caliber than the genre norm), with none of the John Gardner-esque soul-plumbing of the original novel. Unfortunately it also tones down the metaphysical bent of First Blood, though Morrell does manage to work a bit in with descriptions of Rambo’s Zen-based meditations, where he sort of transfers his consciousness onto inanimate objects.

The novel of course follows the template of the film, with additional characterization and extra incidents. Rambo is sprung from prison by Colonel Trautman and sent to ‘Nam, where he is tasked by shady “spook” Murdoch with collecting photo evidence of American prisoners of war, with specific orders not to engage the enemy. Instead Rambo and his female guide Co basically take on every Vietnamese and Russian soldier in sight and save the prisoners, while finding the time to fall in love. Morrell though had nothing to do with the creation of this storyline, and so was limited to adding extra layers to the material in Sylvester Stallone’s revised script and James Cameron’s original draft.

In the intro to the ebook Morrell enthuses over Cameron’s script, which I’ve read (you can too; it’s available online), and I have to say, I don’t get this revisionist appreciation of Cameron’s Rambo. It just feels wrong, and I’m not just talking about its buddy-cop aspect (originally Rambo was to have a partner on the mission, to be played by John Travolta!). If anything reading Cameron’s script made me appreciate Stallone’s writing all the more, as practically all of the memorable moments from Rambo came from Stallone’s script.

Anyway, as I mentioned this novel is really a sequel to the film. Trautman is clearly identified as a father figure for Rambo, the man who trained him, whereas in the original novel it seemed as if the two had never actually met. And also when Rambo reflects back on the incidents in “the town,” it’s always to things that happened in First Blood the film and not the novel, like stitching himself up after getting injured and, you know, not killing everyone. And Rambo himself is clearly described as Stallone, not the “nothing kid” of the original book; he’s also more charismatic, while at the same time indulging in a little self-pity, all just as in the film.

Probably everyone knows Rambo and what happens in it, which means I can avoid my usual digressive rundown of events. It all goes down mostly the same, only with some changes here and there…dialog moved around, scenes rearranged, more backstory, more description. For example, Rambo’s introduction, which Morrell takes from Cameron’s script, has Rambo in a mental institution when he first talks to Trautman. Morrell also adds a bit that informs us early on that Rambo can pilot a helicopter, with his escaping a CIA tail in Thailand and flying a helicopter himself to Murdoch’s command center.

The biggest improvement Morrell makes to the film is adding a wholly relevant subplot that Rambo is returning to the POW camp from which he escaped, back during the war. This was bizarrely downplayed in the film. Morrell has Rambo actually nervous about going back to this hellhole, and he sets up a boogeyman from Rambo’s past, Sergeant Tay, a sadist in the camp who tortured the prisoners and gave Rambo most of his scars. Morrell has it that Rambo has fantasized about getting vengeance on Tay for all these years, and guess what, turns out Tay’s still here, stuck in the camp for allowing Rambo to escape so long ago! In the film, Tay is the thin, moustached Vietnamese soldier Rambo kills with the exploding arrow, and he has none of the backstory of the character in the novel. This was a missed opportunity on the part of the filmmakers; they should've played up more on the fact that Rambo was returning to this hell from which he once escaped.

Morrell also improves on the Rambo/Co romantic storyline. Again using elements from Cameron’s script, Morrell makes Co a widowed mother in her early 30s, rather than the 20-something of the film; her husband killed in the war, her 12 year-old son in America (having been there since he was 5 or so), Co is a battle-hardened warrior-woman who works for the American “spooks” and has a master’s degree in Economics. Her chacter is a lot more fleshed out here than in the film, and her latching on to Rambo doesn’t seem as contrived. You easily understand why Rambo gradually falls for her. Also Morrell makes it clear that Rambo is not a ladies man…we get lots of detail on how he hasn’t been with a woman in several years because he is unable to get close to anyone, and we also learn the fun fact that Rambo sometimes masturbates! See, you’d never learn that from the movie!

Morrell also adds more gore than was in the actual film. During the bit where the river pirates betray Rambo and Co, Rambo chops off one pirate’s head with his knife, then literally blows another in half with a shotgun. (All of which is like the 2008 Rambo, actually.) Morrell also adds a few horror-esque sequences, like having Rambo and Co walk across a ravine filled with the skeletons of American POWs, and a very squirm-inducing scene where Rambo, being tortured by Tay and the other Vietnamese, is dunked in a “slime pit” filled with slugs that crawl over his skin and up his nostrils. The whole scene is as unsettling as the “Rambo walks across a ledge of bats” sequence in First Blood.

The Russian characters are also given a little more depth. The leader, Podovsk (Podovsky in the film), is himself a sadist, and becomes sexually excited in the scene where a captured Rambo is strapped to a bed frame and electrocuted. Podovsk’s dialog with Rambo is more fleshed out, and his fate in the novel is superior to that in the film, with Podovsk, the last Russian standing, attempting to barter the life of the POWs in exchange for his own.

In fact Morrell changes the majority of the finale, again taking much from Cameron’s script, like Co’s fate and Rambo’s destruction of the Soviet gunship. This scene is certainly the most ridiculous in the film, with Rambo blowing the helicopter away with a missile launcher…while the POWs sit right behind him in the enclosed space of the Huey. In reality they would’ve been killed by the RPG’s backblast! Morrell changes it to Rambo using a passenger-safe “Dragon” minigun.

The action however is a bit more toned down in the finale. In exchange though you get more dramatic thrust, in particular Rambo’s long-held desire to kill Sergeant Tay, and also his gaining of vengeance upon Yashin, the Russian hulk who kills Co in the novel. But the novel misses a lot of the film's iconic action moments, like Rambo coming out of the mudbank and slitting the throat of a Vietnamese soldier, or in fact any of his solo war against the Vietnamese search party. Morrell covers this entire sequence in relayed messages that come back to Murdoch and Trautman, or from the point of view of Tay as his soldiers are killed by an unseen Rambo. This adds a thriller sort of tension, true, but it would’ve been nice to see more action from Rambo’s point of view.

Otherwise Morrell’s writing is just as strong as in First Blood. Lots of vivid description mixed with a skill for getting into his characters’s heads. There is however an excessive bit where he baldly exposits on archery and Rambo’s hi-tech bow (which Morrell actually has Rambo think of as a “Ram-bow!!”), including for some reason an actual drawing of the bow inserted into the text. But this is minor and in reality what Morrell has done here is great, taking an archetypal film and adding new elements to it.

I can’t say though that I prefer Morrell’s novel to the actual film; as I say, it misses too many of the iconic scenes. But in exchange you get better characterization, better plotting. And a better finale; in addition to the already-mentioned stuff with Podovsk and the prisoners and Rambo taking on the Russian gunship, Morrell also wisely has Murdoch playing an extra card, sending his henchman off to ambush Rambo as he escapes in the damaged Huey with the POWs -- this too is adapted from Cameron's script. In the film Murdoch just sort of waits for Rambo to come get him. Also with this added (and improved) scene Morrell gives Trautman one of the best moments in the book, saving Rambo before Murdoch’s henchman can launch their ambush (he’s hidden in their chopper and puts an M-16 to the pilot’s head). In fact this scene gives justification to Trautman’s presence; in the film he doesn’t do much except trade banter with Murdoch and promise that Rambo will come back for revenge.

Anyway, Morrell’s Rambo is a definite success, adding new layers to a well-known classic. It isn’t just a great novelization, it’s a great novel.

And in a savvy bit of cross-marketing, this Jove paperback features an ad for the MIA Hunter series! Too bad Morrell never wrote an installment of that…I’d love to have seen Rambo team up with Mark Stone and his POW-rescuing pals.


Jack Badelaire said...

Great review. I just bought the ebook version of Part II - going to have to give it a read soon. Although I'd read First Blood years ago, I've never even laid eyes on the novelizations for II and III.

Marty McKee said...

I don't have your back on FIRST BLOOD being the least of the films, but, yeah, RAMBO II (why not?) is a really good action movie and a lot better than the best action movie released this decade, whatever that may be (THE AVENGERS?).

It's worth noting (and you may know this), Trautman *did* kill Rambo in the FIRST BLOOD film. This footage showed up on the DVD and, I think, on the Blu-ray. For whatever reason (test screenings or probably thoughts of lucrative sequels), the ending was reshot.

Blofeld's Cat said...

so, RAMBO III novelization (also by Morrell, no?) next?

muskrat said...

Well, seeing as how Rambo is MALE (and being one myself), I already figured he masterbated.

Just think how much more psychotic he'd be if he DIDN'T masterbate.

Dan_Luft said...

I saw Rambo II on opening week. I was 18 and just out of high school. I just couldn't get into it. Loved Rocky III but Rambo and Rocky IV felt forced as if Stallone was determined to make as close to the same movie, over and over. Obviously I'm in a minority and both those movies were huge.

Loved the movie of First Blood too. In retrospect it's probably closer to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and even Roger Corman movies than the rest of the franchise. I think I'm just a bigger fan of 1970s plotting and pace.

English Teacher X said...

Trautmann kills Rambo, sort of:

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments.

I have all of the Rambo movies on Blu Ray, including both versions of the 2008 Rambo (the differences between the Theatrical cut and the so-called Extended cut are marginal, but I prefer the Theatrical version), and I still like First Blood the least of them all. I just find it so naive and goofy, and in its own way more unreleastic than the later films, which at least owned up to the violent person that Rambo is. But then I know practically everyone rates First Blood as the best of them all, including Stallone.

As for the "Trautman sort of shoots Rambo" alternate ending, it is on the Blu Ray (as are a few other deleted scenes, but supposedly the workprint cut of First Blood was around 3 hours long), and it also appears in the 2008 Rambo -- Stallone inserted it at the end of Rambo's dream sequence/past film montage.

Jack Badelaire said...

I'm about 40% through the ebook of this title. Morrell delivers again with another great story...

Felicity Walker said...

First Blood is my favourite of the original trilogy. There are already tons of movies where a heroic soldier goes into the jungle or the desert to rescue friends or POWs, but not as many about emotionally-wounded vets coming home and finding no welcome in America. First Blood takes that to an extreme by making it Rambo versus America!

First Blood also has the distinction of being filmed here in British Columbia, Canada. Back in the 1990s our local Blockbuster Video had a “Filmed in BC” shelf and First Blood was on it.

Anyway, as an older viewer who’s tired to (vicariously) trek out into the jungle and the desert anymore, I like things that are set closer to home. :-)

Felicity Walker said...

(That should say “too tired.”)

Chris H. said...

I saw First Blood when it first came out in the theaters. My friend and I were in high school and under 18 so we were worried we wouldn't be allowed in, but they didn't give us a second look. I loved that movie and at the time it was unlike anything I had seen before. That started a great time for men's action movies of the 80's from companies like Carolco and Golan-Globas with Movies like Rambo, Missing in Action, The Terminator, American Ninja and Navy SEALs.

When Rambo: First Blood Part II came out in the theaters, I was in the Navy and I loved it. I know I read the novelization when it first came out but I saw the book in the used book store the other week and thought I would read it again. In the forward of the book, Mr. Morrell said he spent a lot of time researching archery and Zen. While I appreciate his effort, I didn't think he fit that information into the book very well. To me, it just felt like a data dump and was kind of boring. I liked that he spent more time on the relationship between Rambo and Co than the movie did; I think it added more depth to Rambo and made him a little more than just an indestructible killing machine. I also liked the fact that he went back to the same POW camp where he was a prisoner of war; that added a little poetic justice to the story. The writing was much better than a lot of men's adventure books of the era. Overall, I thought it was a good book but it wasn't great.