Thursday, March 28, 2013
Rambo III, by David Morrell
May, 1988 Jove Books
It’s usually dismissed, but Rambo III is my favorite of the Rambo movies. I place it up there with Schwarzenegger’s Commando as the pinnacle and epitome of ‘80s action movies. People usually complain that Rambo III is too unrealistic, a complaint which I find strange; I mean, who wants realism in an action movie? They should be all about escapism and fantasy, and Rambo III delivers in spades.
However I will admit that storywise the film has less substance than the average men's adventure novel. Rambo creator David Morrell felt the same way; in a recent ebook edition of Rambo III Morrell provides an introduction (which you can read here) where he states that the early scripts the producers sent him featured a more epic storyline, a sort of “Rambo of Arabia.” As the production went on and the script went through more and more changes, Morrell found himself swamped with conflicting revisions and plot changes. He decided to just push forward with his novelization of that earliest script, the final film be damned.
Whereas Morrell’s novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part II offered new and different layers to the iconic film, but still featured the same basic story, his Rambo III is radically different from the actual movie. In the ebook intro Morrell states that his novel was even significantly different from the early script he based it on. The end result is a pretty interesting book, only sharing the same template as the film, but playing out much differently. I don’t think it’s as good as the actual film, but it works fine as a novel, and in fact provides the Rambo character with a fitting end. (Well, about as fitting an end as when he got his head blown off in First Blood.)
The novel opens with Rambo living in Thailand, and Morrell informs us that it’s a year after the events of the previous book/film. Still mourning the loss of Co, still trying to avoid the truth that he’s a natural born warrior, Rambo gains admittance to a Buddhist temple and works in a forge. One of the more iconic (and parodied) scenes in Rambo III is that epic stickfight with the burly Thai martial artist, and it’s here, too, only in the novel it’s Rambo’s first time in the ring. He’s been inexorably drawn here, passing by the arena each night on his way to the forge, until finally he can’t help himself and gets in the ring to fight.
However he’s not here to win. Truly showing the depths to which Rambo has fallen, Morrell has it instead that Rambo only engages in the fight so that he can be punished. He wants to be beaten around, and is in the process of getting thrashed good and proper when he spots Colonel Trautman out in the audience. Trautman instantly figures out what Rambo’s doing – he knows Rambo could easily beat his opponent – and starts yelling stuff like, “Jesus Christ, John!”, just catcalling and jeering Rambo, which I found pretty funny.
Anyway this spurs Rambo to beat the shit out of his opponent, after which he meets again with Trautman, openly acknowledged as his “father” in the previous book. Trautman’s here because he wants to helm a CIA-backed operation in Afghanistan, running guns to the moujahideen warrior-tribes and teaching them how to fight off the invading Soviets. He wants Rambo to co-lead the mission with him. Rambo instantly says no, and that’s that. Just like in the film, Trautman is captured by the Russians a few weeks later, being ambushed after crossing over the Afghani border.
Rambo storms into the US embassy and demands to see the CIA agent in charge of the operation; unlike in the film, Rambo already knows something went wrong due to a strong case of foreboding. He demands that the CIA equip him for a solo mission to rescue Trautman. Once Rambo gets to Afghanistan the novel begins to significantly differ from the film. Hooking up with local contact Mousa, Rambo heads into the desert, where Morrell plays up on the adventure fiction angle he excels at, with the pair up against the elements. One gripping scene here is when Rambo and Mousa are almost buried alive by a massive sandstorm – a scene Morrell states was in the earliest scripts but was later jettisoned.
Rambo’s acceptance by the Afghani moujahideen warriors is more gradual here. First he must prove himself to them in a number of challenges reminscent of John Eagle Expedtior #4, including the mandatory bit where one of the tribal leaders instantly hates and distrusts this foreigner and thus challenges Rambo to a potentially fatal contest. And, as is mandatory, Rambo not only wins the contest but also wins the dude’s lifelong friendship and trust. Interestingly enough this tribal leader, Mossad, bears an eerie resemblance to Osama Bin Laden, described as tall and lanky and with a long, gray and white beard; he’s also the Soviets’s most wanted rebel, and is notorious among them for his terrorist activities.
Trautman meanwhile is getting beaten to death by his Soviet captors who are convinced he’s been sent here by the US government. Whereas the Soviet villains Morrell delivered in Rambo: First Blood Part II were mostly sadistic ciphers, the ones he gives us here are more three dimensional. Only one of them comes off as your basic flat “bad guy” type: Major Azov, who is willing to go to extreme lengths to get out of this “hell” of Afghanistan. But in addition Morrell also gives us Major Zaysan, who is disgusted with Azov’s inhuman torture of prisoners and openly fights against him, as well as Sergeant Kourov, Azov’s chief sadist who himself gradually becomes sick of following Azov’s orders.
Another character Morrell introduces (one that was supposed to be in the film) is Michelle, a “mannish” female doctor from the Netherlands who lives among the moujahideen and tends to their wounded. She develops a non-romantic bond with Rambo, and with the loss of this character Rambo III the film thus had zero female characters – that’s how much of an ‘80s action movie it is! Michelle though doesn’t add much to the storyline, and only plays a central role in the climax, where she endures a grueling escape across Afghanistan and to the Pakistan border alongside Rambo.
After a handful of taut action scenes where Rambo helps the Afghanis defeat small Russian forces, Rambo finally heads to the Soviet fortress to free Trautman. Here Morrell introduces yet another character, a young Russian soldier who has gone turncoat and wants to help Rambo and Mousa get into the fortress. I should mention that in this novel Rambo mostly fights with an M-16/M-203 combo, ironic given how he dismissively referred to it as “something out of Star Wars” in the previous novel, when Murdoch tried to equip him with the gun for his mission into ‘Nam. He also has his customary bow with explosive arrows, which Morrell runs down for us, but thankfully not in the excessive detail of the previous book. And of course he has his knife, which this Jove edition provides an illustration of in the text.
The fortress assault is where the film begins to fire on all cylinders, becoming an endless actionfest from there on out. In the novel the fortress assault occurs a little over midway through, and while it’s very exciting and gripping, it lacks the relentless nature of the film version – though I do like how in the book Rambo covers his face for the night assault with “leopard grease mixed with lampblack;” leopard grease because its scent will scare away the Russian guard dogs. Throughout this scene Rambo silent-kills a bunch of Soviets with his arrows and knife, until the sequence goes full-tilt with Rambo’s timed explosives going off and him mowing down soldiers with his gun.
I can imagine that Richard Crenna was pleased with the many changes the script went through; the role he was given as Trautman in this version of the story is pretty thankless, with Trautman reduced by his torture to a shell of himself, unable to walk or even speak, wholly in need of Rambo’s care as they make their escape. Actually it would’ve been an easy day on the job for Crenna, as all Trautman does from his escape on through to the end of the novel is lay on a stretcher while Rambo carts him around!
Morrell greatly expands the climax. While a maddened Azov gathers his soldiers and moves out in retaliation, the moujahideen split up in different groups and escape. Rambo, who spends this entire portion worrying over and caring for Trautman, insists that the Afghanis leave without him, as he’d slow them down. Mousa and Michelle however stay behind to help. Here the adventure/survivalist fiction stuff comes again with the group trekking across rough terrain as Soviet gunships and tanks gain on them. The situation Morrell describes though is much more hopeless than what Rambo encounters in the film, all of it compounded by the fact that he has to lug along a stretcher-bound Trautman.
As in the film it all leads to a final spectacular battle, with the moujahideen swooping in to assist their brave warrior-brother Rambo, but also Morrell weaves together all of his subplots about the bickering Soviet characters. Rambo himself doesn’t see much action here, too busy struggling to get Trautman to safety, only whipping out his machine gun/grenade launcher at the very end and blowing away some Russians. There is though a great bit where, overcome with battle lust, Rambo hops on a horse and charges down one of the main villains, hurling his knife right through the back of the bastard’s head.
So then, as for what’s in the film but not in the novelization…well, basically everything! The little kid who clings to Rambo and is given Co’s Buddha charm isn’t in the novel, nor are most of the action scenes. The action Morrell does give us is well done and entertaining, but again lacks the fantastic onlsaught of the film. And most unfortunately the novel doesn’t feature my favorite scene in the Rambo franchise, where Rambo takes on the nightvision-equipped Spetsnaz commandos in the caves. There’s absolutely nothing like that in this book, and Rambo’s “one man army” attributes are greatly toned down.
So while there is action, Morrell is more focused on Rambo’s internal struggles, in particular the torment of his soul. Religion is much played up in Rambo III, with Rambo starting off as Buddhist (which the previous novel informed us he learned from a Montagnard soldier during ‘Nam), but slowly coming to “think like a Muslim” due to his time with Mousa and the moujahideen. It seems to me though that Christianity, more particularly Catholicism, is the biggest theme here, with the constant stressing of Rambo’s suffering for others. There’s also a curious focus on how Rambo is always cutting his palms, how they bleed and are then cleaned and bandaged, all of which struck me as a sort of Christlike vibe. (I mean, he did die, after all…he is arisen!)
So could Rambo III be the world’s first action novel/holy text? Probably not, but Rambo does achieve a sort of divinity or at least savior aspect here, coming to this realization after his narrative-long soul struggle. Whereas the film also deals with Rambo’s aversion of his true nature, but then blows it all off at the very end with a witty exchange between him and Trautman (“John, I hate to admit it but I think we might be getting a little soft.” “Maybe just a little, sir.” – Wouldn’t be hard to take that exchange out of context, would it??), the novel follows the theme through with Rambo finally and fully accepting who he is and what he shall become:
The answer came at once. God had fated him to be a warrior. As long as innocent people were brutalized, he had a meaning. He served a purpose.
This actually sets the scene for the sequel, twenty friggin’ years later, where Rambo saves the group of missionaries in Burma in the 2008 film Rambo. One can only wonder what other adventures he had in the meantime (surely the Rambo: The Force of Freedom cartoon series doesn’t count…or does it?). And speaking of that 2008 film, Morrell unfortunately didn’t write a novelization for it; in the Rambo III ebook introduction he states that novelizations are mostly a thing of the past and thus a Rambo novelization would be unnecessary in this age of Blu Rays, DVDs, and etc.
I’d argue though that a novelization by the character’s creator would not be unnecessary. I would’ve enjoyed seeing how Morrell filled out the barebones storyline of the 2008 Rambo. And given that he’s recently been epublishing his novels, I wonder why Morrell never considered doing this latest Rambo film as an ebook-only novelization.
In fact in the ebook intro Morrell states that he was brought in by Carolco early in the production of Rambo III and came up with his own storyline for the film, with Rambo journeying down to the jungles of South America to save Trautman, complete with “a dramatic scene in an eerie Mayan ruin.” It would be great if Morrell just went ahead and wrote this story and published it on its own, but I’d imagine rights issues would be involved, and plus he’s probably not interested in writing yet another story about a character he killed off 40 years ago.
While this was my least favorite of the three Rambo novels (my favorite was actually Rambo: First Blood Part II), it was still great, providing a fitting and satisfying conclusion to the saga.