Monday, February 4, 2008

Rambo (David Morrell's thoughts)

Over the weekend, my wife and I saw the movie Rambo. Overall, I enjoyed it (I didn't love it, but it was much better than I'd anticipated). Hopefully, I'll get around to posting a review on my personal website sometime soon. (Note: The film is very gory; I suspect that Sylvester Stallone added the gore to drive home the point that war is an angry, ugly, nasty thing, not the glorified vision depicted in Rambo II and Rambo III). Anyway, one of the things that I was interested in was the review of Rambo by David Morrell, the author of First Blood, the book upon which the first Rambo movie (also called First Blood) was based.

David Morrell is one of my favorite authors. Like any author, some of his books are better than others; but when Morrell is "on" he is as good as any writer I know at capturing suspense in the written word. I might go so far as to say that, other than Adam Hall, no other author is as good at capturing suspense (at least in the thriller genre). His novel The Brotherhood of the Rose is one of my all-time favorites; Testament is one of the most emotionally jarring and draining thrillers that I've ever read (just read the first sentence of that book, "It was the last morning the four of them would ever be together", and you'll get an idea what I mean), and First Blood is simply a great post-Vietnam book. I also highly recommend, The Totem, The Fraternity of the Stone, The League of Night and Fog, The Fifth Profession, Assumed Identity, Desperate Measures, Extreme Denial, Double Image, Burnt Sienna, and Long Lost. (Morrell's books that I haven't mentioned aren't bad, they're just not as good as his others, but most are still much better than a lot of generic thrillers.)

I've always had fun with John Rambo, but much as I prefer Ian Fleming's James Bond to the caricature that he became in many of the movies, it is the Rambo from the novel First Blood that has stuck with me.

So, when I first heard that Sylvester Stallone was working on a new Rambo movie, I was curious to know what Morrell thought. I was distressed to learn that he was not involved at all. Thus, my hopes for the quality of Rambo weren't high. The fact that Morrell wasn't even given an opportunity to review the movie before its release was troubling. Was the studio afraid that he would pan it the way Clive Cussler trashed Sahara before it was released (which led to litigation...)?

As I mentioned, I didn't love the movie, but I did enjoy it. As I said to my wife when we left the theater, the movie did seem to capture the character of Rambo and didn't try to be anything more than a Rambo movie.

Well, Morrell has finally posted his thoughts on the movie Rambo on his website. Ordinarily, I would leave it at that and let readers go to his site and read his review; however, as I couldn't find a permanent link to the page with the review (it is on a What's New page that appears to change each month or so), I decided to copy his review below (I hope that he doesn't mind).

Many of you contacted me to ask what I think of the fourth RAMBO movie. I'm happy to report that overall I’m pleased. The level of violence might not be for everyone, but it has a serious intent.

This is the first time that the tone of my novel FIRST BLOOD has been used in any of the movies. It's spot-on in terms of how I imagined the character—angry, burned-out, and filled with self-disgust because Rambo hates what he is and yet knows it's the only thing he does well. The character spends a lot of time in the rain as if trying to cleanse his soul. There's a nightmare scene involving vivid images from the three previous films (they indicate the emotional burden he carries). There's a scene in which Rambo forges a knife and talks to himself, basically admitting that he hates himself because all he knows is how to kill. At the start, Rambo is gathering cobras in the jungle, and he's so comfortable with them, it's as if, because of his past, the most developed part of him is his limbic brain. He has nothing to fear from another creature of death. In the cathartic violence of the climax, he uses a machine gun that evokes the way wounded William Holden uses a machine gun at the end of THE WILD BUNCH (one of my favorite films). Indeed much of RAMBO has Peckinpah overtones while it also uses tropes from the novel (again, for example, there's an exciting sequence in which Rambo is hunted by dogs).

Another excellent element involves the film's archetypal, mythic overtones. Rambo is hardly ever called by his last name. Instead, he keeps being referred to as "the Boatman" because he earns his living with a boat on a river in Thailand. But after he's called "the Boatman" enough, I start thinking of the River Styx and the journey of death as depicted in Greek myth. Similarly, the knife-forging sequence reminds me of Hephaestus, the armorer of the Greek gods (in the sequence, Rambo even talks about whether God can forgive him for what he's done). Sly is definitely sophisticated enough to embed these sorts of allusions. The earlier Rambo movies were a combination of a Tarzan movie and a western. That is also the case here. The knife (again designed by master blade-maker Gil Hibben), the bow and arrow, Rambo racing through the jungle—these scenes are primal and breath-taking.

Some of you sent me emails, suggesting that maybe a younger actor would have been better for the fourth movie. But it’s important to remember that Rambo (unlike James Bond) is specific to a historical period: the Vietnam War. My novel FIRST BLOOD was published in 1972. If Rambo were a real person, he would have been perhaps 22 at the time. In 2008, he would be 58. Sylvester Stallone is a few years older than that, but basically he is the correct age, and in the new movie, he interprets the character in an older way. That's one reason he put on the weight—so he would look different from the trim muscular image he had in the 1980s Rambo movies.

Some elements could have been done better. The villains are superficial, to say the least. A lot could have been done with the connection between drug lords and the military in what the film calls Burma, dramatizing that money earned from the heroin trade motivates their brutality. Instead, they’re merely depicted as psychopaths. In a baffling moment, heroin somehow gets equated with meth, which is something entirely different and has nothing to do with the poppies grown in that area of the world.

Otherwise, I think this film deserves a solid three stars. Even the NEW YORK TIMES treated it well, emphasizing the way the character is given depth. Rambo is no longer the jingoistic character of the second and third films. The most telling line of dialogue is, “I didn’t kill for my country. I killed for myself. And for that, I don’t believe God can forgive me.” While that statement is in keeping with my novel FIRST BLOOD, it’s jaw-dropping when compared with the dialogue in the second and third Rambo films.

Some posters list me as an associate producer. This is an error. I was not involved with the production, and this time around, I didn’t write a novelization for the movie. But I do receive two credits. One is a single card "created by" credit before the names of the screenwriters. At the end, after the final surprising, poetic, redeeming sequence, another credit says "From the novel FIRST BLOOD by David Morrell." Two credits aren’t the way Hollywood usually treats a novelist. The second reference seems to acknowledge that the series has returned to the tone of the original novel. To say again, the violence is a solid R, but the intent is serious. I was blown away.

If you have any questions about the original book or how I invented the character, etc., please go to the FAQ page of this website. There are several items that might interest you, including the fact that Rambo's name is partially indebted to a Pennsylvania apple.

Happy reading.

So go visit Morrell's website, take a look at his background and the books that he's written, and then, go buy one of his books and read it! You'll be glad that you did.

Update (February 8, 2008): I received permission from David Morrell to include his review. Also, he noted that when he posts his "What's New" for March, he will move his review of Rambo to the FAQ page of this website. I thank Mr. Morrell for allowing his review to be posted here.

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