My first Musa ebook, Dead Reckoning, was a “tweener,” being a mystery/thriller/horror story, so today I’d like to discuss another adventure/thriller novel which I feel doesn’t get the acclaim it deserves—David Morrell’s First Blood, published in 1972. Now of course, when they hear this title, most people probably think of the 1982 Sylvester Stallone movie, which started the Rambo franchise. But there was a book first, and it was not a novelization based on the movie script, but written years before the film.
Just to get it out of the way, I enjoyed First Blood the movie. It was a good action flick—a bit cartoony at times, but overall it was decent. The sequels, it almost goes without saying, got ridiculous fast. Rambo 2 was pretty absurd, and Rambo 3 was almost unwatchably silly to me. I didn’t see the fourth one, Rambo (2008), and I’ve read mixed reviews.
(SPOILERS AHEAD) But back to the book. In some ways, the movie is a fairly accurate portrayal of the book. The overall main plot is the same in both. A psychologically damaged, special forces
vet named John Rambo passes through a small town. The local sheriff, Teasle, tries to run this long-haired drifter out of the community, but Rambo resists. The sheriff takes him in, and during an attempted forced haircut at the police station Rambo loses it and attacks the officers, and manages to get out of the station, steal a motorcycle, and flee into the wooded mountains. A large group of local police, and then later National Guardsmen, try to find Rambo, only to be thwarted by his excellent outdoor survival and combat skills. Rambo is able to get back to town, where he wreaks even more havoc and destruction. Vietnam
The major difference between the film and book is tone. Rambo in the movie is fierce, but not deadly—he destroys a lot of property, but he only kills one guy in self defense—a sleazy cop who’s about to defy orders and shoot him. Book Rambo is VICIOUS—he kills many people. Police, National Guardsmen, and even civilians. And these aren’t always justifiable self-defense, either, and not thoroughly evil guys—they’re people doing their jobs, and they get brutally murdered. The ending is correspondingly dark, too. Rambo and Teasle have a final one on one confrontation, and each manages to mortally wound the other. Rambo’s former officer, Colonel Trautman, administers the coup de grace by blowing off his former protégé’s head with a shotgun. Here the movie is softer and nicer, too—there’s still a type of standoff, but Rambo is captured alive, and Teasle clearly survives, too. I was surprised to learn that the movie crew actually filmed a scene where Rambo commits suicide, but they decided that was too dark, and went with the kinder ending.
(END SPOILERS) But the thing is, even when he’s doing the most horrifically violent things to people, Book Rambo is still sympathetic. We’re in his head, and we see his point of view—he served his country, did terrible things in the war for it, and now he wants to be able to get a meal, and linger in a town if he wants to, and not get hassled by the police yet again. And he’s clearly mentally unbalanced. The harassment by the police reminds him of the tortures he faced as a POW, and he snaps. Similarly, his opponent, Sheriff Teasle, is also sympathetic. He’s an ex-Korean War vet who just wants to keep his town safe, and he doesn’t realize what Rambo went through until it’s too late.
The cat and mouse hunt of Rambo in the wilderness is fascinating, and holds the tension well, too. Rambo’s exploits are amazingly adept, but more realistic than in the movie. (At least I think they are—I wasn’t in the service, or Special Forces, but from what I read author Morrell did his homework in that area, and it reads well.)
Now, I don’t mean to pick on the movie too much. Books and film are different mediums; for example, you can reveal what a character is thinking in a book and it can be very worthwhile, but doing this in a movie doesn’t usually work well, and slows the pace down. And I get that Stallone and the studio wanted a film that was more palatable to a larger audience, including adolescents, meaning they basically had to water down the story. (Plus, by doing that, it enabled them to have sequels, and make a ton more money.)
So, to sum up, the movie version was a good action film, but ultimately, kind of immature and lightweight. The book was an excellent action/thriller, which had a brutal tone, but was more realistic and sophisticated. I think most of the audience that enjoyed the movie will also like the book, since it provides more information about the character’s backgrounds, and despite the darker tone maintains the same level of sympathy for the main characters. I just think it’s a shame that the novel seems largely forgotten, buried underneath the whole Rambo movie series phenomenon.
Author David Morrell seems to have had a steady writing career post First Blood (his first book). He wrote the novelizations to the second and third Rambo movies, but many other novels, too, some of which sold and were reviewed well. Certainly I plan to seek out some of his other books, based on what I read in First Blood.