Thursday, May 30, 2013

“I'm A Real Wild Child” The (Tragically Temporary) Salvation of John J. Rambo

This is my conclusion to yesterday's post.

First Blood sets up Sylvester Stallone's character as a Lone Wanderer — a hippie-type, nameless for the first 12 minutes, wearing an Army jacket and carrying a bedroll. He strides into an Edenic setting, surveys it . . .

. . . and smiles.

It ain't much, and it's the only smile we get for the entire movie.

He approaches a black woman, hanging laundry on a line. She appears to be barely submerging her hostility. He notes her surliness, but cheerfully presses on, showing her a picture of the man he is looking for, an old army buddy from 'Nam. She informs him that his friend has died, of cancer — from Agent Orange. This woman has just said the most lines a woman will deliver in this movie. She offers him neither solace nor hospitality.

The Wanderer's smile disappears. He apologizes, gives her the picture, and discards a small address book as he leaves Eden and returns to the road.

Now the sky clouds over, and the temperature drops. After walking undisclosed miles, Our Hero approaches a town: the ironically-named Hope.

Here our next Protagonist steps out, surveys, and smiles: Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy).

He likes what he sees. Hope isn't perfect — he asks one resident old-timer, “Gonna take a bath this week?” (cleanliness is a big deal for this Sheriff) — but it's perfect enough. He spots the Lone Wanderer, decides he doesn't like what he sees, and ushers him out to the far side of town, telling him to keep walking. The Lone Wanderer turns around and walks back toward Hope. The situation deteriorates.

The direction the script could take — the direction many subsequent Stallone scripts have indeed taken — is to set Teasle as the antagonist, and the Lone Wanderer as the protagonist. First Blood takes pains to keep that from happening, by introducing an unregenerate antagonist and bully: Galt (the incomparable Jack Starrett).

Galt, left. David Caruso, centre, as Dutiful Younger Son.

So far the Wanderer has been quietly undermining their assumed authority. Like a mopey adolescent, he only does half of what they tell him to do, testing their patience. Teasle stares incredulously at the kid, trying to understand what the hell is wrong with him. Galt just wants to beat him up, but he is held in check, somewhat, by Teasle.

Note Dutiful Younger Son #2, left.

In the police station, names are introduced. There are a number of young deputies — Ward, Mitch, Lester. The Wanderer is John J. Rambo, recipient of a Congressional Medal of Honour. A broader psychological portrait is fleshed out, with Teasle as a father figure — to the boys around him, and increasingly to Rambo. The boys affirm his authority, and they seem happy. This John guy clearly accepted authority from someone, once upon a time. Why can't he get with the program and defer to Teasle?

The situation escalates. Teasle pushes, Rambo passively resists. Then Galt assaults, triggering the dark forces we know are pent-up in Rambo. The Wanderer transforms into the Wild Child, and escapes. Teasle takes off in pursuit. Out of town, in the mountains, Teasle's car crashes . . .

. . . just as Rambo's motorcycle flips. If the two protagonists were sane, they'd take a deep breath, extend a hand and say, “Can we start from square one?” But by now we know they share the exact same character flaw: each cannot abide the other's authority.

The kid scampers into the woods. The Father summons the Family, and lumbers in after him.

It takes some time, and involves considerable peril — Galt, the Nobodaddy, comes closest to destroying the Wild Son, and perishes in the process* — but Rambo endures and slowly turns the tables of authority on the avenging Father. He spares Teasle, and advises him to “Let it go,” words that, perversely enough, form an invitation to the opposite effect.

Teasle does the expected, and summons the State Troopers to help him in his quest. And thus we are introduced to the third and final protagonist — the Mother Figure, Colonel Trautman.

"I've come to get my boy."

Played with old-school cool by Richard Crenna, Trautman is a nearly unreadable cipher. His terse utterances signify Military Swagger — “God didn't make John Rambo: I did.” “You send that many men after him, don't forget one thing: a good supply of body bags.” etc — and he prowls around Teasle's camp of Weekend Warriors with a leonine authority that Teasle simply cannot muster. But for all his clipped verbal bravado, Crenna's Trautman in fact spends most of his screen-time silently observing the proceedings.

Trautman clearly has rank and common-sense on his side. But where a younger Trautman might bump chests with the blowhard Teasle and end this circus before it gets worse, the older Trautman — invested with Crenna's sorrowful, sagging hound-dog face — is the very picture of matronly discretion and composure, frequently communicating that most distant trait of masculinity: deep regret for the road not taken.

As the Mother figure, Trautman understands that the Father and Son share equal responsibility for this debacle. But as the Mother figure, Trautman is also too deeply invested in the spiritual drama to see a clear way through to salvation. Trautman's practical solution — “Let him go. Issue an APB. In a month he'll get picked up in Seattle, or some other city, and no-one will get hurt” — is superficially spot-on. He knows that without the fight, the Son is nothing — just another drifting loser. He also knows the same holds true for the Father. The Mother intuitively knows there is no “practical” road to wisdom for either of these loved ones,** and so does not press the point.

The conversations between Teasle and Trautman are akin to the dialogues of long-married couples who have settled on a script. (Think I'm stretching credibility? Try this: go here, and read Trautman's lines with Angie Dickinson in mind.) “She” proposes the practical solution — ”Let him go.” “Now why don't you forget what you're thinking and clear out while you can?” The Father jeers back at The Mother — “And what would you do? Wrap your arms around him and give him a big sloppy kiss?” Confronted with this bluster, Trautman tellingly does not dismiss the possibility out of hand, and instead (yet again) keeps his counsel.

Of course the Son is triumphant in the wild, and returns to Hope to visit vengeance on the Father. The Father, defeated, eggs him on in typical “masculine dis-associative” language: “Go ahead, you crazy son of a bitch!” (You're your mother's fault.)

Rambo seems on the verge, but Trautman steps forward, interrupting the patricide.

"It's over, Johnny."

Beneath the Maternal gaze, the Son's defences crumble.

He rages . . .

. . . then he sorrows . . .

. . . then he wilts.

It turns out that the Mother's embrace was exactly what the Son required.

There are people who don't quite “get” that scene — Roger Ebert was flummoxed by it. He thought the content of that final monologue had been delivered with more force in movies like Coming Home. This may be true — for a film critic. In his commentary for the DVD, novelist David Morrell marvels at the bales of letters he's received from Vietnam vets who said this was the first movie they could take their wives to and say, “See, that's what I'm trying to tell you!” I submit that the bizarre, and seemingly accidental, wisdom of this scene — in this movie — holds a primal appeal to four types of movie goer: Active Personnel and the family members who love them; adolescents, and the parents who love them. Ebert was none of these things when he saw the film.

Rambo's monologue is a wildly audacious gamble,*** and Stallone invests everything — every emotion, every instinct, every facet of his intelligence as an actor — he has in it. If the scene doesn't work for you, it's not because Stallone was holding back, or keeping anything to himself. Ebert thought the movie in the woods was the movie that should have survived. But take away the monologue, and Stallone's invested delivery, and the movie comes apart at the seams.

Prior to First Blood there were glimmerings that Stallone could sell as an action figure. Sadly, Ebert's kvetch (“Stick to action, Sly”) proved to be the road taken for Stallone and his handlers. The subsequent Rambo adventures lack all traces of the heart and soul Stallone pulled out and threw on the table (Crenna's performances also suffer, his jolliness for the regular paycheck too obvious to conceal). Indeed, all Stallone's subsequent performances have a searching quality to them, as if he might locate something of whatever it was that made this movie and this role so very memorable, if only he knew where to look.

So it goes. Hoping for another good Stallone action movie is probably like hoping Brando would pull it together one last time for a final bravura performance that actually meant something to the man himself. It'll likely never happen. But there are still a few of us hoping Stallone catches sight of his original brilliance, before the final curtain drops and extinguishes it altogether.

* Galt's is the only death in this movie, another anachronism for an action flick (thoroughly “remedied” by the sequels).

**Here I might be stretching the film to fit my reading of it: the more credible reading is that Trautman sees in Teasle the younger, bloodthirsty man that Trautman himself once was, back in 'Nam.

***The only Hollywood movie I've seen take this level of risk since then is P.T. Anderson's Magnolia.

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