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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

First Blood: Book vs Movie

The story of Green Beret Vietnam veteran Rambo started way back in 1972 with David Morrell’s successful novel, and then it took ten years for it to make its way to the big screen, but what is fascinating is that though the movie is almost structurally identical to the book, hitting almost every action beat from the source material, tonally its differences are night and day.
First Blood book cover

Both the book and the movie start exactly the same way, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a drifter and when passing through a small rural community he is rousted by the town’s sheriff for vagrancy. The movie adds an extra bit where Rambo is looking for the last surviving member of his outfit from Vietnam only to discover he has died of cancer. This is the first instance of getting the audience on Rambo’s side and screenwriters proceeds to lay on more and more reasons for us to cheer on Rambo, while the book spends much more time and effort balancing where the reader’s sympathies lie.
stallone rambo 
Johnny comes marching home.

In the movie Sherriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) sees Rambo and instantly dislikes him because of his appearance, his very existence is a threat to his peaceful community, and he offers Rambo a ride out of town, when after being dropped off Rambo turns right around and heads back into town. Teasle arrests Rambo and takes him in. The book has Teasle offering the hitchhiking Rambo a ride through town only later to find Rambo back in town at a diner, Teasle tells the cook, “Make that to go,” and ushers Rambo out of town a second time. Rambo of course returns to the town and a frustrated Teasle finally arrest him for vagrancy and resisting arrest and when Rambo at first refuses to get into the back of squad car.
“If you want some friendly advice, get a haircut and take a bath.”

The book is able to get inside Will Teasle’s head to see what makes him tick, he honestly believes letting long haired drifters hang around will lead to drugs and crime. He gives Rambo multiple chances to leave peacefully and only gets hot under the collar when Rambo continues to give him attitude. Movie Teasle is basically just “The Man” and by that virtue alone is in the wrong. Sure both versions of Teasle are profiling an unknown drifter and using the law to remove such an undesirable element but in the book we find out that Teasle wife has recently left him and how stressed out he is over it. Actor Brian Dennehy does a lot to make movie Teasle less of a caricature than the screenplay provides.
“Hey. If you’re looking for trouble, you’ve come to the right place buddy.”

At the police station is when the movie begin to tonally shift away from the book, as the character of Deputy Galt (Jack Starrett) is a raging asshole and seems to sadistically enjoy harassing Rambo and it’s his cruelty during the police’s attempt to shave Rambo that causes the Vietnam vet to flashback to his history as a P.O.W. and causes Rambo freak out and violent escape. Now in the book Galt is portrayed as a slightly inexperienced police officer that when Rambo loses it when they try to shave him goes for his gun when Rambo gets a hold of the razor. Rambo guts Galt. Book Galt was not a sadistic bully he was just poor slob trying to do his job and got disembowelled for his troubles.

A close shave. 
A close shave.

The body count in movie is a total of one. When Galt is trying to shoot Rambo, who is clinging helpless to a cliff, Rambo jumps to a tree, crashes through it to the ground and throws a rock at the helicopter causing it to veer and Galt to fall to his death. Sure Rambo injures the hell out of a bunch more cops and National Guardsman but no one else dies, in the book that is a whole different story.
We find out in the novel that Rambo has been rousted from fifteen towns and he’s sick of it, he admits to himself that this Sherriff wasn’t near as bad as the previous fifteen but that doesn’t matter, he’s through taking it anymore. So basically the town Madison, Kentucky just drew the lucky last straw.

Both book and movie has Teasle and his men chase Rambo up into the hills but in the movie Rambo, as mentioned he accidently kills Galt and then proceeds to use his Green Beret training to take out his pursuers, but with non-lethal means. In the book Rambo acquires a nice rifle from a moonshiner and it’s with that he shoots and kills the police sharpshooter in the helicopter which also results in the pilot panicking and crashing the copter into the cliff face. Adding two more deaths to his score card.

Book Rambo then proceeds to shoot and kill all the dogs hunting him, the civilian dog handler, and a cop holding some of the dogs. As a storm moves in Rambo begins to pick off the rest of the hunting party. This section of the book reads more like a horror movie than a heroic action flick as Rambo merciless hunts and kills all the policemen with only Teasle barely escaping with his life. Death toll now at thirteen.

Stallone’s Rambo is the underdog, a man unjustly persecuted by the authorities, and one who can use his superior skills to win out against the odds. Book Rambo even outnumbered, with a broken rib and a fever, is a terrifying force to be reckoned with. Teasle scrambling through the brush, his men all dead, and with Rambo on his trail is more akin to a Jason in Friday the 13th than today’s typical action heroes.

First-Blood stalloneNow Book Rambo isn’t actually a monster like Jason Voorhees, he berates himself for killing all those cops when he should have used that time to get away, his pride and anger got the better of him. He just really wanted to show them who they were fucking with. Throughout the book we are party to Rambo’s tortured logic and reasoning as he argues with himself, trying to justify the horrible things he has done and is continuing to do.
Pride is the sin that permeates this story. It was pride that wouldn’t let Teasle wait for the State Police to arrive and resulted in a dozen dead friends just as it was pride that kept Rambo fighting. Teasle and Rambo are very much alike in the book as both given sympathetic traits that swing into one camp then the other. The reader wants Rambo to escape but when he is stalking Teasle you are totally on the side of the Sherriff because asshole or not he doesn’t deserve to die.

The biggest change from book to movie is the ending. A change so upsetting that when it happened Kirk Douglas, who was hired to play Colonel Trauhtman, left the picture and was replaced by Richard Crenna. In the both the movie and the book Rambo eventually returns to the town to wreak havoc and “let slip the dogs of war” and kill Teasle but in the book Rambo dynamites a gas station, the police station and the court house as distractions so he can make his escape, but he’s on Teasle’s turf this time and the Sherriff anticipates his moves and he cuts off Rambo’s escape, the two begin a grim cat and mouse game, that is if both cats where horribly wounded and on the brink of death. At this point Rambo is just going for an honorable death, suicide may land him in Hell (he’d briefly thought of blowing himself up with his remaining dynamite), and so with shaky hands he shoots at Teasle, giving away his position with the assumption that Teasle will than be able to fire the killing blow and end Rambo’s pain, but no “good” deed goes unpunished as Rambo, to his complete surprise, actually hits Teasle. Now too weak to even blow himself up he collapses, but is then surprised when his head explodes. Colonel Trautman had blown the top of Rambo’s head off with a shotgun. Traughtman returns to tell Teasle it’s over just in time to see the Sheriff die, and strangely enough Teasle’s last thoughts being of actual affection for Rambo.

“God didn’t make Rambo, I made him!”

Things end radically different in the movie. Rambo enters the police station knowing that Teasle is on the roof lying in wait for him, he fires his M-60 up through the skylight causing the Sherriff to fall through and land at Rambo’s feet, but before Rambo can fire the killing shot and finish of Teasle good ole Colonel Trauhtman enters to tell Rambo that he is surrounded and there is no chance of escaping alive. We then get a long rambling monologue about the horrors of war and of how Rambo witnessed the gruesome deaths of his friends, he then surrenders to Trautman and the two walk out of the police station and Rambo is taken into custody.

“It wasn’t my war! You asked me, I didn’t ask you!”

Your two main characters living when they originally both died is a very dramatic change but the movie ending works better for the vehicle it is in, if the movie had kept the books body count of almost two dozen people they would have had to end with Rambo dying, but as in this case with him only indirectly responsible for one death, and that of a complete asshat, the audience is able to remain on Rambo’s side right to the end. Rambo and Teasle in the book play out like Greek tragedy; two men from different wars and different backgrounds but still very much alike. They die because neither of them wanted to lose. They both had something to prove and as we all know “Pride goeth before destruction.”


So basically the book and the movie are two different animals, one is a dark tale of two men hell bent on destroying each other while the other is the beginning of the Modern Hollywood Action Hero. Both good on their own merits and well worth checking out.

 SPECIAL NOTE:  If director Ted Kotcheff had ended the movie the way the book did there never would have been a Rambo franchise and Stallone’s career would have been quite different because other than the Rocky movies his box office results were rather poor at the time.  Rambo: First Blood Part II was screenplay was written by Stallone and James Cameron and funny enough the novelization was by none other than David Morrell himself and contains one of the best authors notes ever, “In my novel First Blood, Rambo died.  In the film, he lives.”

1 comment:

Melisa Marzett said...

It's hard to say what's better: a book or movie? It's a terrific thriller yet successful novel that took ten years for it to make its way to the big screen! It's up to everyone of us to decide what's the best for you! For instance, you can read, and make your final decision!