Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Weight of heroic skill

David Morrell the author of First Blood works a day job as a Lit professor. There are countless little nuances in the book and its obvious that each was placed with expert skill. The film based on the novel, while being strong in and of itself, can't be said to have quite the same level of literary care. There is however one scene which I think had to be intentional.

John Rambo is arrested for vagrancy and has his field knife seized by the police. The person whose possesion it is placed in is someone who obviously sees himself as a, for lack of a better term, a bad ass. He takes Rambo's field knife and cuts it effortlessly through a piece of paper, presumably a form or a sheet of note paper. Rambo is at his most powerless at this point, but that cut is representative of what he will spend the next two days doing to every police officer or national guard member who gets in his way.

While the writers of
The Myth of the American Superhero offer great insight and analysis on numerous characters and stories, one place where the book really dropped the ball was on analyzing the character of John Rambo and the film First Blood. Granted, I'm a bit spoiled. The first time I read any analysis was in the Susan Faludi book Stiffed. The woman is nothing if not thorough. She interviewed Morrell, Stallone, and anyone who ever wrote a draft of the First Blood script. She catalogs the changes from book to film, and even discusses the strengths and weaknesses thereof.

The Myth of the American Superhero, the authors only cover the film, making no reference to the book. They focus on how Rambo's efficacy in battle was greater than you could expect to see in real life, but what they do not focus on is the downside of this, which is the major focus of the book.

Rambo's combat skill is something great in a battlefield. Being able to assess a situation, catalog all threats/targets and then dispatch each of them with expert skill could save your life in wartime. What happens when you're at a bar and there's an obnoxious guy a few seats down who won't shut up? Or you're at a store, ready to pay and the person in front of you just won't stop chit-chatting with the cashier? Rambo's treatment of local law enforcement and weekend warriors makes sense, just like a tiger getting loose among a class of school children would.

You could say the biggest contribution Stallone made to the mythos of Rambo was the fact that his version has a Herculean level of self control. In the novel his attitude was kill first, ask questions later, if at all. In the film he took out nearly everyone through non-lethal means, in one case going as far as pointing out how easy it would be to kill as a method of ending his situation, but that all he wanted was for his pursuer to "let it go."

The things which make someone capable of feats of heroism often take their toll on a person both in reality and fiction. Rambo's need of self control or the thoughts that haunt a detective like Will Graham in his hunt of serial killers like Hannibal Lector or The Tooth Fairy. or simple social ostracization for saying or doing something which is unpopular but right. Being a hero has a price, and sometimes it is great.