According to Rambo, there is only one rule in war: Nothing is over! Nothing.
The first time movie-goers saw Sylvester Stallone in his iconic role was October 1982, when director Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood blasted its way onto the big screen. Rambo is often the first character that comes to mind when someone says ’80s action hero: All rippling abs, sparse dialogue, and outrageous hip-fire accuracy with a belt-fed light machine gun. He is, for all intents and purposes, a caricature, a cartoonish superhuman warrior designed to kick ass and take names.
But the John Rambo of First Blood is a far cry from the plethora of emotionless and shredded heroes in the action flicks of that era. In fact, he’s wildly different from the increasingly bulgy-muscled Rambos who appear in the franchise’s sequels. The John Rambo in First Blood is — in brief moments and during very specific scenes — relatable, believable, and real. That is especially true during the film’s climactic ending:
Based on a 1972 novel of the same name by David Morrell, First Blood follows Rambo, a decorated Special Forces veteran who served in Vietnam and survived capture as a prisoner of war. The film picks up with Rambo back in the states, seeking out his old war buddies only to find most have moved on or passed away.
From the start, Rambo is a man untethered from civilian life, one who’s become so used to the jungles of Vietnam and the deadly order and tightly controlled chaos of war-time service that he no longer fits into polite society — or more accurately, he’s no longer welcome. Where once he led men into battle, was responsible for expensive government-issue hardware, and entrusted with life or death decisions, these days he can’t even find work doing the most menial of tasks.
After Rambo makes his way to the small backwoods town of Hope, Washington, he’s immediately accosted by local sheriff Will Teasle. This encounter sets off a cycle of violence that sees cops killed, the National Guard called in for a massive manhunt, and Rambo tracked down like a rabid dog before it all ends in a showdown at the town’s police station. Surrounded by heavily armed cops and soldiers — led by his former commander, Col. Sam Trautman (played by Richard Crenna) — Rambo is at his end.
When Trautman confronts him and tells his former subordinate and protégé that it’s done, that his fight is over, Rambo launches into one of the most iconic monologues in action-movie history, and one of Stallone’s most moving performances:
Trautman: You did everything to make this private war happen. You’ve done enough damage. This mission is over, Rambo. Do you understand me? This mission is over! Look at them out there! Look at them! If you won’t end this now, they will kill you. Is that what you want? It’s over Johnny. It’s over!
Rambo: Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me, I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn’t let us win! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me, huh? Who are they? Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about!
Trautman: It was a bad time for everyone, Rambo. It’s all in the past now.
Rambo: For you! For me civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there’s nothing!
Trautman: You’re the last of an elite group, don’t end it like this.
Rambo: Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars!
The scene, from Rambo’s heartfelt agony over what he sees as a betrayal by the country that sent him to war, then lost the will to see it through, to his disdain and contempt for the “civilian world,” leaves behind a complicated legacy that remains relevant to this day.
On the one hand, the monologue — and much of First Blood — feeds into the stereotype of the damaged veteran, the warrior who comes home more killing machine than man. The trope of the “dangerous vet” has been trotted out again and again in headlines, by politicians on the campaign trail, and by those in office.
On the other hand, the scene candidly touches on the guilt, isolation, and loss of self that some carry with them after they’ve hung up their uniforms and tried to move on. One of the most significant parts of the monologue is actually one of the most overlooked — whether that’s due to Rambo’s iconic “Nothing is over” line, or Stallone’s (at times) unintelligible mumble, is unclear.
Still inside the police station, Rambo recounts a story of his friend who was maimed and killed by a suicide bomber at a bar in Saigon. “I can’t get it out of my head,” Rambo says through sobs. “A dream of seven years. Every day I have this. And sometimes I wake up and I don’t know where I am. I don’t talk to anybody. Sometimes a day, a week. I can’t put it out of my mind.”
The lingering guilt, the isolation, it feels real. And it’s surprisingly prescient.
In 1982, in the final moments of a film that arguably gave movie-goers their first action hero, here’s the star alluding to moral injury, transition stress, post-traumatic stress — long before some of those terms had even made their way into medical journals, let alone America’s lexicon. For some context, post-traumatic stress disorder was formally acknowledged by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, just two years before the film’s release, and eight years after the original book was published.
When the film debuted, you could consider its acknowledgment of the costs of war a step in the right direction toward a national discussion, but over time, that legacy has changed.
Instead of Rambo being an outlier — a dramatization illustrating what could be — he became the example for what happens after war; a caricature that has been repeatedly superimposed on the military and veterans community since.
A 2016 survey found that 40 percent of respondents from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom believed that half of all post-9/11 veterans suffered from mental health disorders of one kind or another, despite the numbers being far lower — between 10 and 20 percent.
There are perceptions that veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder — which is a specific condition not inherently tied to combat and has been used as a catchall when discussing mental health among vets and military personnel — is linked to violence, even though the facts don’t support that. It’s an oversimplification that ignores a range of factors, from the age of perpetrators, substance abuse, and whether they suffer from comorbid mental health disorders.
These assumptions also ignore the fact that the vast majority of the 2.7 million Americans who have deployed overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001 — more than half of whom deployed more than once — returned home to live quiet and constructive lives, and don’t wander into small towns and set off on a violent rampage.
This is the fundamental irony of that one scene in Rambo.
It had the opportunity to start a dialogue but instead left behind a damaging legacy. Rather than seeing the violence of war, and a disaffected or disinterested society as the cause for those feelings of resentment and isolation, Rambo, and by extension, veterans came to be associated with those injuries.
It’s like we’ve missed the kernel of truth buried within that iconic speech.
Nothing is over, not the losses suffered, not the hardships endured, not war. But neither is the road forward, neither is the conversation about what comes next, what can we do better. That should be Rambo’s legacy.