On a warm fall day in the small Kentucky town of Madison, Rambo (unlike the movie, there is no first name given here) arrives carrying a sleeping bag and a few meager possessions. Given his unkempt state (long hair, unshaven), he’s fingered for vagrancy and quickly picked up by Wilfred Teasle, the local sheriff, driven to the edge of town and issued a warning – don’t let Wilfred see him around these parts again. Undeterred, Rambo walks back into town as the whole ordeal plays out a second time.
You would think this would be the end of it but Rambo is refusing to be shoved around any longer. A decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, he has felt rejected by his country since returning home. With both Rambo and Wilfred refusing to back down from one another, it isn’t long until Rambo finds himself in a jail cell. What happens next leads to a lot of death and buckets of blood.
My first dose of the Rambo character came in 2008 when I went to the theatre to check out the fourth film in the movie franchise, aptly named RAMBO. Up to that point, it had been the most violent movie I’d ever seen (I believe it had held the record for on-screen body count at one point with two hundred and thirty six deaths). I joked with a friend of mine that after its release on blu-ray, the disc would probably be covered in blood when you unwrapped it. It wasn’t until I would go back and watch the first film that I realized that the series had gone off the rails following First Blood. Rather than a commentary on the mistreatment of war veterans and the growing problem of post-traumatic stress disorder, the character would become this symbol of the might and righteousness of the American military.
Even more so than the film (which isn’t a surprise), David Morrell’s First Blood remains focused more on the aforementioned issues facing those returning from war. Morrell really gets inside Rambo’s head as he struggles to think of anything else other than the horrors of war and straight up murdering people. The cop – and Korean War veteran – that essentially lights the fuse for Rambo’s powder keg in the film, William Teasle, isn’t portrayed the same in the novel. He’s more complicated and certainly more honorable than his on-screen depiction. Morrell’s choice to go back and forth between the viewpoints of Rambo and Teasle through alternating chapters goes a long way to present a deeper, richer version of the story.
As expected, like the movies, this is an extremely violent story. Rambo is a former US Special Forces Green Beret, and being trained well in the art of guerilla warfare, he’s able to repeatedly hold off a literal army of men tasked with bringing him down. He does this by being able to effectively disappear into the Kentucky wilderness and pick off his adversaries from afar. There are a few scenes that depict grizzly animal deaths, so keep that in mind before you pick it up.
As you read through David Morrell’s First Blood, you’ll recognize the skeleton of the movie in the original novel, but to be honest, it’s two entirely different stories. I’m not sure which I prefer over the other, so I plan to watch the movie while the book is still fresh in my mind.