The story of Green Beret Vietnam veteran John Rambo started way back in 1972 with David Morrell’s successful novel titled First Blood, 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.
Both the book and the movie start exactly the same way, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a drifter who while passing through a small rural community is rousted by the town’s sheriff for vagrancy, now the movie adds an extra bit where Rambo is looking for the last surviving member of his outfit from Vietnam, only to discover that he has died of cancer due to the military’s use of Agent Orange. This is the first instance of getting the audience on Rambo’s side, and the screenwriter then 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 should lie.
In the movie Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) sees Rambo and instantly dislikes him, simply because of his appearance, as if his very existence is a threat to his peaceful community. He offers Rambo a ride out of town, but when after being dropped off Rambo just turns right around and heads back into town, which results in an angry Teasle arresting him. The book has Teasle offering the hitchhiking Rambo a ride through town, only to later find Rambo back in town at a local 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 then for resisting arrest when Rambo refuses to get into the back of squad car.
The book is able to get inside Will Teasle’s head, to see what makes him tick, he honestly believes letting a long-haired drifter hang around town 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 “The Man” and by that virtue alone he is in the wrong and our Rambo is in the right. Welcome to 80s action movies. 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’s wife had 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, and he does a damn good job keeping the character somewhat likable, but we still don’t get the fleshed out character found in the book.
It’s at the police station where the movie begins to tonally shift away from the book, as the character of Deputy Galt (Jack Starrett) is depicted as a raging asshole, and he seems to sadistically enjoy harassing Rambo, and it’s his cruelty during the police’s attempt to shave Rambo, which causes the Vietnam vet to flashback to his history as a prisoner of war, and causes Rambo to freak out and violently escape. Now in the book Galt is portrayed as a slightly inexperienced police officer, not the complete asshat as seen in the movie, and when Rambo loses it when they try to shave him, and Gault goes for his gun when Rambo gets a hold of the straight razor, and then Rambo guts Galt. Book Galt was not a sadistic bully, he was just poor slob trying to do his job and got disemboweled for his troubles.
Another big difference between the book in the movie is in the number of deaths at the hands of John Rambo, as the body count in the movie is a total of one while in the book Rambo racks up quite the kill count. The only death in the movie comes about when Galt is trying to shoot Rambo, who is clinging helplessly to the side of a cliff, Rambo jumps to a tree, crashes through it to the ground, and then he throws a rock at the helicopter, causing it to veer wildly 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, and he even admits to himself that this Sheriff wasn’t near as bad as the previous fifteen, but that doesn’t matter now as he’s through taking it anymore. So basically the town of Madison, Kentucky just drew the unlucky last straw.
Both book and movie has Teasle and his men chasing Rambo up into the hills, but in the movie Rambo accidentally kills Galt, and then proceeds to use his Green Beret training to take out his pursuers, but with non-lethal means, while in the book Rambo acquires a nice rifle from a moonshiner, and it’s with this 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 scorecard.
Book Rambo then proceeds to shoot and kill all the dogs hunting him, as well as 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, and it is this section of the book that 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. The 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 such great odds. Book Rambo even outnumbered, with a broken rib and a fever, is a terrifying force to be reckoned with. Rambo stalking his prey through the woods, with Teasle scrambling through the brush, his men all dead, is more akin to a Jason in Friday the 13th than today’s typical action heroes.
Now 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, but his pride and anger got the better of him, and he really wanted to show them who they were fucking with. Throughout the book we are a 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, which resulted in a dozen dead friends, just as it was pride that kept Rambo fighting when he could have simply disappeared into the woods. Teasle and Rambo are very much alike in the book, both given sympathetic traits that swing into one camp than the other, and the reader truly wants Rambo to escape, but when he is stalking Teasle you are totally on the side of the Sheriff 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 Trautman, left the picture and was replaced by Richard Crenna. In 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, as well as the police station and the courthouse, all as distractions so that 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. It’s here that the two begin a grim cat and mouse game, that is if both cats were 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 again when his head explodes. Colonel Trautman had blown the top of Rambo’s head off with a shotgun. Trautman returns to tell Teasle that it’s over, just in time to see the Sheriff die, and strangely enough Teasle’s last thoughts are of actual affection for Rambo.
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 off Teasle once and for all, good ole Colonel Trautman enters to tell Rambo that he is surrounded and that 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. Rambo then surrenders to Trautman, and the two walk out of the police station together, where Rambo is quickly taken into custody.
Having the two main characters living in your movie when they originally both died in the book is a very dramatic change, but the movie ending works better for the medium it is was written for, if the movie had kept the books body count of almost two dozen people they would have been forced to go with the ending of 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 very 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, and they die because neither of them wanted to lose, they both had something to prove, and as the old saying goes, “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, but both version 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 written by Stallone and James Cameron, and funnily 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.”