The first of the Rambo films has an interesting pedigree. It comes from director Ted Kotcheff (the original Dick and Jane, North Dallas Forty, Uncommonn Valor, Weekend at Bernies) and was based on a downbeat 1972 book by David Morrell. When Stephen King taught creative writing at the University of Maine, he used First Blood as a textbook. Ten years, eighteen screenplays and three studios later, the film finally got made.
Back in 1982 when the film rights were first sold, producers considered Steve McQueen for the lead. Sheriff Teasle was offered to both Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, but they turned the part down. Lee Marvin turned down playing Colonel Trautman, but Kirk Douglas eventually took the role. He quit just before shooting began, as he wanted the movie to end like the book, where Rambo and the sheriff fatally would one another, Trautman kills Rambo and sits with the dying lawman. Rock Hudson also signed up to be in the film, but he had to undergo heart surgery, leaving Brian Dennehy to play Sheriff William Teasle and Richard Crenna to play Colonel Samuel Trautman in what would become the character actor’s most iconic role.
Seven years after his discharge, he left Vietnam, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is wandering America. A visit to Hope, Washington to see an old friend is cut short when he learns that his former military brother has died from cancer that was caused by Agent Orange.
As he wanders the highway, Sheriff Teasle begins to harass him, finally driving him to the unskirts of town and telling him not to come back. When he does, he’s arrested for vagrancy, resisting arrest and possession of a knife. The police are brutal to the former war hero, as Deputy Art Galt (Jack Starrett, Nam’s Angels, Race with the Devil) and the other cops spray him down with a hose and even attempt to dry shave his face. Rambo snaps and decimates the outmatched lawmen; he;s a former Green Beret who won the Medal of Honor.
Galt chases him from helicopter, taking shots at him even though he’s been warned not to, which leads to his death. Rambo informs the police that the man’s death was his own fault, but the rest of the police come in shooting. Our hero, such as it is, dispatches each of them with non-lethal traps until only Teasle remains.
Even more officials — state police and national guard — come in, along with Rambo’s mentor and former commanding officer Colonel Sam Trautman, who advises that Rambo just be allowed to leave town. All hell breaks loose with Rambo nearly killed in an abandoned mine before escaping and destroying much of the small town. As he prepares to kill the sheriff, Trautman convinces him to surrender and Rambo collapses in tears, screaming “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!”
The first rough cut of this movie lasted three and a half hours long and was so bad that Stallone wanted to buy it and destroy it before it ruined his career. After heavy re-editing and a second ending, where Rambo doesn’t commit suicide, the film became a great success. The character itself would change as America moved from a country unsure of how to deal with the war in Vietnam to one that embraced its status as the world’s policeman; the next Rambo film would present the character in a completely new way.