In her 2000 “Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man,” Susan Faludi spends a chapter examining masculinity within father/son traditions, complicated by two wars (World War II and the Vietnam War), as it has played out in the 1972 novel, “First Blood.” Her discussion dives into masculinity and father-son relationships in the life of the novel’s author, David Morrell; in the long process in which the movie industry tried to turn the novel into a movie it could market; and in the life of the actor, Sylvester Stallone, who finally helped doctor a script that the movie industry could sell to Reagan-era men, but that also preserved some of the soul of the novel, its concern for a masculinity defined amidst father-son relationships torn apart by war. In my Gender and Literature class, we recently took a look at both the novel and Faludi’s discussion of it, and the results were interesting.
What we found was a concern for identity/identification, introduced by setting Teasle and Rambo against each other, at one point looking at one another in the mirror, coming to understand the ways in which their identities mirror one another (both are decorated war vets, Rambo of Vietnam, Teasle of Korea), and with an exploration of the role of naming in identification, but also “gazing” – how one internalizes the identity given to them by the way people look at them (the movie takes this to a completely different place when Stallone is presented with the body of a body-builder). It’s worth noting that Morrell had wanted it to be unclear in the novel who was the protagonist, and he succeeded until the movie makers determined that Rambo, the prodigal son, would be the hero, and Teasle, representing the corrupt institution that rejected Rambo, would be the villain.
But in the book, Teasle also becomes something of a father figure to Rambo, or wants to be, calling him “the kid” throughout, even after he knows Rambo’s name. Father-son relationships are important in “First Blood” and are explored in terms of fishing and hunting trips. Rambo doesn’t fish, though. His father had beaten him regularly (just as Stallone’s father did) and that symbol had lost its meaning. But Rambo knows that sort of relationship when he sees it, as he does in the forest early in the novel when he runs into a backwoods father and son drinking moonshine, the only men Rambo encounters in the forest and purposefully allows to live. But for Rambo, as with Teasle, father-son relationships have always been complicated, painful. For Teasle because his father died young, and his surrogate father, Orval, had always been something of a hard man on Teasle, their relationship often defined by competition. Rambo’s father-son relationships had been defined by violence, including when he joined the marines.
Rambo’s father-figure in the military was a distant figure, Trautman (read trout-man; fisher-man; for both father-son fishing, but also the religious-institutional idea of Trautman as a fisher-of-men). Trautman ran the base and program where Rambo was trained (“The best we ever trained”). He arrives on the scene as a representative of the military institution, but also as Rambo’s “father,” having come to bring him home, to catch him and reel him in. Trautman has created Rambo, and the institution he represents has a vested interest in keeping a hold on him. But that’s not the only institution interested in managing Rambo. It’s rather curious that, early in the novel, Teasle takes Rambo to the police station, and there’s a bit made about the fact that the police station is painted red – it used to be a schoolhouse – and that they are waiting for the blue (water, washing, purity) and white (purity, sanctity) paint to come in, to paint over the red (blood) – and all together it building represents the red, white, and blue. There will be a lot of red/blood throughout the novel, the result, it seems to argue, of institutions (police, school, but also religion) failing Rambo/male, who, as well, dies in the end (unlike in the novel) as a sort of purifying sacrifice. The institutions have trained Rambo’s body (see Foucault, panopticon), have made it into a killing machine, have done so within the context of father-son patriarchy, and have then failed to tame what they created, resulting in the eventual sacrifice of the son, seemingly to purify the whole mess.
And lest this seem to be reading too much in, follow me on this. In the final pages, Rambo is crawling away from a town he has destroyed. He crawls through a playground (boy, “kid,” son), and is followed by Teasle. Both have been carved up by brambles (thorns) on their backs and heads, both have holes in their sides, they have come to identify with one another, even as Rambo holds up his gun seeing a triple image (Trinity) of Teasle, thinking he should just shoot “Teasle’s center image.” And the final scene plays out between a Trinity – Teasle, Rambo, and Trautman – with Trautman pulling the trigger on a sacrificial Rambo.
Meanwhile, throughout the novel, Rambo had been debating with himself about his own faith. In the middle of the novel, in an effort to escape the violence he has wrought, and its consequences, Rambo finds himself down a mine, a cave, what becomes sort of a womb, that he travels through, uncertain whether he is making his way deep into the womb/cave to die (to be unborn) or to find his way out at the other in to live (to be reborn). In the end his finds his way out, is reborn, on the way to his final showdown with his mirror/center image, Teasle, and his purifying, saving sacrifice. The whole novel becomes an attempt to recover a masculinity created by institutions that then failed it, rejected it, and judged it. But the recovery fails when the institutions sacrifice Rambo in order to save the institutions and the masculinity that serves them.
Unfortunately, as much as the novel takes an interesting look at masculinity in the late 60s and early 70s, it fails to examine its own understanding of womanhood. Through the whole novel, one problem that interrupts a recovery of masculinity is the women in the lives of the men. In particular, Teasle seems to conclude by the end of the novel that his now estranged wife was largely the reason that he had lost himself, the self that had been confident, that had understood who he was, that he only recovered when he engaged in a one-on-one war with his mirror image. Unfortunately, Morrell’s women, it seems, are either caretaker wives, or problems for male identity. That element is completely removed from the film in which masculinity is heroic, anti-institutional, and, ironically, the foundation of an aggressively violent, pro-war, incredibly profitable Rambo movie franchise.