Young Vietnam veteran John Rambo travels the backroads of America trying to live his life peacefully and forget the lessons of war that had turned him into a killer.
But his journey is soon disrupted when he tangles with the chief of police of Madison, a small town nestled in the hills of Kentucky, forcing him to rediscover his most basic instinct: kill or be killed
Three things about ‘First Blood’ surprised me. It’s a little over fifty years old but it doesn’t feel dated or old-fashioned. It feels more modern than a few 1980s horror classics I’ve read. It doesn’t read like a debut novel. It’s written with confidence, it takes a few risks with form and the people in it feel real. It is very different from the movie. I know this shouldn’t be much of a surprise – movie adaptations are like that – but the differences are extreme and profound. Almost nothing that pulled me into the book found its way into the movie. On the other hand, I think the ending of the book wasn’t its strongest point and wouldn’t have satisfied a cinema audience.
I came to the book with memories of a bored, redneck Police Chief, so wrapped up in his own authority that he pushes a drifter too far and a shirtless Sylvester Stallone, with a strip of fabric tied around his head and an automatic rifle in his hands, blowing up the town, killing dozens of people and then complaining that his country doesn’t love him as much as he loves it. At the time, I thought it was a clever action movie with a lead actor who was great at the action sequences but who was out of his depth whenever he had to speak in full sentences.
I had to push those memories aside almost from the first page. The sheriff, it turned out, was a reasonable, mostly polite, mostly patient man who made every effort to de-escalate the blossoming conflict with John Rambo, right up to the point where Rambo bugs out and kills a police officer by slicing a straight razor through his guts. John Rambo wasn’t just a Vietnam Vet, tramping through America, minding his own business and coping with his PTSD. John Rambo was what the US military had trained him to be: an efficient killer who enjoys his work and never backs down once he’s engaged with the enemy.
David Morrell lets the reader spend a lot of time inside the heads of Wilfred Teasle, the Chief Of Police in the small town of Madison, Kentucky and John Rambo, a bearded long-haired drifter with nothing to his name but a buckskin jacket, some ratty jeans, a stained sweatshirt and an old sleeping bag. Morrell shows the reader how both men think, how each of them tries to pull back from a conflict that’s likely to go bad and how each of them fails. He lets the reader see how similar the two men are, although they’re a generation apart. Teasle’s war was Korea, Rambo’s war was Vietnam. Both men won medals. Both did things that they’d rather not remember. Both of them are capable of extreme violence.
One of the things that surprised me was that I felt more sympathy with Teasle than Rambo. Teasle had built a life for himself. Maybe not a completely successful one, his marriage is crumbling and he has no friends, but one committed to trying to prevent and hold back violence. Rambo is still working through what his war taught him about himself: that he’s a ruthless man who will do whatever it takes to survive; that he’s a killer who kills neither from anger nor fear but because it’s necessary; that deep down he knows that he enjoys killing and is looking for an excuse to lose himself in the joy of doing it well.
‘First Blood’ is structured as a conflict between these two worldviews. The conflict itself is dramatic and filled with violence but those things punctuate the story, they are not the point of it.
The book has a very strong start and most of the time I found it very engaging. The shifts in point of view and the flashbacks to reveal the backstories of Teasle and Rambo worked well. The action scenes were compelling. It lost me a little towards the end. The ending is very different from the film. I think it’s both more appropriate and more believable but it’s a difficult story to tell and at points, I felt it went on too long. I also felt the almost telepathic connection that Teasle and Rambo seem to have towards the end was a slightly heavy-handed way of making their shared backgrounds visible.
I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Eric G. Dove. His delivery felt pitch-perfect to me and carried me effortlessly through the book.