(Warning: There are spoilers in this essay. If you haven’t read First Blood but intend to and you don’t want to be surprised by the book’s harrowing climax, read Steve Berry’s essay afterward.)
In the summer of 1968, America was erupting. The Vietnam War was literally tearing the nation apart, riots and demonstrations so polarizing the country that one generation seemed utterly confounded by the other. Recently arrived in the United States on a student visa was a twenty-five year old Canadian named David Morrell. He was married, with an infant daughter, preparing for a career as a teacher, fascinated by the United States, eager to learn about something he knew nothing about: the Vietnam War.
What he discovered deeply disturbed him. But something Socrates once said came to mind. No one commits wrong intentionally. For Morrell, that truism about how we rationalize everything we do became worth exploring, so he decided to write a novel that would allegorize the Vietnam War. Not to make a point. Or take sides. That could have been a problem since the terms of his visa specifically stated, on threat of deportation, that he should refrain from expressing political opinions. Instead, Morrell decided to tactfully objectify America’s bitter philosophical and cultural divisions, transposing the brutality of Vietnam—and the radical conflicts that the war generated at home—to a rural Kentucky town, creating a miniature version of the Vietnam War on American soil.
Instead of shotgunning the narrative with many points of view, he focused on only two. Rambo, the Vietnam veteran, Green Beret, former POW, and Medal of Honor recipient. A man haunted by the war, repulsed by the violence he found in himself, embittered by the hostility he sometimes faced from those he fought to protect. In rebellion, he allowed his hair and beard to grow, shunned all possessions, and wandered the back roads of America, looking like a hippie. Searching, he represented those disaffected by the war.
Wilfred Teasle represented the Establishment. A Korean War hero, recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, Eisenhower Republican, chief of police in Madison, Kentucky. As troubled as Rambo, he’s old enough to be Rambo’s father, haunted by a different set of war memories, but equally as controlled by them. By alternating back and forth between each man’s anger, Morrell allowed the reader to identify with each man’s motivations. As with Socrates—no one commits wrong intentionally—these two likewise draw from deep, well-meant convictions, making one mistake after another, their rationalized fury eventually guaranteeing a mutual destruction.
Morrell was careful not to favor one character over the other. He wanted the reader to understand both sides and become dismayed as the two protagonists proved incapable of doing the same. At one point, Teasle sends for the Special Forces officer who trained Rambo—Colonel Sam Trautman, whose first name Morrell meant to echo that of Uncle Sam. In the end, after Rambo kills Teasle, Trautman kills Rambo, thus completing the allegory inasmuch as the representative of the system that created Rambo is the person who destroys him and turns out to be the only winner.
The palpable vividness of the prose in First Blood is matched by the book’s unrelenting pace. Until its publication in 1972, few thrillers dramatized so much intense, continuous action. From the moment Rambo breaks out of jail totally naked and hijacks a motorcycle, escaping into the nearby mountains to fight a private war, the novel set a new standard for speed. It also established a fresh approach to writing action, based on the research Morrell did for his Master’s thesis on Hemingway’s style. Hemingway didn’t use clichéd expressions such as “A shot rang out,” and Morrell was determined not to write that way, either.
Often referred to as “the father of the modern action novel,” First Blood has sold millions of copies around the world and remains in print to this day. Inevitably, Hollywood discovered the tale and created four films, not to mention a Saturday morning cartoon series. The fact that the second and third films (and the cartoon) are false to Morrell’s initial concept is irrelevant. The films exist in worlds of their own and, collectively, manufactured a pop-cultural icon—Rambo—one that aided an emasculated America, in the 1980s, to feel good about itself again: Ronald Reagan’s so-called “new morning.”
Reagan himself elevated Rambo as his standard-bearer in numerous press conferences, once remarking that, having watched a Rambo film, he knew what to do the next time there was a terrorist crisis. Morrell himself experienced the phenomena when, one day in 1986, he was on a publicity tour in England and picked up the London Times to find a disturbing headline: US Rambo Jets Bomb Libya.
Not exactly what he had in mind when he first created that all-too-real conflict between Rambo and Teasle. A novel that questioned war and its devastating aftermath, a story that brought to life lingering cultural wounds left by the Vietnam debacle, became a shorthand political metaphor—a rallying cry for even more violence. Morrell himself commented on the irony that a 1970s novel about the political polarization of America (for or against the Vietnam War) became the basis for films, in the 1980s, that resulted in a similar polarization (for or against Ronald Reagan).
Eventually the Oxford English Dictionary cited First Blood as the source for the creation of a new word. Rambo. Complicated, troubled, haunted, too often misunderstood. Precisely like First Blood itself.
Steve Berry is one of the world’s most popular thriller novelists. He began writing in 1990, and although he is an attorney and his undergraduate degree is in political science, Steve’s interest in travel and history led him to write international suspense thrillers. His many New York Times bestsellers include The Third Secret, The Templar Legacy, The Venetian Betrayal, The Charlemagne Pursuit and The Jefferson Key. His latest is The Columbus Affair. His books have been translated into 40 languages and sold in 51 countries. He is a former co-president of International Thriller Writers. You can learn more about him at www.steveberry.org.
(Steve Berry’s essay about First Blood originally appeared in Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, a non-fiction collection nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity awards. One hundred modern thriller authors wrote essays about their favorite classic thrillers.)