For summer fun we Americans are renewing hostilities in Vietnam, and this time, it can be reported, our side is doing rather well. All things are possible in a darkened movie theatre, even the reclamation of lost honor and the rescue of several GIS missing since we last trekked through Indochina. The agent of these miracles is Sylvester Stallone, Rocky I, lí and ill himself, who materializes in Rambo—a film, one might assume, that could achieve success only where the national intelligence has the approximate glow of a nightlight. On that score one would be incorrect, however, since Rambo is a hit overseas and likely will be the talk of the Continent by autumn.
The story deals with John Rambo, a Vietnam veteran renowned as a “pure fighting machine,” and his adventures in Southeast Asia. Rambo’s old commander wants him to penetrate an obscure Vietnamese outpost to determine if American POWs are being held by the slant-eyed devils who routed the world’s most powerful army a decade ago. If so, Rambo is to take photographs and leave the rest to Washington.
Leave the rest to Washington? Don’t make us laugh. Washington lost the war once, and Rambo is not acquiescing to faint spirits again. A few action-packed sequences later, Rambo, bare torso gleaming like the hood of a Lincoln Continental, has rendezvoused with a beautiful Vietnamese collaborator, located the detention camp and rescued a U.S. soldier from the goons who have lashed him to a tree. “There are others,” gasps the liberated American, and Rambo promises to save them too, the bureaucrats be damned.
What ensues is pure comic-strip madness, and all in blazing color. Betrayed by his own support personnel and left alone to cope with the Communist hordes, Rambo endures bestial torture at the hands of Soviet inquisitors—yes, the Soviets are in this, too—but breaks loose soon enough and, from that moment on, it’s watch out world. With submachine-gun and high-powered archery set, Rambo destroys dozens of Hanoi’s meanest recruits. He blows up a patrol boat, torches everything between his position and the Kampuchean border and, finally, commandeers one of Moscow’s helicopters for the ultimate flight to freedom.
In a socko finale Rambo assaults the bozo who tried to abort the rescue mis-
sion and closes with a soulful homily when someone asks what it is he wants from life anyway. Taking it upon himself to speak, apparently, for a generation of Vietnam veterans, Rambo replies, “For my country to love us as we love it—that’s what I want.”
Across the nation, folks seem in the mood for a good dose of guerrilla theatre. Stallone’s sullen style and impressive upper-body girth—the studio Nautilus machine deserves an Academy Award, for sure—may explain some of the film’s popularity. But even his macho demeanor and considerable physique cannot take full credit for what is happening. Three weeks after release Rambo had grossed more than $75 million, and there are more Rambo spinoffs on toy shelves this summer than Moonlighter Frisbees. The movie has been explicated by Phil Donahue, the Descartes of daytime television. Time magazine found the country seized by “Ram-
It may be that Rambo is appealing at a moment when Americans are frustrated about the threat of terrorism
bomania.” Then, during the Beirut hostage crisis, President Reagan came aboard. “After seeing Rambo last night,” he quipped, “I know what to do the next time this happens.”
Although it says little for the quality of education abroad, Rambo has been doing famously on distant shores too —just plain knocking ’em dead in Israel, Singapore, South Africa and Lebanon, no less. A Rambo publicist said the film would open in Britain shortly, and already a London newspaper was running a Stallone look-alike contest.
But while foreigners may admire Rambo’s swagger and daring, only Americans can be expected to grasp the movie’s enormous social significance. Keen cultural observer that he is, Stallone claims the production offers Americans a coast-to-coast catharsis and the Vietnam veteran an opportunity for vindication. “So it’s a right-wing fantasy,” said Stallone. “This is the point: frustrated Americans trying to recapture some glory. What Rambo is saying is that if the vets could fight again, it would be different.” After being asked to accept the Vietnam assignment,
Rambo says to his commander, “Do we get to win this time?” The answer: “This time it’s up to you.”
All of this seems guaranteed to summon acid indigestion faster than boiled hot dogs, but—who knows?—Stallone may have a feel for the national consensus. Crowds do bellow as Rambo increases the Communist body count, and many Americans still insist Vietnam was winnable. Some, like Stallone, 39, who spent the war years in nonhostile climes, may even fancy the idea of a rematch. The suspicion is, however, that the level of enthusiasm for a bloody brawl is in inverse proportion to the age of those itching for a fight. Combat is most fun for those no longer of interest to the Selective Service System.
It may be that Rambo is particularly appealing at a moment when we are mightily frustrated about the threat of terrorism and the intransigence of certain Third World countries. The White House strives day and night to create an image of Fortress America, besieged on many sides. Earlier this month Reagan identified five “outlaw states”—Cuba, Libya, North Korea, Iran and the always dangerous Nicaragua—which, he says, are committing acts of war against the United States. The President says we have the right of self-defence, and one can only hope that if the chief executive seeks volunteers for a crack counterinsurgency team, he recalls the bold statements and gleaming pectorals of Sylvester Stallone.
Oddly, while Rambo was stalking across the screen pretending that American servicemen are locked in bamboo cages, Hanoi proposed, for the first time, direct, high-level talks with the United States regarding the more than 1,300 Gis missing in action or listed as war prisoners. There is little hope that the missing survived, but Hanoi’s initiative seems an encouraging sign that at last the Americans will be accounted for.
The suffering endured by POW-MIA families should chasten those who paint fetching technicolor portraits of modern warfare, who fire round after round into the wide-angle lens and who refuse to acknowledge that there are limits to the reach of American power. A “pure fighting machine” like Rambo may not burden himself with the pesky details of history and global politics. Let us hope that his admirers in the White House are not so foolish.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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