Sylvester Stallone, upon seeing the rough cut of his new action picture First Blood, wanted to buy the rights to the film from producers Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna, because he wanted to destroy all evidence of its existence.
The first cut was a long-winded, unwieldy behemoth running over three hours, which is almost impossible to comprehend given the propulsive perfection of the final product. It practically sickened Stallone and his agent, but of course Kassar and Vajna were never going to sell the rights. Cooler heads prevailed, and after editor Joan Chapman and director Ted Kotcheff began trimming away the fat, they managed to cut the film in half, more or less. What remained after the heavy edits is, dare I say, a masterpiece. It’s at least a masterwork of action cinema, pure and lean, thrilling early and often.
Stallone was already three films into his Rocky franchise, having just wrapped on Rocky III two months before tackling the story of John Rambo, a Vietnam vet who is forced to square off against a hateful small town sheriff, Teasle, played by Brian Dennehy. It didn’t begin with these two squaring off, however; at one point Kris Kristofferson was up for the Rambo part, with Gene Hackman as Teasle and Lee Marvin as Rambo’s Army mentor, Colonel Trautman, which ultimately went to Richard Crenna. Typically, these early casting choices don’t feel right, but I would be lying if I didn’t say that version could have been killer.
The film had bounced around Hollywood for a decade, ever since David Morrell’s novel was published in 1972. Sydney Pollack was attached early on, then Mike Nichols wanted Dustin Hoffman to play Rambo. After dodging that bullet, prolific journeyman director Bruce Beresford was offered and passed; eventually, the early screenplay made its way to Ted Kotcheff, who’d been directing TV since the 50s and tried his hand, on occasion, with features. His 1979 football drama North Dallas Forty had been a hit, and he agreed to direct the picture for Kassar and Vajna. But he needed some re-writes.
Some twenty-six rewrites later, it was Stallone who eventually finished the final draft (he shares credit with Michael Kozoll and William Sackheim. Shot in British Columbia, First Blood is a film that sinks its teeth in you immediately. We side with John Rambo right off the bat, allowing the audience to empathize with the troubled vet as he takes out these unsuspecting, unprepared small-town cops. Our empathy towards Rambo is aided not only by Dennehy, but by his closest deputy, Galt, a monstrously sadistic police officer who meets a most satisfying end, played by Jack Starrett. The cruelty of these men set the plot in motion, and they help build the myth of John Rambo, our pacifist hero who isn’t looking for conflict, just as much as these small-town wannabe tough guys are.
From the outset, Ted Kotcheff had intended Rambo’s revenge on Teasle and the town itself to be a suicide mission. In the film’s original ending, Colonel Trautman kills Rambo, a mercy killing as Rambo is surrounded by hundreds of police and military officers ready to gun him down. Once they finished the scene, Stallone approached Kotcheff:
Sylvester got up and said, “Ted, can I talk to you for a second?” He said, “You know, Ted, we put this character through so much. The police abuse him. He’s pursued endlessly. Dogs are sent after him. He jumps off cliffs. He runs through freezing water. He’s shot in the arm and he has to sew it up himself. All this, and now we’re gonna kill him?”
Kotcheff found himself in lock step with Stallone’s thoughts on the character. He didn’t necessarily want Rambo to die either, so they set up an alternate ending on the spot. Kotcheff and Joan Chapman would cut right before Trautman pulls out his pistol and shoots Rambo, and instead he would surrender and be led out of the police station. A quick insert showed Teasle being loaded into an ambulance, shot but not killed. It was a shrewd move, one that further solidified the sympathetic foundation the audience had built under Rambo throughout the picture.
On its own, First Blood is a brilliant, lean thriller anchored by a tough, physical performance from Stallone; he’s often considered the strong silent type, but it’s easy to forget how meanderingly chatty Rocky Balboa is, because most of it is marble-mouthed and low energy. Here, however, Stallone’s performance is almost entirely silent, save for a few lines at the beginning and an emotionally-charged tirade during the finale that is some of his best work as an actor. His breathy expressions and sad eyes add dimension to a character where exposition wouldn’t fit. Without Stallone’s basset hound gaze and physicality, the film would fall apart.
Since Rocky won Best Picture in the spring of 1977 and spawned a franchise, Sylvester Stallone’s other films – outside of the Norman Jewison 1978 union thriller F.I.S.T., which doubled it’s budget at the box office – had all been flops. His other passion project, a wrestling drama which he also wrote and directed, 1978’s Paradise Alley, failed miserably. Nighthawks, the 1981 police thriller where he and Billy Dee Williams chase the terrorist Rutger Hauer through the streets of New York, had also been a flop (thankfully, this terrific film has found its second life and a devoted following nowadays). Stallone also starred in Victory, a John Huston movie about a World War II P.O.W. soccer team who plan their escape around a soccer match against the Germans in Nazi-occupied Paris. Surprisingly, that rock-solid premise didn’t generate big bucks.
First Blood bucked the trend in Stallone’s career. Against a budget of $15 million, First Blood opened number one at the box office in October of 1982 with $6.4 million; it held the top spot for three weeks before ending its run with nearly $50 million domestically and $125 million worldwide. Adjusted for inflation, the domestic number is over $144 million.
It was a legitimate success, standing on its own outside of the Rocky franchise and opening the door to a new possible franchise, thanks to Stallone and Kotcheff’s smart last-second decision to redo the fatalistic ending. Watching the film now, with the baggage of a franchise on its tail, it’s amazing to consider that a film so naturalistic, so small, and so focused, could spawn such an unwieldy collection of sequels.