cian cruise

Cian Cruise explains the “bloody spirituality” of First Blood.

Now that we’ve set the ground rules for this month of essays that unearth the hidden beauty of popular literature and sketched out a few of the basic premises, I want to dig deep into these frothy wonders. It’s all fine and good to claim that non-literary works are bursting with latent literary value, but it’s a bit like McDonald’s claiming to have a healthy option. We need proof.

So why First Blood and Anne of Green Gables?

Personal enjoyment aside, these bountifully popular novels have a fascinating amount of thematic similarity. They both reveal a great deal more about the human spirit than one would first guess could reside in either a thickly-thewed series of violent set-pieces or a pastoral Bildungsroman starring a precocious redhead. What’s more, they are both surprisingly subversive books, given their whole-hog acceptance by mainstream North American culture, and they achieve this acceptance by cleaving to the tropes of their genres, rather than defying them.

Heady stuff, and it’s going to take a bit to unpack. Today we’ll tackle the bloody spirituality of First Blood, next time we’ll discuss the subtle feminism in Anne, and then I’ll bring them together in a few weeks.

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For starters, I need to take into account that not everybody knows Rambo. Or, rather, that while the name probably rings a bell, if anything it is based on the Rambo sequels and not the unmitigated glory that is First Blood. Unlike the hyper-violent, jingoistic pantomimes that followed, the first Rambo movie hewed to the novel’s chilling portrayal of how there is no place in society for war-torn veterans.

But the book had that and so much more.

… it’s a bit like McDonald’s claiming to have a healthy option. We need proof.

Someone named John D. MacDonald praised First Blood, calling it, “One hell of a hard, fast novel.” It was marketed as this intense, visceral thriller, the kind of book that drags you through the pages once you dare part the covers. And it is.

The novel is all these things, but it is also weird. Very, very weird. Like mystical, theosophy-found-in-violence weird. Cosmic horror bundled up in a one-man war against the system weird. Existential weird.

While the movie does a tremendous job depicting the haunted mien of a vagabond Vietnam veteran beset upon by police brutality via the mathematical precision of Morrell’s swiftly-unfolding plot, it leaves the weird on the cutting room floor.

There are four essential ingredients to First Blood:

  1. An insanely tight plot: From the very first scene, to the cosmic finale, it is all one lean action sequence. One great chase. There is zero fat in here.
  2. Social Commentary: The guilt of a country that trained people to become killing machines, exposed them to the horrors of war, and left them to rot.
  3. Philosophy: The mutual interdependence of all things on earth means that we are not alone, even when we are hunting each other in the woods.
  4. Tragedy: Everyone dies. Any awareness that we carve from the void is fleeting.

The first two ingredients exist in both the film and the novel, whereas the last two only exist in the book. I want to focus on the weird, on those last two points, and how they work together to make this story something profound.

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For those who haven’t seen or read First Blood, the basics are: the sheriff (Teasle) of a small northwestern town harasses a Vietnam vet (Rambo) who’s just trying to hitch a ride, Rambo is arrested on vagrancy charges, they abuse him during booking, he has a flashback to ’nam, he freaks out, escapes taking multiple cops out on the way, and hightails it into the mountains. This escalates from a police station-sized manhunt to one involving the reserves, the National Guard, state police, etc. The vet’s old boss, Colonel Trautman shows up. He tries to talk Rambo down. Instead, Rambo flips the script, takes the war from the woods to the city, and blows everything up along the way. Then there’s a shootout between the main characters.

Cosmic horror bundled up in a one-man war against the system weird.

Here’s where things get interesting. Teasle receives just as much page-space in the book as Rambo, if not more. While the film opted to portray the sheriff as a stereotypical, one-note villain, the book makes him a multidimensional, sympathetic character. Sure, he’s still a dick who abuses his power, but you know where he’s coming from. Teasle is just as broken a person as Rambo. He gnaws himself to pieces over his wife, who left him, and over his position in the town’s hierarchy, which is precarious and all he has to live for, and his world is turned upside down by this maniac, longhaired kid who’s gone on a killing spree.

In fact, it would be fairly easy to imagine the entire book from Teasle’s perspective, where it becomes something of a slasher horror story.

What’s more, the connection between Rambo and Teasle is drawn in great relief throughout the novel. First, they are very similar people. Broken, but unable to back down from constantly asserting their masculinity. “Let it go” is one of the best lines from the story, and an arrow that pierces the heart of stubborn machismo. If either of them could just stop fighting, then this would be an entirely different book.

It emphasizes the relationship between the two characters because they are basically the same person, on two different sides of circumstances. The line that divides them is razor thin.

Then it disappears altogether. They start to see out each other’s eyes, and feel each other’s emotions. I don’t mean in a metaphorical way. About halfway through the book Rambo and Teasle literally gain the psychic power to see from each other’s eyes. This makes for an incredible game of cat and mouse, where these two diametrically opposed men inhabit each other’s minds. On the one hand, this is a dope metaphor for the Asian philosophical insight into the intrinsic unity of all things; on the other hand, it is a hype literary device to bind the relationship between antagonist and protagonist. Their identity hinges upon one another and throughout the novel they fuse into a collective being.

I cannot emphasize enough how weird this is and how much it doesn’t fit with our idea of an action story. As a lifelong fan of the movie, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. And yet, it did not diffuse the tension and suspense essential to a thriller, but kicked it into a whole new level.

This psychic relationship isn’t just a throwaway gag, either. It’s woven into the heart of the story. These two rough dudes hate each other so much that they become one another through violence.

It takes most of the story for them to comprehend what is going on and reconcile themselves to the fact that this is actually happening. They mostly think they are going crazy from stress, but this second sight proves accurate, and eventually there they are, at the final showdown, pointing guns at each other—pointing guns at themselves.

In fact, it would be fairly easy to imagine the entire book from Teasle’s perspective, where it becomes something of a slasher horror story.

Then they shoot, knowing full well that they have transcended individuation and become a hive entity. They still end it. Their code of honour allows nothing less than fighting to the bitter end and philosophical insight is powerless against ingrained habit and instinct. You can’t hug it out in a war.

This is where the dramatic tragedy unfurls. Rambo and Teasle only get a brief glimpse of the eternal. One cannot live in a transcendent state, only visit. We are all eventually called back to the void and any progress that we make on earth is, ultimately, transitory. Everybody dies.

Even Rambo.

That’s what makes it literature.

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Next week, our writers will explore the liberation hidden in the molten core of popular fiction. Brandon Varner hunts for a meaningful representation of the American South and the corresponding sketch of identity that comes from cobbling together a sense of self from the culture we consume; Miriam Breslow learns how to recover from academic burnout and postmodern malaise via the panacea of popular lit; and Laura McPhee-Browne loses herself in a thick blizzard of mystery.

Cian Cruise lives in Toronto. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Playboy, Hazlitt, Maisonneuve, Broken Pencil, THIS Magazine, and Little Brother, among others. More can be found on his website ciancruise.com

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