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The Rambo Saga films through the eyes of US imperial foreign policy

[Rambo: Last Blood spoiler alert]

With the release of yet another Rambo movie in one of the longest-running action franchise in Hollywood history, we examine the progression of the Rambo films through the eyes of US foreign policy, Republican nationalism, and white saviour tropes, along with anti-Soviet and recent anti-Mexican sentiments thrown in. To understand the plot background and motivations for all of the Rambo films, one must have an understanding of the foreign wars and policies that the US governments have been involved in during the release of each film. 

The first film in the series was First Blood released in 1982. It was based on a more violent novel of the same name published in 1972, written by David Morrell. First Blood the movie tells the story of Rambo, a Vietnam war veteran returning to the US and wandering the country, as he finds it hard to settle down due to the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered during his time in combat. 

The film sheds light on how the US found it hard to deal with the remnants of the US combat troops who returned from one of the bloodiest chapters in US foreign policy. The war in Vietnam created thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in combat and became ill physically and psychologically. Rambo returns home to find anti-war groups waiting for him, “protesting me, spitting, calling me baby killer”, as Rambo explains to his commanding officer Trautman in the ending of the first film of the series.  

The second film in the series Rambo: First Blood Part II was released in 1985, and co-written with James Cameron who later went on to direct the global box office successes like Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009). First Blood Part II was released 6 months into Ronald Reagan’s second term as US president. President Reagan was a staunch anti-Communist and Republican. Sylvester Stallone, who plays John Rambo and has written the screenplay for the last four movies, is known to support and endorse Republican candidates throughout his career without being an outright Republican party member. It is no surprise that the second movie in the franchise becomes a poster for US Republicanism, as Rambo is flown into Vietnam, this time to assist in the rescuing of American prisoners of war (POW) held captive in communist Vietnamese jungle prisons assisted by evil Russian Soviets communists. 

The one thing this second film promotes above all is that the communists, with the assistance of Russian Soviets, are hurting US interests even in South East Asia, and it requires a strong, fighting ideology to counter them, something that then US President Reagan was offering in bucket loads. The US spent approximately $3 trillion on their defence budget during the two terms Ronald Reagan was president. Compare that to China’s GDP over the same period which came to $2.5 trillion. The US spent more on its military than the Chinese economy generated in the same period. To justify such high defence budgets and war mongering foreign policies by the US government, films like the Rambo series have gone a long way to promote the scourge and threat of international communism and the Soviet enemy. 

President Reagan in 1985 was quoted as saying: “Boy, after seeing ‘Rambo’ last night, I know what to do the next time this happens,” about dealing with the next hostage crisis. A dangerous case of life imitating art, which in turn was inspired by the dangerous policies of that reality. 

“You can’t squelch patriotism,” Sylvester Stallone was quoted as saying after the release of First Blood Part II and its box office success. Peddling US patriotism in the 80s was a lucrative formula for Stallone, as six months after First Blood Part II, he released another film of his iconic franchise Rocky IV (1986). This time Rocky Balboa beats the heartless, muscular and powerful Russian Soviet communist challenger in his own home country, and wins over the hostile Soviet crowd. 

This Soviet communist bashing continues into Rambo III released in 1988, towards the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term presidency. The Rambo in this film ends up supporting the Afghan Mujahedeen against the Soviets, but little did Rambo know that the same Mujahedeen he defended end up fighting the US and creating the second Vietnam of the US foreign military wars. In the search for finding creative ways of representing Soviet communist in as many movies as possible, and to prop up support for the US foreign policy in Afghanistan during the 1980s against the Soviets, Stallone may have got carried away and partnered with the wrong resistance fighters, if only hindsight was 20/20.

The fourth instalment of the series Rambo was released in 2008, during the last year of George W. Bush’s second term as president. There is no surprise that Myanmar has become the new landscape for John Rambo’s rampage, and no surprise that Myanmar is governed by a socialist government. This film in the series contains more violence than the previous films in the franchise, which is not an easy accomplishment, considering how violent the previous films where. 

The newest instalment of the series Rambo: Last Blood (2019) focuses on Rambo’s return and life in the US. He has inherited his father’s ranch in Arizona and has built a simple but idyllic life with a Mexican friend Maria and her granddaughter Gabrielle. Gabrielle decides to visit Mexico alone to find out why her father left her and her mother when she was young. She is then kidnapped and sold into forced prostitution against her will. 

Rambo tries to free her and fails at the first attempt, and is beaten and hurt badly. He then makes a second attempt and manages to save Gabrielle from a brothel, but it is too late as she dies from a drug overdose on the way back home to Arizona. 

From that point the film takes a turn towards classical revenge plot line. 

Last Blood is set in the Republican era of the Donald Trump presidency, and does not have the Soviet or communist enemy to defeat, even though currently the liberals in the US are trying hard to create an enemy of the Russians. President Trump in 2015 famously said: “They’re sending people that have a lot of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Basically that quote sums up the latest Rambo film’s plot. 

The Mexican character archetypes of Last Blood are only two types: helpless and villain. They either need Rambo to save them and protect them, or they are so bad and evil that Rambo ends up dealing with them through violence, usually with death as the end result. 

Hidden in the last four Rambo films is the ideology of the white saviour, most evidently in this latest film. It is true in some of the films Rambo saves other American soldiers and his own commander, however in film two and three he saves Vietnamese and Afghans and in the Last Blood, he saves Mexicans from the Mexican cartel. In one of the most blatant anti-Mexican parts of the film, the local Mexican police are shown raping girls in the movie, which in no way forwards the plot, thus perpetuating the myth that all Mexicans are rapists and cannot administer justice, in the era of Make America Great Again.         

Not only does Last Blood promote Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric, but it is not even an original or well-written film, as it turns out to be a basic revenge movie. The Rambo creator and author David Morrell even goes as far as saying: “The film is a mess. Embarrassed to have my name associated with it”.

Maybe it’s time John Rambo hangs up his bow and arrow and goes into retirement.


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