My rating: 4 of 5 stars
First Blood (1972) by David Morrell is the book that would later become the movie-sensation by the same name. However, the book and the movie are two very distinct works of fiction. By the end of the book, literally dozens are dead and the small town of Madison, Kentucky is in flames. Only two people die in the film version set in the Pacific west. The endings also differ from book to movie. And the book’s ending is one ending that shouldn’t be missed.
As far as the plot is concerned, there is not much difference between the book and film. A Green Beret named Rambo (later named John for the film as in “When Johnny comes marching home“) escapes from a prison camp in North Vietnam and makes his way some 350 miles to the south. After being released from the war and hospitals, the novel picks up as he is walking into town. Like in the dozens of small towns before, a sheriff urges Rambo to keep on going. But this time Rambo won’t be pushed.
Sheriff Teasle is a Korean War hero who had won the Distinguished Service Cross, which is second only to Rambo’s Congressional Medal of Honor. Teasle and Rambo, father and son figures in the novel, battle one another as if in a high-stakes game. The novel does not have a clear hero or villain, but as the story unfolds, much like an intense chess match between two grand masters, it is not so much the players but the game being played out that keeps so much of the audience’s interest.
In the introduction “Rambo and Me” (2000) Morrell writes, “Who was the hero, who the villain, or were both men heroes, both men villains? The final confrontation between Rambo and Teasle would show that in this microcosmic version of the Vietnam War and American attitudes about it, escalating force results in disaster” (x). And as Teasle pushes Rambo to a breaking point fiery hell breaks free until there is no going back. No time for heroes or villains in this story. Only time for survival.
The writing is swift and clean, some of the fastest writing I have ever read. Each sentence leaps off the page and the story is the focus of the writing. The section-breaks often switch between Rambo and Teasle, but this is done with ease and makes for added tension as the chase unfolds in the mountains. The two point-of-views also add to each character’s development: Rambo’s time in the war, Teasle’s divorce with his wife, Anna.
At one point, as Rambo tunnels through an abandoned mine and into caves and through bat dung and flesh eating beetles and out to fresh air, Morrell is able to give insight into Rambo:
“The native allies in the war had called it the way of Zen, the journey to arrive at the pure and frozen moment, achieved only after long arduous training and concentration and determination to be perfect. A part of movement when movement itself ceased. Their words had no exact English translation, and they said that even if there were, the moment could not be explained. The emotion was timeless, could not be described in time, could be compared to orgasm but not so defined because it had no physical center, was bodily everywhere…
“Well, they could not see much in the dark, and after being underground, he was at home in the dark, and as soon as he had rested more, he would slip down past them. It would be easy now. They would be thinking he was still in the caves, and he would be miles off on his road. No one had better get in his way. Christ, no. He would do anything. What he had come to feel, he would do anything to anyone to keep” (238-239).
Brief passages such as this appear at just the right time and do not bog the momentum of the story down. An unexpected delight for such a high-octane action story as this.
Now for the end…
Rambo has shot Teasle as the city burns. Police station and court house in flames and ashes. Rambo, shot in the chest in return, crawls into hiding. Pain too severe. Too much damage to escape. Rambo lies and waits for the end to come. A stick of dynamite on his lap. Rambo thinks about what has happened in the last week and why it had to happen:
“Like what a lot of horseshit, he told himself: freedom and rights. He had not set out to prove a principle. He had set out to show a fight to anyone who pushed him anymore, and that was quite different–not ethical, but personal emotional. He had killed a great many people, and he could pretend their deaths were necessary because they were all a part of what was pushing him, making it impossible for someone like him to get along. But he did not totally believe it. He had enjoyed the fight too much, enjoyed too much the risk and the excitement. Perhaps the war had conditioned him, he thought. Perhaps he had become so used to action that he could not ease off” (276-277).
Rambo waits. Knows he is dying. Cannot commit suicide. Then he sees movement ahead. “He carried a rifle. Or a shotgun. Rambo’s eyes could no longer tell him which. But he could make out it was a Beret uniform and he knew that was Trautman. It could be no one else. And behind Trautman, stumbling across the playground, clutching his stomach, came Teasle, it had to be him, lurching against a rectangular maze of climbing bars, and Rambo understood then there was a better way” (279).
And if you want to find out what REALLY happened to Rambo, then you’ll just have to read the book.
A strong recommend for any Rambo fan. A recommend for any who enjoy action-adventure-chase stories. A recommend all in all.