Thursday, June 21, 2012

First blood

So, there I was, sitting at home, watching my son and listening to The Projection Booth - Episode 64: Flooding with Love for First Blood, Son and I realize, I really need to go back to First Blood, the original novel by David Morrell before I finish this, if I'm going to appreciate it.

After re-reading the book, I re-watched First Blood, the movie by Ted Kotcheff and the commentary for that movie by Morrell.

One day soon, I need to also read Morrell's Rambo and Me: The Story Behind the Story, too. I'm especially curious if he has more to say about the comparison between the Rambo character and Audie Murphy, America's Most Decorated World War II Combat Soldier, who he repeatedly points to as the inspiration for the character.

There's plenty out there discussing the nature of the difference between the novel and the movie. I'm not sure I can add a lot. The basic issue is that the movie is set-up with Rambo as the protagonist, while the novel shifts back and forth between following Rambo and following his adversary, Teasle, played by Brian Dennehy in the movie.

What remains a challenge for me, however, is their starting place. Perhaps this is my lack of imagination, in terms of where and when I come from.

In the beginning of both the book and the movie, Teasle tries to run Rambo out of town. In the book he obviously takes Rambo to be a "hippie". In the movie, updated to the early '80s time period during which is was shot and released, so we are left to just assume he wants to drive him out of town for being a "drifter" or a "vagrant". In either case, though, it makes it difficult for me as a middle-class guy who grew up with modestly hippie parents in the '70s, I can't find it in myself to sympathize with Teasle's actions at that point.

In the movie there are quite a number of other steps taken to put audience sympathy behind Rambo from the beginning, but for me, in the book, that's all that's needed.

It was so strong, in fact, that I couldn't help emailing Morrell through his website to ask if that had been his intention.

I acknowledged that as the story goes on, various actions make my sympathy for Rambo waver, and as I learn more about Teasle, I do, as intended, gain increasing sympathy, and they share and shift in my sympathy throughout. That makes for a very, very compelling reading experience.

However, I can only come from the point where I begin in sympathy with Rambo at that point, and I suspect a majority of modern readers would struggle to do otherwise.

Morrell, who wrote back in remarkably short order with a considerate and complete answer, assured me that at least at the time the novel was published, there was genuine uncertainty regarding the "proper" protagonist of the story, which I find very interesting.

On the podcast, Morrell also says he can't see the story being remade properly. He says that the story is married to its time and its war so it couldn't take place now as that era's vets move into retirement, nor could it be made as a period piece because modern audiences don't know or care about Vietnam.

I'd say there's a couple of errors there. I say this without any strong belief that anyone should indeed bother to remake it.

(Aside from Zachary Oberzan that is, and, yes, after listening to the podcast, picking up a copy of Flooding with Love for the Kid is way, way, way at the top of my list of personal spending items I'll be getting when I have some money to spare...

See? Holy fuck! That looks amazing! And I swear I'll write about it as its own subject once I've gotten a chance to see it.)

As far as a commercial remake, however, I think breaking off from Morrell's givens at either point could actually bring you to an interesting proposition.

I can absolutely see a more art house style movie, telling a more true to the novel version working as a period piece. It wouldn't have the same kind of commercial appeal as a movie with Sylvester Stallone, but I'm picturing with someone like the Coen Brothers making it, it could be very interesting and bring enough butts into the seats to justify itself.

And, yeah, I don't have a moviemaker (or moviemaking team) in mind offhand, but I do think a story balancing a Rambo back from Iraq or Afghanistan against a Vietnam veteran Teasle. Yes, it's a different dynamic, but in the right hands it's not without the potential to bring a similar effect to an audience.


Marty McKee said...

Were we ever supposed to sympathize with Teasle on the movie? He acts like an asshole from the beginning. We do find him interesting, because Dennehy is so great, and I'm sure he could have made Teasle more heroic if he had been asked to.

Neil Sarver said...

Not really. The only step made to make Teasle sympathetic in the movie is casting Brian Dennehy in the part. The script trips over itself to ensure that nearly anyone will side with Rambo.

Of course, casting Dennehy is no small act. He really does make him feel like a real person, despite not having much material to develop.

It works. It's an interesting case where there's this major a change in the approach a movie takes compared to a source novel, and yet nearly everyone forgives it to one degree or another.

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