Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Kate Erbland drifts with John Rambo, a.k.a. Sylvester Stallone as he discusses First Blood.
It’s debatable who the biggest action star of the modern era is. Some say Schwarzenegger. Others say Stallone. Some people even make a claim for Tom Cruise, but chances are they aren’t reading this anyway. With The Expendables 2 hitting theaters this Friday, Sylvester Stallone once again brings together some of the biggest action stars of yesteryear in a massive explosion of a movie. For his determination to keep action alive, Stallone may take the edge on the all-time list.
So this week, we’ve decided to go back to the film that started Stallone’s ascent to the throne of the action star. First Blood and its ensuing – and exceedingly violent – sequels were the films that dropped the word “action” in front of the word “star” when talking about the man. We loved seeing him punch people as Rocky, but seeing him blow people away as Rambo was what did it. Let’s hear the man speak for himself, though, and go through all 28 things we learned from the First Blood commentary.
First Blood (1982)
Commentators: Sylvester Stallone (writer, actor) and the beautiful, melodic sounds of an M60 machine gun.
- “At first, I thought it was a disastrous idea,” says Stallone starting the First Blood commentary off right. “I didn’t want to do it at all.” He explains that the screenplay had been bouncing around for years and had a stigma about it as being a “cursed” project. Stallone even jokes about the day he was to travel to shoot the film and how he wondered if he could get out of the movie by slamming his hand in a door at Burt Reynolds’ house. Many a people have broken their hand at Burt Reynolds’ house, most of the injuries coming from Mr. Reynolds himself.
- It wasn’t until the first day of shooting when Stallone is walking up to the house by the lake that he figured out how to play the character of John Rambo. He chose to play him as if he has too many child-like qualities. “He’ll be a non-physical creature, so I thought of myself as a non-intimidating person,” he says.
- Stallone recalls getting rewrites on the script sometimes all the way up to the day they were to shoot the scene. He points out the first dialogue scene between Stallone’s Rambo and Brian Dennehy’s Sheriff Teasle went off a newly revised script he had been given and then reverted back to the screenplay he had helped work on. It was eventually decided to just run with the latter.
- Stallone points out that in the original novel, Teasle is a veteran of the Korean War, and his attitude towards Rambo stems from the competition of who fought a greater war. This especially fits in with the Korean War being something of a forgotten war. This element didn’t make it to the film.
- First Blood was shot in Canada between October and December 1981. Stallone mentions the large hand the environment had in getting him to the toughness and coldness of his character. He even points out a few terse moments between he and Dennehy. Big Tom Callahan carrying a hunting knife is not something to trifle with, even if you’re Sylvester Stallone.
- A Navy SEAL was brought in to show Stallone how to get away from the group of police officers who were detaining Rambo. The actors on set, David Caruso among them, were convinced they could hold him with all of them ganging up, but the SEAL, as Stallone puts it, “laid out about three of them.” We can all hope Caruso was one of them.
- “They just really let it fly,” Stallone says at the beginning of the chase sequence where Rambo is riding a motorcycle and Dennehy’s Teasle is pursuing in a squad car. Stallone calls the sequence “horrifically unchoreographed.” The squad car slipping down the hill sideways was an accident they kept in the finished film. Dennehy was then put into the overturned vehicle, and the scene continued from there.
- A number of sequences were added to the film on the spot. Rambo coming upon the abandoned house where he gathers supplies was something Stallone came up with while shooting out in the wilderness. The piece of canvas he grabs was a spur of the moment thought, but the prop became a very protected item on set. Stallone still keeps the piece of canvas at his home as a trophy from the film.
- For the sequence where Rambo falls through a large tree and hits one of the branches, Stallone had to film the scene twice. He was asked to film it a third time, but he had broken his rib on the branch the second time through. “It was pretty easy to act out the pain,” he notes.
- While shooting on the mossy cliff that Rambo does end up going over, Stallone was concerned about slipping on the wet surface. The production’s solution for this concern was tying a rope around his ankle, so they could, as Stallone puts it, “retrieve the body.” He says he knew he was in trouble when he looked around the set and saw everyone else tied to trees.
- To check to see how realistic the wound on his arm was, Stallone went to a local hospital over a lunch break with the movie wound still on his arm, blood still pumping through the hidden tube underneath. He even left the makeshift, sewing job Rambo does on his wound for the nurses to see. Naturally, they were freaking out about this. Stallone just asked for Tylenol or some form of pain reliever, to which the nurses told him he was the “toughest man we’ve ever met.” So that answers that. Nurses approved.
- There was a standing rule on set that no one was to travel more than 50 feet away from the rest of the crew, because, as Stallone notes, “everything, everything looks the same. There is no outstanding features anywhere. They’re all the same trees, the same rock, the same underbrush, so you get confused.” He mentions how genius the idea was to have all the officer wearing white hats.
- Stallone recalls the first cut of the film he saw and how the scene with the officers chasing Rambo through the woods lasted between 45 and 50 minutes. It has since been cut down to 10 or 12. Stallone notices a lot of what was fleshed out in this scene now gets rushed through, but the spirit of the scene is still intact.
- Stallone refers to Rambo as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, only the monster wasn’t created by a mad scientist. It was created by America. So let that be a lesson to you, America. Be ashamed for creating John Rambo.
- The John Rambo in the original novel was a much more intense character, one who would have gutted all of the officers pursuing him in the woods. In fact, the character kills the civilians he encounters in the woods. Stallone notes he felt Rambo needed to be more human, more like someone who would be watching the film, who might be “on the fence” about the hand they’ve been dealt with society.
- Kirk Douglas was originally cast as Trautman, the Colonel who trained Rambo. Stallone and Douglas butted heads early, as Douglas wanted to go hand-to-hand against Rambo at some point. He showed up on the first day of filming with loads of notes in his screenplay. Douglas felt that Trautman was more like Rambo and wanted to end the film with Trautman driving off wearing a headband with Rambo tied to the front of the car. It was met with deserved reluctance from Stallone, and Douglas promptly quit. Don’t say Spartacus vs. Rambo wouldn’t be amazing.
- Stallone came up with an idea to actually jump on a boar’s back and kill it with a knife, capturing it all on film. This was immediately shot down, to which Stallone came back with a dozen more ridiculous scenarios including Rambo going up against mountain lions and deer. The Rangers on set said the only animal he’d be able to take out by himself would be a jackrabbit. They did say the jackrabbit would probably bite him, though.
- Stallone mentions squibs and how they can be a tricky special effect to handle. One squib that goes off near his hand in First Blood caused the actor to think he had lost his thumb. He recollects a moment on the set of Nighthawks where a squib connected to Rutger Hauer was set up backwards and exploded inwards. Hauer was nearly killed and burned badly.
- Working with rats doesn’t sound any easier than working with squibs. Stallone points out how calm and friendly rats are until you show up on set or until they hit the cold water. He had to make another trip to the local hospital to get a tetanus shot from rat bites and scratches. But at least he still had both his thumbs, so there’s that.
- Between his trips to the local emergency room, Stallone went to a local bar on one occasion dressed as Rambo. He wanted to create a mystery about himself and make people think he was who he was playing. All of the mystique got dashed, though, when he ordered a Campari and soda. “That’s my barroom story,” he says.
- Stallone mentions again how several actors passed on the role before it went to him. He recollects it being the first time he saw an American fighting other Americans in this way and believed the John Rambo role to be a “career killer.”
- He also believes the character and its legacy has been misrepresented. Rambo has been taken on as a very pro-military, Right wing symbol for America’s strength. Stallone, rightfully so, feels the character is the exact opposite of this.
- Stallone notes the similarities between Rambo and Teasle, and how people have to feel something regardless if that’s the “anxiety of war.” The competition between the two alpha males is all either of them have left. “It’s about territory,” Stallone notes.
- “Everything that we did with this character, it was all about him morphing into a full-on killing machine,” says Stallone. He points out the M60 machine gun Rambo uses through the final scene of the film weighs about 30 lbs. not counting the ammo belts that go with it. Stallone felt that the character was so crazed at that moment that he has become a full-fledged army by himself. So be proud, America. You created this awesome monster.
- Brian Dennehy did his own stunt when Teasle falls through the ceiling of the police station. The actor shattered his ribs when he landed.
- Stallone notes there are four or five moments in an actor’s career where they drop all of their guards and let the scene and character completely take them. His performance in the final moments of First Blood is one of those points in his career Stallone can point to. That and then the entirety of Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot!
- A lot of hesitation came from the studio about Rambo’s final breakdown in the film. Stallone fought tooth and nail for the scene, noting he felt the soldiers who were going through similar push-back from society needed their story told. The stories Rambo rants about in those final moments are real stories.
- There were loads of issues with the film in post-production. The first cut ran 3 1/2 hours and was a total trainwreck. Stallone even recollects attempts at buying the negative to have the film completely destroyed. The studio finally put together a 40-minute preview reel and presented it to higher ups in the industry. Stallone was brought in and forced to present the film as something much better than he believed it to be. The preview reel completely blew the actor away.
Best in Commentary
“He’s America’s waif. He’s gone. There is no direction, no plans, no aspirations. Zero. Completely part of the landscape. And it’s almost as though he’s looking for a cause.”
“I think First Blood is the best action film I’ve ever done.”
For the most part, this Stallone commentary on First Blood is good but nothing incredible. It certainly has much more to offer in terms of information than anything Schwarzenegger recorded, but let’s be honest. That’s not all that difficult. Stallone goes between anecdotes and insight into the film enough to keep the commentary here from getting bogged down in minutia.
A cruelty towards bit actors in the film does come out at one point, and it makes you feel bad for anyone who worked alongside Stallone who didn’t hit it big. Nevertheless, Stallone is Rambo for a reason, and the love he has for this film comes through loud and clear.