‘Born on the Fourth of July’ is the Quintessential Vietnam Vet Movie, But ‘First Blood’ Deserves More Love
In recent years some of the luster has come off of Oliver Stone’s career. He wasn’t always the guy who made movies like World Trade Center and Savages. Far from it, actually. He used to be the sort of respected director who cleaned up at the Oscars. One of the best-loved and most respected of the works from his peak was Born on the Fourth of July, a drama that not only earned him an Academy Award for Best Director and a nomination for Best Picture, but also went a long way toward making a serious actor out of its star, Tom Cruise. Cruise had become a huge name in the business thanks to roles in things like Risky Business and Top Gun, but before he did things like this and Rain Man, he still might have proved to be just a flash in the pan who opened a couple of big movies thanks to a pearly grin and a haircut, and then became a footnote. Even after all of these years though, Born on the Fourth of July is still considered to be one of the big entries in the highlight reel of Cruise’s career, and an argument could even be made that it still contains his very best performance.
Ted Kotcheff isn’t a director whose career ever came near the heights of Stone’s. You might not have even heard of him if you aren’t a big fan of Weekend at Bernie’s or The Red Shoe Diaries. One big claim to fame that can’t be denied him is that he had a hand in creating one of the most iconic action heroes of all time though, and that’s because he was the director of First Blood, the movie that introduced the world to Sylvester Stallone’s portrayal of John Rambo. First Blood was an undeniably big movie, but unlike what Born on the Fourth of July did for its director and star, it wasn’t able to add much prestige to the reputations of Kotcheff or Stallone. Stallone already had acting credibility thanks to Rocky when this film was released, and instead of being the sort of respected drama that made Kotcheff as a director, First Blood was the entry in the Rambo series that’s been largely forgotten, or at least overshadowed by its more over-the-top, action-heavy sequels. That’s something of a shame, because it actually digs into some pretty heavy issues, and it doesn’t do so clumsily.
What do they have in common?
Both films mine the majority of their drama from the difficulties many veterans of the Vietnam War experienced when trying to reintegrate back into society after fighting. These days the stories of soldiers coming home from traumatic experiences to face protestors spitting in their faces for committing war atrocities, perceived or otherwise, have been taught to school children for several decades, and have become history. The image of the olive drab-wearing, scraggly-haired, crazy ‘Nam vet living on the street and wigging out from flashbacks has become pop culture iconography – the sort of character used in comedy sketches and raunchy cartoons.
Born on the Fourth of July tells the life story of real-life ‘Nam vet and post-war paraplegic, Ron Kovic, while First Blood introduces us to the character of John Rambo, who takes all of the images we’ve internalized of Vietnam veterans and exaggerates them until they become the hero of an action-focused melodrama.
Why is Born on the Fourth of July overrated?
This is the kind of movie that deals with subject matter that’s so serious, and that shines a light on such an important issue, that it almost seems like you’d be admitting to being some kind of fascist not to like it. But Born on the Fourth of July, like everything else Oliver Stone has made, has so little subtlety to it that it can’t help but degenerate into cheesiness more times than is probably acceptable. From the very first scene, the theme of innocence lost is being firmly established and then firmly hammered into your head. The first section of the film, set in a late 50s/early 60s version of Americana that would make Norman Rockwell blush at its hamminess, goes so over the top in its attempts at juxtaposing itself against the horrors of war that come later, that it starts to resemble a Michael Bay fever dream. It’s made up 100% of slow-motion flag wavings, soft focus photography, and godly authority figures shot from low, supplicated angles.
The clunkiness doesn’t just end at the pandering visuals, either. Actually, they have their charms, heavy handed as they are. No, the real problem is the writing, which preaches to the audience with dialogue so clunky you can almost visualize various lines in the original screenplay as being underlined for emphasis. The Kovic character’s placement on a pedestal and eventual fall from grace is so telegraphed that once it happens it feels so crafted and phony that it’s just difficult to buy. The weight of the emotional arc ends up getting put on Cruise’s shoulders almost entirely, and thankfully he’s good enough to salvage some of it, but whether it’s enough could be a point of contention.
It’s true that the stuff after the war – and the stuff that happens in the veteran’s hospital in particular – is really intense and pretty harrowing to get through, but one can’t help but imagine how much more effective it would have been if it was set up organically and not treated like exaggerated horror movie stuff thanks to the huge tonal shift the movie takes. By the end of the film, when the plot’s structure comes full circle so cleanly and so entirely that it resembles a Seinfeld episode, and Stone’s direction goes as far as to show us images from the first act so that he can be sure we know what he’s attempting, you essentially just want to throw up your hands in frustration at how much strong acting gets ruined by all of the on-the-nose glad handing. There’s really no worse feeling than realizing a movie thinks you’re dumb, and a movie that layers in helicopter noises over a monologue in order to let you know that a character is still haunted by war experiences clearly thinks that its audience is rock stupid. All of the unneeded emphasis is especially egregious because Cruise was perfectly capable of getting everything across on his own.
Why is First Blood underpraised?
You only get a few seconds into First Blood before that main Rambo theme starts up over the soundtrack and instantly your spirit begins to soar. This isn’t just a movie that wants to preach to you about the plight of the veteran and the horrors of war, it’s also a classic example of Plato’s assertion that art needs to delight if it’s going to be didactic. Sure, it digs into issues like the effects living through trauma have on the psyche and how we haven’t built a strong enough system for integrating our veterans back into society after wartime, but it does so within the framework of a story that also includes jump kicks, explosions, and Stallone doing his goofy caveman yell. Essentially, First Blood is the sort of movie that picks its moments to preach, and for the rest of its run time it thrills with first-rate 80s action.
Some might argue that, given the fact that this is a movie that’s spawned several sequels and a mountain of merchandise, it can’t be said that it’s also underpraised. But, in the casual conversations I’ve had about the Rambo movies over the years, I’ve found that a surprising amount of people haven’t really seen First Blood, though they think they have. In fact, many have seen Rambo: First Blood Part II and erroneously assumed that what they remember was the first Rambo movie (lets call it Evil Dead syndrome). Because of this, the character has a reputation for being the king of the over the top, stupid action movie, and all of the deeper character stuff that goes on here has largely been forgotten.
Honestly, First Blood ends with Rambo, a character who became the ultimate symbol of masculine violence, breaking down into tears and being cradled by a bewildered Colonel Trautman. How weird is that? Stallone isn’t embarrassing during the scene either. He’s not as authentic as Cruise is in Born on the Fourth of July, but, for an action movie, he manages to muster up some powerful stuff. Powerful enough that I would be surprised if the movie weren’t watched by a Vietnam vet or two who nodded his head in approval at he and his getting their experiences represented on the big screen. If you really want to get through to people, hide the messages of your film in entertaining violence. It’s like putting a dog’s medicine inside of a treat. Tell a 12-year-old that you’re going to make him watch Born on the Fourth of July and he’s likely to pout. Tell him you’re going to make him watch the first Rambo movie and he’s likely going to cheer his stupid 12-year-old head off.
Evening the odds.
One of the hallmarks of a great Vietnam veteran character is their really sleazy 70s facial hair. In that respect, Cruise’s Ron Kovic clearly destroys Stallone’s John Rambo, and perhaps earns all of Born on the Fourth of July’s recognition. At least the flashback scenes of Rambo as a POW in First Blood gave him a really pathetic dirt stache though. In that respect, it completely destroys all of the ultra-violent Rambo movies that came after. Not only do they strip the franchise of any of its depth and pathos, but they also strip the character of his impressive face fuzz. No wonder everyone just thinks of Rambo as being a dumb action hero.