Friday, January 26, 2007

Theology of Rambo

What most people forget is that First Blood, the first Rambo film, is actually a good film. The awfulness of the subsequent Vietnam and Afghanistan sequels, which were jingoism at its finest, has obscured this fact. First Blood is the tale of John J Rambo, a Vietnam veteran who is lost in civilian life. Provoked by a bigotted and arrogant Sheriff and his men, he fights back by instinct (as a special forces soldier awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery). Plenty of people before have pointed out this film's powerful comment on how veterans were treated in the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict, but what struck me on watching it recently was the irony in the way that the local police perceive John Rambo.
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From the instant that Rambo arrives in town looking for something to eat (after finding out that his only surviving friend from his unit in Vietnam has died) and is moved on (driven out of town and told to keep on walking) by Sheriff Will Teazel, the bigotry and arrogance of the Sheriff is clear. The policemen in the station violently mistreat Rambo once he is arrested and enjoy humiliating him, sneering at his dishevelled appearance. All the while, they refer to Rambo as a freak, as 'crazy', a 'psycho'. When Rambo escapes, a parabolic reversal occurs - they are shown not to be the powerful, but the powerless. With ego all over their faces, their pride hurt, their hatred of him ratchets up. The reversal exposes the blindness of these men: they are the psycho's, the 'crazy' men, the 'freaks'. Their hatred, arrogance and thirst for revenge are clear (they are far uglier and more dangerous than John Rambo) and yet from their perspective they are never in the wrong - Rambo is the outsider, the 'reject', something less than a human being. Once Rambo has escaped and is pursued into the backwoods, the lust for his death shown by local policemen and national guardsmen is contrasted with the mercy shown by Rambo: 'I could have killed you all'. He is trying to exercise restraint, something totally lacking in the hatred-fuelled approach of the town authorities. The 'judgement' that finally comes on the town as Rambo 'returns from the dead' recalls High Plains Drifter, another film about how blindness to our own sins has huge consequences. This final part of the film prophesies to the US nation, and indeed to all societies.
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First Blood pinpoints for all of us, and particularly to those of us in 'small town' settings, the need to see strangers and 'outsiders' as true people, image bearers of God, and to welcome and identify with them. The third section of the Book of the Covenant (Ex 22:21-23:9) makes this a requirement of Israel, which brackets the whole section that reveals God's heart concern for the poor and the outcast:
...you shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt...and you shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger (Ex 22:21, 23:9)
Despite his efficiency and aggression as he fights to keep away his pursuers and execute judgement upon them, at the end John Rambo's vulnerability as a human being is seen as he breaks down because of his loneliness, bereavement, the trauma of all that he has seen in war, and his reception on his return to the US. 'Rambo' is also 'John'. Having served his country, he is left broken and forgotten. For him there is, in the words of the Jerry Goldsmith title track, a real war right outside his front door each day. Our attitude to strangers, to the marginalised and damaged, will mark our path in life and in the judgement, which Jesus speaks of:
Come...inherit the Kingdom prepared for you. For...I was a stranger and you invited me in...Depart from me, accursed ones. For...I was a stranger and you did not invite me in...
What a pity Sheriff Teazel didn't read his Bible.