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Why So Many Americans Find John Rambo Compelling


After an 11-year hiatus, John Rambo returns to the big screen for one last mission in “Rambo: Last Blood.” With algorithmic predictability, the reviews have been harsh. IGN called the film “gory, offensive, and shallow” and whinged that “most of the Latinx characters on screen are criminals or broad stereotypes…but in 2019, these broad stereotypes are offensive and dated and downright irresponsible.”

Rolling Stone branded it as a “Reagan-era hero, re-engineered for the MAGA age” complete with “jingoistic chest-thumping” and “irresponsible fearmongering.” Slate concludes that the movie is “clearly an attempt to cash in on Trump-era fears of immigrant invasion.”

Comments such as these are now so commonplace that they basically amount to background noise. This kind of criticism lacks the imagination to criticize a film beyond a narrow set of ideological or political criteria.

What is missing in all this is any attempt to look at a movie like “Rambo: Last Blood” in terms of not only the story it tells, but the franchise as whole through the person of John Rambo. What is it about this character that has made everything from his image to the melancholy trumpet dirge composed by Jerry Goldsmith for his character so appealing to many Americans?

An Enduring Character Type

One large reason for Rambo’s appeal is that he is a perfect embodiment of a perennial character type. In the 1997 book “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy,” a book about the cycles of history and the generational types that make them up, authors William Strauss and Neil Howe remind us of two enduring hero story arcs. The first, and most common, is the story of the young hero with an elder mentor who wages an epic struggle against evil to usher in some new religious or social order.

The second, and less common, is the “nomad” character arc. These tales take place not during the ascent of an empire, but in its decline, or at least in a time of unrest. They are not about epic socio-political or religious struggles but personal ones. They are the tales of “abandoned and alienated children who later, as adults, strive to slow down, simplify, and brace their social environment.” When a crisis comes, they are ones who “do[] the dirty work with little expectation of public praise or reward.”

These are not the tales of heroic and flawless alpha males but of flawed and saturnine sigmas, who for whatever reasons willingly head out into the dark places of the world to battle evil so others my live in peace and safety, even if no one ever hears of their exploits. They are the ones who live in the world of the grey between the black and white, and thus often have names like the “Grey Pilgrim,” the “Grey Ghost,” the “Grey Champion,” and the “Gray Rider,” the name given to Clint Eastwood’s character in another nomad story arc, “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”

We have seen this story arc many times before, sometimes embodied in a group of disparate men such as in “The Magnificent Seven” (Seven Samurai) or as Chief Brody, Matt Hooper, and Quint in “Jaws.” But more often than not, they appear as individuals such as Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) in the Taken series, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in “American Sniper,” and of course Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo.

Rambo As the Liberator of the Oppressed

In all his movies Rambo has always been the one who has lived up to the motto of the U.S. Special Forces: De oppresso liber, “to liberate the oppressed,” and has been willing to battle against the thorns in our side that large swaths of our culture would prefer not to deal with, such as neglect of veterans, Communism, and genocide in the third world.

Granted, a fair case could be made that Rambo’s portrayal in the original “First Blood” movie as a broken vet unable to cope with civilian life was later ruined in parts two and three by turning him into a cartoonish cultural warrior of the Cold War and now in “Last Blood” as part of the current cultural squabbles over illegal immigration and national sovereignty.

However, despite all of the political messaging that has made its way into the movies, there has also been a steady development of Rambo’s character over the years that many a man can relate to. While we realize the importance of extolling the actions of virtuous heroes, we also recognize that sometimes, in those low-grade and unsung personal battles against the evil we encounter in our daily lives, it takes the example of a fallen and even tragic hero to encourage us all to stay in the fight.

The ‘Oppressed’ Don’t Seem to Think So

Finally, if after all that, you still want to talk about how movies like this send toxic messages that reinforce racism and xenophobia, then I will end with one last observation. The audience in the theater where I saw “Last Blood” was a rather rowdy one, and in the right time and place, this is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it is part of what makes going out to the movies enjoyable.

Many times throughout the movie, during critical encounters between Rambo and the cartel members, I heard shouts like “Get him!” or “Oh, man, you f-cked up now!” My favorite was at the end of the movie, when Rambo goes full Aztec on the last cartel boss, and someone shouted triumphantly, “Yeah, chinga te cabrón!” That’s right, a lot of the comments I heard from the audience were in Spanish.

If there is anything “downright irresponsible” about “Rambo: Last Blood,” it is the fact that there are people so ensconced in an ideological enclave that they cannot fathom that someone from south of the border might not know a good story when he sees one. Such a person may very well have intimate knowledge of what it means to live under the boot of the evils portrayed in the movie.

People like that can instead appreciate a good story with a cathartic moment where justice is dealt out to a member of a criminal organization that is already engaged in low-grade occupation of this country. Once again, it appears that plenty of audiences still believe Rambo’s story is well worth telling.