His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky.
First Blood by David Morrell is one of my favorite books. I found it through the movie, which I saw in theaters with my father, because his friend, “uncle” Tony Maffatone, was Stallone’s bodyguard at the time and was on set for some of the filming. He was given one of the numbered editions of the RJ Loveless “First Blood” survival knife that became iconic through the film, which introduced me to the world of custom, handmade knives. The movie had quite an effect on me, and when I tracked the book down I read it in one sitting. It is lean and bloody and tells a brutal, heartfelt tale rich with allegory, about a Vietnam veteran who comes home to a country that sees him as a dangerous drifter instead of a soldier who has suffered greatly in its service.
The movie is a classic in its own right, but as expected, it lacks the depth of the novel, which makes Chief Teasle a sympathetic character instead of an angry Brian Dennehy; the book is also much darker. What may surprise you is that the novel is bloodier, by many magnitudes than the film adaptation. David Morrell brought the war home with his novel.
It has been printed in many editions, and in 26 languages, but this new special edition from Gauntlet Press pulls out all the stops. I opted for the most limited edition, which went on sale on January 1st. I set an alarm to order it early on New Year’s Day, as not to miss out on the lettered, traycased edition which includes original manuscript pages from early drafts of the novel and rare promotional material from the film, when Kirk Douglas was cast as Colonel Trautman. The material is interesting as both a reader and a writer, to see how much work went into a heartfelt novel that had such a cultural impact. “Rambo,” the novel’s main character, has literally entered the lexicon; he is referenced in the Oxford English Dictionary. Whether you visualize the original longhaired, bearded drifter from the opening pages or steroid enhanced action hero Stallone made of him, you’ve most likely heard of John Rambo. And if you have not read the novel in which he was born, I highly recommend it. The prose is gripping and the story prescient as ever, as wounded veterans come home from another war to a country that all too often leaves them alone walking the streets with nowhere to call home.