John Rambo's Tragic Backstory (& How The Character Changed Over Time)

John Rambo isn't a typical action movie hero; Sylvester Stallone's jaded war veteran only wants his country to love him as much as he loves it.

Rambo Backstory Sylvester Stallone Last blood

John Rambo is much more than a buff guy with a big gun, and his character has evolved greatly over the course of five films. Rambo movies are seen by casual observers as just another log on the fire of 1980s action flicks, with non-stop explosions, cheesy one-liners, and simple, USA vs Soviet Union politics. However, true fans know that Rambo is a deep and three-dimensional character.

As played by Sylvester Stallone, who co-wrote every film in the series and directed 2008's Rambo, the character is distinctly American, but not of the generically reductive "flag-waving" sort. Rambo was an ordinary young man from Arizona who was trained by the military to be an unstoppable killer. He was deployed to the jungles of Vietnam, where he killed, not for ideology or personal reasons, but because those were his orders. After the war, he returned home, but left part of himself behind, something he would never get back. Like many veterans, his battles did not end when he was sent back to the United States.

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To summarize the events of 1982's First Blood, Rambo never got used to life back in the world, so it came as a twisted form of relief when every sequel found a new reason for the shell-shocked veteran to return to war and do the only thing he was ever good at. The character changed a lot over the years, but at his core, John Rambo is a man who gave everything to his country and got nothing in return but nightmares and guilt.

Rambo's Past In Vietnam

Like many young men of the mid 1960s, Rambo found himself transplanted into the jungles of Vietnam, though sources in the films differ on whether he enlisted or not (Rambo 2008 states he was drafted into service). Rambo did his time as a soldier before undergoing training to be part of Colonel Sam Trautman's (Richard Crenna) elite unit. As a member of "Baker Team," Rambo racked up dozens of confirmed enemy kills during the Vietnam War, capturing objectives, and otherwise proving his value to his Commanding Officer, to his country, and to himself.

As discussed in the shocking ending of First Blood, Rambo was traumatized by the death of his friend, Joey Danforth, at the hands of a young child with a suicide bomb. Danforth died slowly in his arms, having been blown apart by the unexpected attack. Elsewhere during the war, Rambo himself was captured and tortured by the NVA. These events, combined with his own acts of patriotic barbarism during war ensured that the man who returned home at the end of his tours of duty was a different person than the one who shipped out all those years ago.

First Blood

First Blood Poster

America's treatment of its veterans is one of this country's greatest national shames. The Vietnam War was terribly unpopular, and returning soldiers were not given the enthusiastic welcome their predecessors received after the end of World War II. Some soldiers try to put their past behind them when they return from combat, but Vietnam vets had a harder time than those of any other war in that endeavor; as Rambo recalls in First Blood, he was spit on, called "baby killer," and ultimately rejected by society at large.

Related: First Blood’s Original Ending Killed Rambo: Here’s Why It Was Changed

When First Blood begins, Rambo is on a cross-country trip, hitchhiking to see Delmar Barry, the only other surviving member of his old unit. Sadly, Barry passed away due to exposure to Agent Orange, a herbicide created to destroy vegetation and undermine the Vietnamese "home turf advantage," which wound up causing cancer in millions of veterans in the years following the war's end. With no one left in the world, Rambo is an aimless drifter. He walks into Hope, a small Washington mountain town, looking for a bite to eat, but he is promptly harassed by the local sheriff, Teasle (Brian Dennehy). Judging Rambo by his appearance and mistaking him for hippie, Teasle gives Rambo a ride out of town and tells him to leave and not come back. As the original novel describes it, it's a situation Rambo has seen many times, and every time he acquiesced to the authority of the condescending lawmen of various "jerkwater" towns. But not this time.

Instead of passing through, Rambo returns to Hope, and this time gets arrested by Teasle and his deputies, a gang of thugs with badges and guns. Rambo's mistreatment at their hands is so severe it triggers a Vietnam flashback, and Rambo snaps. He goes berserk and effortlessly disarms the deputies, injuring them, but sparing their lives. This is in sharp contrast to the book, where he kills many cops and National Guard soldiers. First Blood essentially boils down to Rambo going through a particularly intense episode of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, bringing the Vietnam War home to America and hurting anyone who gets in his way. It's a grim and moody story of survival, prejudice, and a national tragedy manifesting itself in the form of an erratic veteran walking down a rural town's main street while armed with an M60 machine gun.

Becoming An Action Hero

Sylvester Stallone in Rambo First Blood Part 2

First Blood has its fair share of excitement and adrenaline, but it's not an action movie. The body count of the film is only one, a single deputy who dies by accident after falling out of a helicopter. The film ends with a devastating monologue from the broken soldier and erstwhile war hero, reflecting on how he was transformed into something that just isn't compatible with the civilized world anymore. The film ends with him accepting this and being arrested for his actions.

The next two Rambo films fit the 1980s action movie stereotypes, with numerous instances of a shirtless, oiled-up Sylvester Stallone mowing down scores of enemy soldiers while heroic music plays in the background. They still have political themes, about the ghosts of Vietnam and the ill-fated Soviet-Afghan war, but can also be seen as straightforward action flicks, while First Blood was very much a war movie, only set after the war.

Related: Rambo 3’s Deleted Ending Would Have Dated Horribly

Rambo: First Blood Part II, released in 1985, featured a strong balance of politics and action, with the character of John Rambo still squarely in the center of the story. He's out to rescue missing prisoners of war who were abandoned when the United States left Vietnam. It's personal for Rambo, because he was a POW, and he identifies with a man who has been willfully forgotten by his country. For Rambo III, the character was pushed even harder in the "macho action hero" direction, much to the derision of longtime fans of the character. Even though Rambo III still had its moments of political awareness, Rambo himself doesn't have much of an arc, especially with the changes made to the ending before release. In fact, in the 2008 revival, Rambo begins in the exact same position as the beginning of Rambo III: retired, solitary, and wishing to be left alone in Thailand.

Rambo's Retirement

Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: Last Blood

After Rambo III, it took twenty years for another Rambo film to be made. Rambo 2008 was co-written by Stallone himself, and remains the only film in the series directed by the seasoned Hollywood star. It stars with Rambo being accosted by a group of Christian missionaries. The naive though well-meaning group aims to bring relief supplies to the local civilian population in Burma. After being convinced to escort them up the river into the war-torn country, the missionaries are promptly captured, and many are killed. When their pastor hires a band of mercenaries to find them, Rambo finds himself drawn into another war, this time to save people he doesn't know from an enemy he can't defeat, in a country that's not his own. He's a bitter and jaded warrior. He knows war doesn't change anything, but he knows that the missionaries aren't going to help people unless they bring them weapons to fight back against their oppressors.

Rambo accepts that fighting is the only thing he can do, but if he can fight for a righteous cause, maybe the killing can amount to something in the long run. It's not a perfect philosophy, but none are, and it's simply who he is. He explains to the mercenaries hired to find the lost missionaries, "This is what we do, who we are. Live for nothing, or die for something." As the film closes, Rambo looks at the carnage he has wreaked upon the landscape, the eviscerated bodies of the men he's killed, and decides he's done hiding from his past. The final scene of Rambo 2008 sees John where he started in the beginning of First Blood, walking down a lonely road, carrying his entire life in a bag slung over his shoulder. He's returning to his old family homestead, as indicated by the "R. Rambo" written on a rusty old mailbox.

Just because Rambo returned home, however, doesn't mean his war is over. Rambo: Last Blood sees the battle-weary old warhorse embark on one last mission to fight for his new family. Influenced by the prospect of real-life violence of Mexican drug cartels spilling over into Rambo's tiny corner of the United States, Rambo: Last Blood promises a whole new layer of depth to the legendary soldier. The fifth Rambo film starts out with the hero in a state audiences have never seen from the character: contentedness. He has an adopted family, and he's living out his twilight years in peace. He may not have overcome his demons, but he's been able to keep them at bay. Of course, when all hell breaks loose around him, Rambo will inevitably have to fall back on his extensive training and unleash all of his repressed rage in order to protect the people he loves, in his most personal battle yet.

More: Rambo Movies, Ranked Worst To Best

Key Release Dates
  • Rambo 5: Last Blood (2019) release date: Sep 20, 2019
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