The significance of John Rambo (2008)


John Rambo is back after twenty years. Twenty years is a long time. And yet, the sequel captures your imagination. Surely, “Heroes never die…they just reload”. If you are looking for blood and gore, then John Rambo (2008) gives you enough and more.

First blood (1982) introduced the world’s famous “one-man-army” – John Rambo (played by Sylvester Stallone) – to audiences worldwide. It’s been twenty five years since I watched First Blood (1982) at the theatre. I vividly remember standing in the long serpentine queue along with my dad to buy tickets for the show. We couldn’t get the tickets and we returned another day to watch the film. Back then, watching a Hollywood blockbuster was a rare opportunity. You wanted to watch it. You had to watch it.

John Rambo was the picture of brute power, aggression, ‘ready-to-fight-back’ attitude and being unbeatable. These were symbolized by the tag lines: A one man war, This time he’s fighting for his life, He’s never fought a battle he couldn’t win. John Rambo , the picture of a muscle machine with a gutsy “never-say-die” attitude, captured the collective imagination of my generation.

It was so easy since, my generation had grown up with lesser grade action films in regional languages. It provided us with realistic portrayal of violence. In First Blood (1982), Rambo kills no fewer than 61 people during the running time of the film. By no means could our Indian heroes match Stallone. Moreover, our films were in no comparison with a Hollywood production. Our budgets were pittance compared to Hollywood production. Rambo stood head above shoulders.

His posters were all over the place. He became every boy’s hero. How did a movie which unfolded a killing spree capture our imagination? I would agree with BBC film critic Almar Haflidason’s comment: Stallone’s training in survival skills and hand-to-hand combat “…helped give the film such a raw and authentic edge that excited the audiences of the time.” (

Then came the sequels First Blood: Rambo part II (1985) and Rambo III (1989). They glorified brute force, aggression, ‘ready-to-fight-back’ attitude and do-or-die approach. The violence kept increasing. The blood and the gore had reached unimaginable levels. In fact, Rambo III had 70 explosions, and over 108 characters killed on-screen. We loved it all. Slowly but steadily, John Rambo attained iconic status.

Unfortunately, not many of us could see beyond the blood and gore. Not many could see beyond the display of destructive modern weaponry. Not many could see beyond the exploits of Sylvester Stallone. The Rambo film series was not just about brute power, strength and destruction. There was a drama and/or a message that got eclipsed by the blood-and- gore entertainment. John Rambo had a message – for America (and perhaps for the world).

Did Rambo have a message? Did the films border on the political? I think it did. Sadly, we missed it. On hind sight, it would have been impossible for us to grasp its political significance and layered meanings. We didn’t think global. Unlike today, America meant nothing to us at that time. The State owned Television Doordarshan Kendra did not call us to think, let alone think geo-political.

At 37, I engaged with John Rambo quite differently. Barely, few minutes into the film and I knew that the return of John Rambo is not entirely an accident. War no longer excites me. It sets me wrestling for answers. John Rambo (2008) set me thinking about many things – war, violence, power, suffering etc. The film raised a question: what’s the best way to solve political problems across the world? I wanted to see John Rambo’s take on the geo-politics.

With every passing year and new life experiences, you engage with films differently. Right now, I engage with films philosophically. It wasn’t difficult to see a “just war” subtext in John Rambo (2008). As the story unfolds, the film engages the audience in a debate, particularly against pacifism. Pacifism is a belief that violence, even in self-defence, is unjustifiable under any conditions. As a method of solving disputes, the preference is arguably for negotiation instead of war.

The simple “We-have-a-problem-to-solve-let’s-get-Rambo” plot has political messages at the sub-textual level. In fact, President Reagan’s praise for Rambo as a symbol of US army is by no means an accident. Twenty years ago, we had missed the political messages pushed through images of violence. After a little reflection in the evening, I could easily connect the dots. The entire Rambo film series was a political message to Americans, if not to their allies.

1. Firstly, Rambo is a Vietnam War veteran. The Vietnamese war remains a scar on the American superiority. Between 1965 and 1973, about 3 million Americans served in Vietnam and the military expenditure was around $120 billion. First blood (1982) brought alive Vietnam within mainstream consciousness.

“I can’t get it out of my head. Seven years. Every day I have this. Sometimes I wake up and don’t know where I am. I don’t talk to anybody. Sometimes a day. Sometimes a week. I can’t put it out of my mind.” [ John Rambo in First Blood 1982]

John I want you to try and forget the war. Remember the mission. The old Vietnam’s dead.
Sir I’m alive, it’s still alive, ain’t it? [ Trautman and John in Rambo: First Blood Part II, 1989]

2. Secondly, he is a victim of the American withdrawal from Vietnam. He feels let down. Rambo brings alive the sentiment that the US lost the Vietnamese war because of the pussyfooting back home. In the 70’s the anti-war protest back home questioned the military intervention. Rambo raises questions about anti-war protests and troop withdrawal.

“Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win, for somebody who wouldn’t let us win! Then I come back to the world, and I see all those maggots at the airport, protestin’ me, spittin’, callin’ me a baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me?! Huh?! Who are they?! Unless they been me and been there and know what the hell they yellin’ about!”– [ John Rambo in First Blood, 1982]

Sir, do we get to win this time? [ John Rambo in First Blood Part II 1985]

The war, the whole conflict may have been wrong but damn it… don’t hate your country for it. [Trautman in First Blood Part II, 1985]

I want, what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had, wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it! That’s what I want! [ John Rambo in First Blood Part II, 1985]

3. Thirdly, Rambo is called to engage in operations against the background of geo-politics [Vietnam (First Blood Part II) & Afghanistan (Rambo III)]. Rambo symbolizes US military intervention in troubled parts of the world. Somebody, somewhere is in need and something has got to be done.

I’m sorry I got you into this Johnny.
No you’re not.

[ Trautman and John in Rambo III, 1985]

Why must you do this?
Cause he’d do it for me.
[Mousa and John Rambo in Rambo III, 1989]

How does John Rambo (2008) fit into the contemporary political discourse? John Rambo returns after 20 years, and this is by no means accidental. The film raises the debate on war.

What is the story about? John Rambo (2008) has a relatively simple plot. A group of Christian human rights activists (led by Michael Burnett and Sarah Miller) travel up the river to Burma. When the missionaries arrive at the Karen village, they are captured along with the villagers by Burmese army. Major Pa Tee Tint puts through torture of different sorts. Rambo takes a group of mercenaries to free them, which he does John Rambo style

Surely, questions never die. They just reload. John Rambo (2008) raises poignant question of the logic of intervention against the background of the suffering Karen ethnic minority, Karen self-determination and Christian human rights activists (in all probability pacifists).

John Rambo (2008) reopens the “just-war” doctrine. Skeptical voices are raised (in the form of questions) and they are answered ( in the context of dehumanizing contexts). The film tells us that it is so easy to criticize war and get into an anti-war protest mode. It is so easy to be apathetic towards war and get on with life. It is so easy to remain on the sidelines and speak about war and how it’s got to be dealt with. It is so easy to be distanced from war and be cynical about it. However, to engage is not entirely easy. John Rambo (2008) call all sorts of people to be engaged in a debate on war – its violence, its logic, its consequences, its victims – and provides the basis for a “just war”.

1. Firstly, much like Burma (the location of the film) the world is a war zone. Should we get our hands dirty? Should we get involved or just stay away? The film answers this in the affirmative. Even the reluctant Rambo joins to make a difference.

Maybe you’ve lost your faith in people. But you must still be faithful to something. You must still care about something. Maybe we can’t change what is. But trying to save a life isn’t wasting your life, is it. [ Sarah Miller in John Rambo (2008)]

Live for nothing… Or die for something… Your call. [ John Rambo in John Rambo (2008)]

2. Secondly, we need to involve. But… how must one engage in a war zone? Should you resort to military intervention? Can we engage the dehumanizing enemy without force? The film answers the question through John Rambo’s answer. John Rambo says you can’t bring change without “force”.

Are you bringing in any weapons ?
Of course not.
You’re not changin’ anything…

Brunet and John Rambo in John Rambo (2008)

3. Thirdly, the film also raises the illogic of remaining on the sidelines. Not fighting for the sake of not fighting in the face of dehumanizing enemy. At two points, this becomes clear.

What did you do? We came here to help stop the killing! Who are you to…
[John Rambo grabs Burnett by the throat, and slams him up against a support beam]
Who are you? They would’ve raped her fifty times… and cut your heads off. Who are you? Who are any of you? [ Burnett and John Rambo in John Rambo, 2008]

It is interesting that Burnett later picks up a stone and brutally attacks a Burmese soldier. Is this a tragedy or a transformation?

4. Fourthly, the film also tells its audience that the geo-politics has changed. After the Vietnam War General Maxwell Taylor commented:

“until we know the enemy and know our allies and know ourselves, we’d better keep out of this kind of dirty business. It’s very dangerous”

After 30 odd years, John Rambo (2008) revisits this comment and responds (in the words of Sarah) Well… we need to go and help these people, we’re here to make a difference

John Rambo: Why’d you come back?
Sarah: Waiting for you.
John Rambo: I told you before, I can’t help you.
Sarah: Well we need to go and help these people, we’re here to make a difference, we believe all lives are special.
John Rambo: Some lives, some not.
Sarah: Really? If everyone thought like you, nothing would ever change.
John Rambo: Nothing does change.
Sarah: Of course it does! Nothing stays the same.
(John Rambo, 2008)

It’s time for Rambo – (and those who have secluded existence) to return to the center stage. Rambo is assured that things have changed in the last twenty years. Rambo left to Thailand with a disgust:

In the field we had a code of honor. You watch my back I watch yours. Back here there’s nothin’! Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment. Back here I can’t even hold a job PARKING CARS!!!! UUHHHH!!!!! [John Rambo in First Blood, 1982]

Today, he returns to a different America – a country that would hear his voice, understand his violence and stand by his calling and vocation. Has it changed? Nevertheless Rambo becomes a perfect symbol for US army in contemporary geo-politics. The call for preemptive strikes would be heard (and not drowned). The call for freedom around the world would be honored (and not trashed). The military intervention would make the difference (and not jeopardize peace) .

Politics aside, the movie raises and answers moral and philosophical questions about evil (and may be violence). Evil is real.

  • Can it be destroyed?
  • How do we destroy evil?
  • What makes violence justifiable?
  • How much is too much?

John Rambo (2008) has 236 killings (an average of 2.59 kills per minute). I did not enjoy all the killings. But sadly, I did not protest the killings either. In fact, I did tell myself that Major Pa Tee Tint deserved what he got in the end. Why? The killing, rape, sodomy, torture and every other atrocity of the Burmese soldiers won me over to John Rambo’s side. But, I did question my acceptance of the beheadings, mutilations, disemboweling. Did I (like Brunett) see the logic of just war (and perhaps the illogic of blind pacifism)?

John Rambo (2008) has definitely questioned my leanings towards pacifism? Evil – with its myriad of ugly faces – continues to dehumanize us. How do we help the hurting world, particularly women and children? How do we bring justice to large parts of the world suffering from rape, sodomy, and torture? How do we bring Justice that is Real, Excellent and Delightful? [ We need to paint our cities RED]

John Rambo (2008) has raised the questions and answered it. Here begins the debate. It’s up to us to engage in the debate.

Maybe you’ve lost your faith in people. But you must still be faithful to something. You must still care about something. Maybe we can’t change what is. But trying to save a life isn’t wasting your life, is it. [ Sarah Miller in John Rambo (2008)]


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