Edited for Clarity
It is at this point, deep down within the most magical year of 1982, where the 1980s really began to “do” the 1980s, and things start to become much more symmetric with what those of us in the good ol’ 2010s might imagine when we pontificate about three decades past. For this reason, it felt wholly appropriate to cover a pair of films, one of them very much of the 1980s, and one rather shockingly not of this decade, but both of which would birth the two “biggest” (yes, this applies to both box office draw and muscle-mass) and most “1980s” stars of the day, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
Conan the Barbarian
Conan the Barbarian should not work, and, honestly, it kind of doesn’t. It is just about the most hyperbolic, fetishistic-ally 1980s macho fantasy action film one could possibly imagine, the kind of product that sounds more like a modern person’s hindsight imagination of the 1980s than the real deal. The script, for one, is a non-entity from beginning to end, and its prurient, excessive, almost psychotic violence and tawdry childishness is about as straight-faced as it gets. It is totally and completely describable as “moronically and obsessively stupid”, and such a description doesn’t so much miss the point as ask us to consider what “stupid” even means. For Conan the Barbarian is so idiotically committed to being its chintzy self it creates its own special place where only it dares preside. This is an eccentric, weirdly watchable film, the kind of work that just defines guilty pleasure.
For starters, the narrative. It’s like a joke, right? One would think so, but the film is so damn committed to its grandeur that it is feverishly intriguing in a 50% with it 50% against it kind of way. For the first – and I’m not kidding here – third of the film there really isn’t a narrative to speak of. It’s mostly just a jumbled-up assortment of scenes throwing Ahnuld into all sorts of barely defined situations, music and cinematography making these simple acts deeply arcane and exciting in ways we do not so much debate with as bathe in. In a weird way, and give me this here, the opening parts of the film approximate a kind of impressionistic version of a story where Conan, wrenched from stability in childhood, is defined not so much by a narrative of wonder and myth but a barren existence devoid of anything but individual, somewhat disconnected moments dancing around in his head, detached from form or reason or flow. It’s hyper-episodic, and exceedingly dialogue-free – many of the scenes are divorced from context, totally abstracting Conan’s life to the pure sights and sounds of him in random locations doing seemingly random things, as though his life is formless and knows no sanity. Less of a narrative, and more of a self-consciously iconographic series of moments, Conan as an icon figure doomed to play out some tableaux of awesomeness, rather than a character with a psychology. It’s all weirdly affecting in a strange, vivid, off-kilter way – it does not feel like a movie script, but a fever dream, and there-in lies the film’s central fascination.
Elsewhere, for all the undeniable flaws on display in front of and behind the camera (the acting is a particular wash), John Milius is not an incompetent director, and several technical features of the film are entirely convincing. The score by Basil Poledouris is certainly terrific, just about the most rousing thing to come out of the 1980s, and it makes all of the chintzy-ness on display elsewhere drown under its monumental might. The feverish tone is complemented meanwhile by some honest-to-god poetic cinematography and a great, used-universe feel to the world that blends the mystical and the real, even if it does so haphazardly. One never really gets a sense of this world as having a “geography”, but it’s easy to argue that this serves as much a positive as a downfall, adding to the fever-dream vibe, a swampy, mysterious x-factor where the film’s reality is hazy more than guaranteed. Two sequences, one in a witch’s house, and another in one of the doomiest tombs to never grace a metal album cover, are terrifically executed in every sense of the word, both sunken in atmosphere as thick as molasses. The latter sequence wouldn’t be out of place, even, in a Herzog film, and anything that belongs in a Herzog film must be good. Don’t blame me for the hyperbole…them’s the cinematic rules.
There are those that argue it’s all some sort of difficult-to-spot joke at the genre’s expense, a satire in sheep’s clothing. I can almost see the claim, if you really squint hard enough, but it requires a mighty argument on the part of the viewer to justify the claim, and I for one don’t think Milius is so smart, or so progressive, to intend this as an elaborate mockery. Then there’s the problem of something so dry and witless that intends to comment on how dry and witless the material it is, and whether this would actually be clever or just draggy. For Conan the Barbarian is witless and somewhat bankrupt as a moral film, silly and self-serious and immature all in equal measure. But it has a beguiling energy none-the-less, the undeniable product of a team so invested in what it was doing it didn’t much care about how wrong-headed they were for doing it. It is not satire; it is instead the idea of macho fantasy elevated to a pastiche of the form. It is not great artwork, but it is inspired craft, and the film landscape of the 1980s could always use a little inspired craft.
Viewers could be forgiven for expecting in First Blood a no-holds barred action extravaganza rendered parody by time. The essence of the latter Rambo films are revealed by their titles – all jingoistic fist-pumps, Cold War propaganda to champion America in the body of a single man, Rambo, as the rugged, righteous abstracted embodiment of the American individual. They are all quantifiably ’80s films, insofar as they could not have birthed without the cultural and social climate of the 1980s. And all are not only bad films, but problematic ones. First Blood however is, if not their polar opposite, at a perpendicular angle to them, and doing a damn good job of being so perpendicular to most of ’80s action cinema while it’s at it.
First Blood opens with John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) as a homeless Vietnam War veteran wandering the streets of a small Pacific Northwest town, looking for a friend of his who turns out to have passed as a result of uncared for medical problems. He, like, Rambo, has been left out in the cold by a government that wanted nothing to do with him, scrapped under their nation’s boot-heel after they’d been used, abused, and rendered useless. Soon enough, Rambo is arrested for the vague crime of vagrancy, designed and implemented in many US townships to punish “others” who scare us by reflecting our own social failures to construct an egalitarian society back on us with weathered skin and tired eyes. Soon enough, he escapes and is on the run in a nearby forest, chased by the very moral authority figure he once was.
It’s all quite a bit dour isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong; First Blood is an action film, but it isn’t a violence film, nor is it really anthemic. Many viewers are shocked when they discover that Rambo here only kills one person, and that this kill is only by accident and in self-defense. The film deals in action and tension, but Rambo isn’t the “hero” here, nor is he the villain. He’s a sympathetic loner being wrestled into submission by a society giving him no choice but to double-down on his violence-dealing capacity to survive. Through much of the film, Rambo is on the defense – the best sequence is almost out of a slasher, only without gore or kills, as Rambo stalks and takes out his pursuers one by one with terse, angry anxiety. It’s efficient, effective filmmaking, but it isn’t per-se triumphant.
Which brings us to something far more important than the conventional “he doesn’t kill anyone” bit: how the whole thing is directed and edited to appear melancholy and ragged rather than exciting. Apparently people do find it anthemic from time to time, but how anyone could miss the destructively tired quality of the film is beyond me; it’s all steeped with in a knowing sense of desperation brought on by the plight of veterans and the continued tension between counterculture figures and the US moral authority. As the film goes on, we connect with Rambo, but we become increasingly doubtful of his, and our, chances. It is this dark, unnerving sense of desperation which gives the film its affect, and which marks it as wholly different than any future film in the series. It also marks the film, released in 1982, as one of the last gasps of the New Hollywood cinema of the ’70s, on its death throes in the early ’80s and soon to give way to the grander, more upbeat populist filmmaking of the ’80s.
Director Ted Kotcheff wasn’t of the American New Wave, but his films knew a similar sort of grubby nihilism (his recently recovered masterpiece Wake in Fright is a devilish delight most foul). And he does quite a bit to elevate the material here, not breaking down the walls of storytelling and unleashing a flood of deconstructive brilliance or anything, but more certainly setting up a terse, tense, grimy world for his characters and telling the story with the kind of supremely confident, near-minimalistic efficiency often lost in action filmmaking from this decade (or any). It all feels very lived-in and sweaty in the best possible way, giving it a physicality lacking in just about every other ’80s action film starring Sly (good here, incidentally, as a soulful, wayward man turned into a meat-husk, and much better than he has any right to be).
The whole film is so obviously a commentary on the plight of Vietnam War veterans that it does itself no favors by calling attention to its very obviousness late in the film. The last twenty minutes have Stallone say what was felt throughout the film, transforming characterization and feeling via action to characterization via proselytizing. The film works because it never lets us doubt its commitment to its craft, but in these late moments, it loses confidence and feels the need to speak what the film had already conveyed more implicitly. Nothing in these late bits works as well as the early images of Rambo in a moral and emotional American jungle as the hunted becomes the hunter. This is a tough film of grueling stunts and pure momentum, not great cinema, but simple, efficient storytelling. It’s grimy and manhandled, with an undercurrent of woe that approximates depth even when the script doesn’t quite back it up. We feel the commentary in all this simplicity, and it is when it honors this simplicity that it works, not when it tries to be something more.