Friday, January 30, 2015

not in the ladies' room

Current Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox has a connection to Top Gun; she was the inspiration for Charlotte "Charlie" Blackwood. At the time, she had been dispatched to TOPGUN as a civilian employee of the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA). Her call sign was "Legs."

Like her big screen counterpart, Legs does frequent the Officer's Club. Unlike her big screen counterpart, she does not get involved with aviators. Commander Harry Hunter, who worked in the same office she did, is quoted, "She's so professional that her looks don't become a point of interest. When she walks in you say 'wow,' but 30 seconds later you're talking business" (Richman, 1985). When she goes to the Officer's Club and has a conversation with an aviator, it's generally about business. Lieutenant Linda Speed, an administrative officer at TOPGUN at the time, theorizes, "These guys compartmentalize their lives... Flying is in one box. Women and dating are in another. Sometimes it's hard for them to put work and women in one box" (ibid). Richman argues, "The atmosphere at TOPGUN is so masculine that when Fox walks over on business, the guards sometimes ask whether she's there to pick up her husband's check" (ibid). I, of course, discussed the intense masculinity at TOPGUN yesterday.

By the way, Legs' job wasn't working with the pilots as much as the RIOs (i.e. Goose or Slider, not Maverick or Iceman). She was a specialist in Maritime Air Superiority (i.e. establishing a perimeter around an Aircraft Carrier).

As of December 2013, Christine Fox became the highest ranking woman to serve in the Defense Department--Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense.

As for the character inspired by Legs, the love interest--because, of course, there had to be one--was, according to Richman's piece, going to be a groupie or a gymnast--McGillis was even sent a script that had her character as a gymnast--before the Admiral the production was working with told them about Legs. While Legs was a mathematician, Charlie is an astrophysicist. Charlie deals with the pilots... though, to be fair, we do not actually see her doing much instructing.

Really, she should stay away from the pilots if she's going to be attracted to mavericks like Maverick. She's right to tell him that she cannot announce to the class that she sees "real genius" in his flying...

But, maybe Charlie isn't the problem. Maybe Maverick just cannot compartmentalize as Speed theorizes the TOPGUN aviators do. For Maverick, the pursuit is the pursuit, the target the target. He barely hesitates before telling Viper that his name will be on that plaque... though he does hesitate before admitting that that was arrogant. I mean, this is a guy who goes to his teacher's house (which, yeah, does seem like a date, so some standards are out the window) and wants to take a shower.

That "date" is on right now and I just noticed, Charlie is playing into his need to pursue. He rings the doorbell and she stays right where she is, reading a newspaper and munching on vegetables, makes him come around to the side of the house and find the open door. She's almost deliberately giving him the power even as she's manipulating him into doing what she wants. While she's a smart and powerful woman, I would have to argue that this film does not present her in a pro-feminist light. Going for the younger guy, who is also her student--not a great example... unless we take a definition of feminism that defies societal standards regarding age and the teach/student relationship because love is more important. But then, you consider the end of the movie, the implication that Charlie came back from her job in Washington to be with Maverick--is a good government job a violation of feminist ideals? I don't think so.

Christine "Legs" Fox was the only woman working in the field for the CNA. Now, she's the highest ranking woman in the Defense Department. I think they could have played Charlie a little closer to the real thing and give young girls something to idealize in this movie alongside the boys. You know, instead of Charlie, who cribs Carole's request to "take me to be or lose me forever." Meg Ryan plays that line cute. Kelly McGillis plays it... somewhere between desperate and meaningless. It's an emotionless echo of a great moment between Carole and Goose. And, it makes it seem as if Charlie is purposefully trying to be less of an adult and more of an irresponsible young woman.

Works Cited

Richman, A. (1985, August 5). Air warfare expert Christine Fox--fighter pilots call her "Legs"--inspires the new movie Top Gun. People, 24(6). Retrieved from,,20091443,00.html

i want some butts

On March 3, 1969 the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. Its purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to insure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world.

They succeeded.

Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School. The flyers call it:

Top Gun

Well, first let’s nitpick. They actually call it Topgun. And, if the problem was too many pilots dying—as they mention in this film, shouldn’t you be putting, you know, every pilot through this schooling? It’s like some anti-Marxist, Protestant work ethic, pro-capitalist conspiracy—take the best, make ‘em even better.

Kinda sums up a great deal of the 1980s in America, actually. Look at Wall Street (or Wall Street), for example—a small bunch of guys trading all the money and getting rich off of everyone else. Greed is good and all that. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer while we’ve got our Navy boys patrolling the Indian Ocean because... reasons.

Anyway, I covered yesterday how this film worked quite effectively as a recruitment tool for the Navy (and probably the Air Force, as well, because the hormonal boys in the audience probably just saw planes and ran to the nearest recruitment center that had some). The question today, then, is if this movie is so pro-military, and young boys responded to it immensely, why is does it seem so, well, gay?

From locker room scenes to beach volleyball to the occasional bit of verbal innuendo (which I will try to mention as they come up), Top Gun could also function as a recruitment tool for the supposed homosexual conspiracy. And, I’m not trying to channel Quentin Tarantino here—hell, in that scene in Sleep with Me, Tarantino misquotes the final exchange between Iceman and Maverick anyway, taking it a bit too far with them talking about riding each other’s tails. The movie is about being a wingman, and so is that exchange. But, Tarantino makes some good points.

There is a lot of manflesh on display in this movie. For practical and realistic purposes, this movie has to be populated almost completely by men. That’s just the reality of the Fighter Weapons School in 1986.

Speaking of homoerotic innuendo, during the first lecture we see, Wolfman says, “This is giving me a hard-on.” Hollywood’s response: “Don’t tease me.” Nope, no implication of anything but a wholesome man-on-man relationship there... and, by wholesome I mean a strict friendship.

(By the way, one of the articles I looked at today—Braswell (2014)—makes the mistake of thinking the movie calls Goose Maverick’s “rear.” That is, in fact, a misheard innuendo. Goose is Maverick’s RIO (radar intercept officer).)

In that same initial lecture scene, take a look at how Iceman and Slider are sitting. A little close...

(On a literal level, there is, of course, no reason Iceman and Slider cannot actually be homosexual lovers as well as pilots, but I’m guessing the Navy would not let them fly in the same cockpit if they were... and it just occurred to me how sexist the word cockpit is.)

Right after this, Iceman, of course, comments on the big gender issue on display here when he says, “The plaque for the alternates is down in the ladies’ room.” Effectively, if you’re not the best, you might as well be a woman.

And, check out Goose and Maverick at the bar.

And, Sundown and... not sure which pilot that is. On the left, below.

It’s a common movie thing that two people having a conversation will often stand closer together than they really would in reality. But, some of the scenes in this film take it a little... well, not farther, but closer. Case in point the locker room exchange in which Iceman calls Maverick dangerous and Maverick pretty much takes it as a compliment.

Speaking of that bar, what is this movie telling us about gender when the pilots—all male—are there just to pick up women and our hero and his RIO actually make a bet about it. $20 if Maverick has carnal relations—”with a lady this time” because accidental homosexual sex is a punchline here—with a woman on the premises. He’s not looking for love or even a one night stand; he’s looking for sex right here, right now.

But, the next day he tells Charlie about how he was inverted on top of a male MiG pilot. He really knows how to turn on a girl. Well, she may be attracted to homosexual men, but Maverick really has no way to know that.

“He’s on his tail, coming hard.”

Does “Hard deck my ass” count?

“I want somebody’s butt, I want it now...” and the title for today’s entry.

This movie engages quite readily in promoting heteronormativity as well—Charlie (nevermind that her callsign disguises her gender) quits her job to be with her man... but then he quits (and gets rehired) to be with his. There goes that heteronormativity.

Braswell (2014) explains away some of the flesh on display here—he cites the involvement of producer Bruckheimer, whose earlier films included American Gigolo and Flashdance; Bruckheimer “was no stranger to making erotic, highly suggestive movies designed to appeal to younger audiences,” Braswell argues. Braswell quotes critic David Denby on director Tony Scott, saying he “fetishizes whatever he shoots.”

Then, there’s the volleyball scene.

Gittell (2013) mistakenly says the volleyball scene involves pats on the butt. It does not. As we see in at least one other scene (I’m pretty sure) Goose and Maverick have their own version of a high five which swings right down into a low five. They are hitting each other’s hands twice, not dropping from a high five to each other’s butts. Whatever the content, all those shirtless men in the sand serves as foreplay to dinner at Charlie’s house. Except, this time there’s no consummation. In that Tarantino scene, he mentions how the next scene is the elevator scene, in which Charlie has a hat on and looks a little less like a woman. Thing is, that wasn’t planned. The scene was filmed after the movie was “finished” and McGillis’ hair had changed, so they hid it. Cruise has also changed his hair some, which is why he’s just out of the shower in that scene, to hide the change.

Insert some pause time, and now another locker room scene. And, have I mentioned how people are almost constantly wet in this movie? Fresh from a shower or drenched in sweat, the manflesh is so very wet and glistening. And, the locker room scenes remind me of this Calvin Klein ad from 1982:

In the world of the homosexual conspiracy of Top Gun, I wonder what it means that Iceman’s “jet wash” is what leads to Goose’s death. Or that Maverick cradles a dead (or dying) Goose in his arms, and that leads to Maverick giving up on, well, being a man. He quits Topgun, which means his name goes on that plaque in the ladies’ room.

When Viper comes in to—well, I wouldn’t call it console—tell Maverick to get over Goose’s death, Maverick is in his underwear, and he’s shaving. Given all the hairless, shiny bodies on display in this film, I’m guessing he was shaving his chest right then, not his face.

And Wolfman gets a hard-on again, when the final battle gets underway. Because being a manly is exciting. Being manly is inherently sexualized.

In the end, Maverick learns to be a better wingman and he and Iceman embrace and all is well with the homoerotic world of Naval aviators.

Then, there’s the tacked-on ending in which Charlie shows up to be with Maverick again.

By sublimating young males’ hormone-induced sexual interests into an interest in military combat—by manipulating both the urge to be like these men and to be with these men—Top Gun twists an uncontrollable piece of a young man’s life into an urge for some serious control, flying a multi-million dollar aircraft while shooting down the bad guy. The competition between Maverick and Iceman may amount to a “taut, heated contest of eyefuckery and pursed-lipped looks of desire” (TK, 2013) but in the end, both turn out to be one and the same.

And, the very last shot before the end credits roll (after the initial cast credits, though): two fighter jets flying off into the sunset together. Iceman and Maverick perhaps?

Works Cited

Braswell, S. (2014, June 7). How gay is ‘Top Gun’ really? Ozy. Retrieved from

Gittell, N. (2013, February 12). Why the homoeroticism in “Top Gun” matters [blog post]. Reel Change: a blog about movies and politics. Retrieved from

TK. (2013, February 7). Top Gun review: One of life’s simple joys is playing with the boys. Pajiba. Retrieved from

Thursday, January 29, 2015

a lot more than just fancy flying

Let's talk about war. Let's talk about America. As if those were two different topics.

I don't know if Rambo had an effect on military recruitment, but Top Gun definitely did. Enlistment spiked after Top Gun was released--BLANK estimates BLAH BLAH--and recruitment tables were even set up outside movie theaters to answer inquiries from young men who had just seen a feature-length, blockbuster commercial for the Navy. The Washington Post reports:

During production, the Pentagon worked hand-in-hand with the filmmakers, reportedly charging Paramount Pictures just $1.8 million for the use of its warplanes and aircraft carriers. But that taxpayer-subsidized discount came at a price--the filmmakers were required to submit their script to Pentagon brass for meticulous line edits aimed at casing the military in the most positive light. (Sirota, 2011, August 26)

Salon--same author, actually--quotes "public relations expert" Nancy Snow: "Propaganda is most effective when it is least noticeable... In an open society, such as the United States, the hidden and integrated nature of the propaganda best convinces people they are not being manipulated" (quoted in Sirota, 2011, March 15). This Salon piece grabbed my attention right away because I could relate. Here's the opening paragraph:

Let's be completely clear: I did not consciously know I was a devout militarist in 1988 at the young, impressionable age of 12. When I ordered my G.I. Joe Snowcat tank to indiscriminately fire one of its six missiles at the Cobra soldiers who so often held my LEGO city hostage, I didn't think that if this were real, it would probably leave a smoldering pile of blood and limbs and innocent victims. All I thought was: Awesome!

Other than I don't think I had an entire LEGO city--because I wouldn't have enough LEGO blocks for something that big until I was an adult--that paragraph fits me to a T. I had that Snowcat, even.

One more bit from Sirota (2011, March 15) before I move on from him; he also quotes (from a Variety piece in 1994) "the Pentagon's official Hollywood liaison"--

And I've already got to interrupt, actually, because just the idea that the Pentagon had... has an official Hollywood liaison should bother us. A good portion of our country gets offended when Seth Rogen compares--

(and let's be more honest than he was afterward; he was totally comparing them)

--Clint Eastwood's Oscar-nominated American Sniper to the propaganda film seen in Inglourious Basterds, but do they bat an eye at the idea that the Pentagon probably had some level of script approval on that film, too. Just gotta remember, it's not propaganda if it's our propaganda. Then, it's just good ol' fashion entertainment. Top Gun is not a big-budget advertisement for the Navy just because it's budget was effectively subsidized in part by the Pentagon, which gets it money from hardworking American's wallets... American's who's sons and daughters run off to join up after watching Maverick and Goose and Iceman and Hollywood fight the bad guys. Hell, it's actually vital that we not know who pilots the MiGs in this movie. The faceless enemy--that's the best propaganda we've got, because the faceless enemy is so damn easy to hate and to fear and to want beaten in a firefight. I'm reminded of Fiske (2002). "People typically seek other people who are similar to themselves being comfortable with others they perceive as members of their own in-group," Fiske writes. "From comfort follows, at best, neglect of people from out-groups and, at worst, murderous hostility toward out-groups perceived as threatening the in-group" (p. 123). The point is that we so instinctively seek out those similar to us that not avoiding those different seems unnatural and is virtually impossible under normal circumstances. Sure, it's often the strange and exotic foreigner that we avoid (read: fear and hate and probably wouldn't mind a bit of our military venturing around the world to kill). But, the unknown... And I swear that, for nearly 30 years I have simply assumed the MiGs were supposed to have Russian pilots in this movie; that's how exactly so much of the Military-Entertainment Complex propaganda of the 1980s had me brainwashed. Our Cold War enemy was Russia. Maybe we fought in Korea and Vietnam, but ultimately the enemy was Russian. So, this movie could avoid actually, you know, offending Russia and causing a reaction, while having we impressionable audience members just know in our hearts, those are Russians, those are Communists. The unknown can be anybody. More importantly, the unknown can be somebody. It can be exactly who you want (and expect) it to be.

Fiske writes: "People often attribute the out-group's perceived failings to their essence" (p. 125). This is pretty much the opposite of the message at the end of Rocky IV (in theaters only about half a year before Top Gun, mind you), that we can actually change... or rather, that the enemy can change. Our impulse is to assume that whatever is wrong about the enemy is something that cannot be changed, cannot be explained, and certainly cannot be excused. In American Sniper, for example, we don't need to hear that maybe that Iraqi sniper has his own wife and kids at home waiting for him to come back from a mission he probably feels just as righteous about as Chris Kyle feels (in the movie) and felt (in reality) about his mission. We just know that our guy is our guy, so his story is all that matters. I was talking about this today with a fellow grad student, actually, about how remarkable it was that Eastwood, so often very one-sided in his films, made Letters from Iwo Jima. I suggested--though I do not think it would happen--that there was room for Iraqi Sniper here.

Top Gun is not about war, not about the Cold War. There isn't even an antagonist. Maverick manages to be his own worst enemy... which is actually an amazing detail for an action-oriented film. I mean, Martin Riggs was easily his own worst enemy, but his movie still had an antagonist, so that Riggs' destructive prowess could be targeted outside himself and in nice, neat Hollywood style, that would miraculously cure his depression. John Rambo is not so obviously his own worst enemy; he has real reason to complain. But, for a guy content to stay in prison because, "At least in here, I know where I stand," he quite readily turns his... rage and bitterness outward. Hell, unlike Riggs, Rambo doesn't even get better in the end. The fact that he attacks Murdock like he does is proof that killing all those Communists did not satiate his rage. Riggs and Rambo have external foes to help them focus. Maverick does not... until after he gets over his shit. The climax for the audience may be the dogfight with the MiGs, but Maverick's climax comes earlier--

(And, I don't mean while "Take My Breath Away" is playing.)

His ability to stick with his wingman in that dogfight is not him learning to play well with others, it is proof that he already has. His struggle is internal, and it is still promoting the military because that is the place Maverick gets to show his stuff and be a man. But I digress.

The movie is about to end, so...

Where was I? Ah, quoting the Pentagon's official Hollywood liaison, Phil Strub. "The main criteria we use" to approve a film for support is "how could the proposed production benefit the military... could it help in recruiting [and] is it in sync with present policy?" (quoted in Sirota, 2011, March 15). And, as I type that, I look up and the end credits are rolling and I see:




And, that's a good way to end. Thank the Navy for Top Gun, top notch entertainment that lets us know how we can be awesome.

Works Cited

Fiske, S.T. (2002). What we know now about bias and intergroup conflict, the problem of the century. Current Directions in Psychological Science 11(4), 123-128.

Sirota, D. (2011, March 15). How the '80s programmed us for war. Salon. Retrieved from

Sirota, D. (2011, August 26). 25 years later, how 'Top Gun' made America love war. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

we're gonna have a good time

I don't know how accurate this is, but my Media Theory teacher told us last week (a fellow grad student talked about this movie for his presentation) that Top Gun was the first movie to really play entire songs like this opening bit with "Danger Zone" and the aircraft carrier montage. Seems not quite right, since the song trails off just like many a movie song. They do keep coming back to it, though.

Yes, to cap off the 80s action movie month, I'm going to enjoy me some Top Gun. Simpson and Bruckheimer before they got too big.

It's day one, so I'll let the movie just play for a bit. Haven't watched this movie in a long time.

One immediate response: it's remarkable how little the film is explaining about what's going on. We're just there in the air with these pilots with their lingo (though the film, apparently, misuses "bogey") and their call signs.

Since it's day one, I'm also looking at the box office, figuring out what my movie context for this was. I'm in the fifth grade when this movie came out. And, there weren't a lot of movies in first run theaters I was probably seeing that month, May 1986. Top Gun was # 1 it's opening weekend. We surely saw it that weekend. Short Circuit was #2, but I didn't see that in the theater. Don't recognize the titles for #3 or #4--Sweet Liberty and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, respectively. Fire with Fire, #5--I'd see that on video at some point. The Money Pit was #6. Pretty sure I saw that in the theater, but that was probably early in its run and this was it's 8th weekend. Same goes for Police Academy 3: Back in Training, # 7 in its 9th weekend. No Retreat, No Surrender, #8 in its second weekend--I would see that later on cable or video. Critters at #9 - video. Blue City at #10 and Wise Guys at #11--don't think I've ever seen either one.

Gotta interrupt this box office business to point out, this movie might be where I learned that giving someone the bird was called giving someone the bird." Which, I don't think I have ever done while inverted, piloting a plane or otherwise. I did once grab my sister's middle finger when she gave me the bird and threatened to hold onto it until we got home. I think that may have happened in a movie theater, but I can't recall what movie we were seeing.

Pretty in Pink at #12 in its12th weekend--don't remember if I saw that in the theater. Gung Ho at #13 in its tenth weekend--that one I definitely saw in the theater, probably its opening weekend.

(And, I just got sidetracked looking at pages from the Los Angeles Times Calendar section for the Friday Top Gun came out. I was curious what movies were at the Academy that weekend. The Academy has been a second run theater since June 1984, and we went there often, but I cannot see that theater listed in the Calendar.)

And then, I'm just here, watching the movie.

(In the meantime, another Top Gun-related anecdote: we were playing pictionary one time, at the dining room table, and "Great Balls of Fire" is the thing to guess. Thing is--and I don't know if I've ever talked about this side of it with my family--at school we'd taken to singing that song, but because we were pre- or adolescent boys, and we thought it was so clever to change the lyrics to "my balls are on fire." We sang "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" from time to time as well, sang it on the school bus once... but that was actually a few years later, I think. But, I digress from the punchline of the story. So, my sister is drawing; there's a ball, and it's on fire, and I know it's that song, and the words aren't coming to me, and then suddenly, epiphany. I blurt out, "Goodness gracious, my balls are on fire!" And, many laughs were had. And, I can't remember, but we better have gotten the point.)

It amuses me that this movie never really deals with the consequences of these dogfights with Russian MiGs. (Note: I'm not sure the movie ever actually says they're Russian.) I mean, an open fight like the one on my screen right now--that's potential for war... maybe.

Anyway, this bonus movie (only six days) ought to be fun.

Monday, January 26, 2015

wasn't my war, colonel. just cleaning up the mess.

Watching Rambo: First Blood Part II for the last time--I like to toy with the idea that after watching any of these movies for multiple days I will retire them from my viewing repertoire--it strikes me that I haven't had much that was actually negative to say about this film. Sure, it represents an attempt to rebuild American hegemony symbolically, and a manipulation to reconstruct the myth of Vietnam, but it's just so damn fun.

So, I figured I'd end this week of Rambo by looking backward, see where Rambo came from. I've mentioned David Morrell, author of the novel First Blood. I've even talked here and there about differences between book Rambo and movie Rambo. But, why does Rambo even exist?

Wilder (1990) presents us with a story--I'll just provide the beginning of it:

A young boy is raised in a patriotic Christian culture to love god and country; to believe "Thou shalt not kill." At the age of 18, not yet old enough to drink or vote, he is given a "choice": go fight in an unpopular war very far away, openly resist and face imprisonment, or leave the country in exile. Unable by virtue of social class, he enlists and begins a basic training calculated to override his lifetime of values and make him into a killer. He is then sent half way around the world alone, without a support group, on a one year tour of duty in a situation so horrifying he will never be able to truly share the experience with those who did not participate. He is thrust into a war, where he does not know who the enemy is, where the lines of battle are, or what the objectives may be, because the enemy is everywhere, the lines do not exist, and the objectives are hopeless. (p. 198)

To continue that story, after being trained to kill, he kills. In some circumstances, he does worse. But, we don't win this war and when he comes home, he finds himself shunned, spit on... Let's let Rambo tell it (from First Blood):

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! But somebody wouldn't let us win! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me? Who are they? Unless they've been me and been there and know what the hell they're yelling about!

Or, maybe that never happened...

Maybe that is more revisionism. More of Anderson's (2013) rewriting of American myth. Sure, we lost, but maybe that loss doesn't really mean anything unless a) we get to blame someone, i.e. the hippies and b) we get to really turn them into assholes. Reality doesn't matter when we can rewrite the story, rewrite the myth. Were vets treated badly? Sure. Were there hippies waiting in every airport and bus station to spit on them? No. But, there were not Communists hiding all over the country, either, but we ran with the story for a while, too. What matters is the narrative. And the narrative said, boy goes to war, boy is damaged, boy returns to be shunned.

Another part of the story is like it is with Rambo--boy goes to war before he's probably held down a regular job, maybe before he's been with a girl (let's just assume heteronormativity for the moment; Americans certainly assumed it at the time... or we can add "or a boy" at the end of this sentence). He's trained to kill, "to destroy the village to save it" (Wilder, 1990, p. 198). And then he comes back home. Maybe he's not damaged, but he's also not particularly skilled. And, he's competing with boys who weren't drafted, boys who didn't run off to fight the red menace, "Johnny get your gun" and all that. Patriotism and army training can only take you so far when you're back in the real world. Like John Rambo, you can't hold down a job. Like Martin Riggs, like John Matrix, maybe the one thing you were ever good at was killing people.

Shunned or not, you don't fit in anymore. This is who Rambo is.

And, he lives in a world where there is violence both abroad and at home. Morrell puts the initial inspiration for First Blood in a CBS broadcast that showed a firefight in Vietnam and National Guardsmen marching on rioters in an American city. Morrell (1988/2000) writes:

It occurred to me that, if I'd turned off the sound, if I hadn't heard each story's reporter explain what I was watching, I might have thought that both film clips were two aspects of one horror... The juxtaposition made me want to write a novel in which the Vietnam War came home to America. (p. viii).

I'm not sure which firefight or which riot Morrell saw that night, but his story reminds me of the 1968 "police riot" in Chicago, and the "Bring the War Home" pamphlet that brought protesters and dissidents back to Chicago a year later.

Black (2012) argues that, between the police riot and the days of rage, the "antiwar movement, which had potential for 'legitimate protest' before, was becoming a 'youth rebellion'" (p. 29). The "Bring the War Home" pamphlet reframed the idea of Vietnam, of the antiwar movement, of America. Morrell sought to do something of the same... on paper. He writes: "...maybe it was time for a novel that dramatized the philosophical division in our society, that shoved the brutality of the war right under our noses" (Morrell, 1988/2000, p. viii).

His "catalytic character" was Rambo, no first name (in the novel), a man "embittered by civilian indifference and sometimes hostility toward the sacrifice he made for his country" (ibid). The name came from the convergence of poet Rimbaud (who Morrell was reading at the time for a graduate school French class) and Rambo apples his wife brought home from the store. "A French author's name and the name of an apple collided, and I recognized the sound of force," Morrell writes (p. ix). He cites an incident in a "southwestern American town" in which a group of hippies were "picked up by local police, stripped, hosed, and shaved... and driven to a desert road, where they were abandoned to walk to the next town, thirty miles away" (ibid).

It took ten years for the novel to make it to the screen because of "the mood of the seventies." Morrell explains:

America's involvement in Vietnam had ended badly, and feelings about the war were bitter. The few films that referred to Vietnam (Coming Home, for example)) reflected that attitude. Then came the eighties. Ronald Reagan was president. He promised to make America feel optimistic again. The defeat in Vietnam seemed far behind. (p. xi)

Morrell's ending, with both Rambo and Teasle dead, was left behind. Too depressing. There had to be a winner, even if Rambo did end up in prison over it.

A few years later, Rambo would be set loose in Vietnam. Morrell had nothing to do with that story, but because of a contractual detail, he got first dibs on writing the novelization. He also wrote the novelization for Rambo III. The original novel had made it into classrooms, onto reading lists. The controversy and violence in the sequels pulled it out, off. But, Morrell doesn't object to the films. "Their level of action is nowhere as extreme as current examples of the genre" (p. xiii, and I assume this line is from the 2000 rewrite), he says. "Politics aside, they're a lot like westerns or Tarzan films..." (ibid).

Let's not get started on those racist, colonialist, patriarchal, anglocentric stories. Instead, Rambo.

Morrell doesn't object to where his creation went over the decades since First Blood was published. So, I don't see why I necessarily should, either.

He compares the book and the movies to two trains, "similar but headed in different directions" (p. xiv). Finally, he compares Rambo to "a son who grew up and out of his father's control" (ibid). Morrell's son. America's son. He's still family, no matter how many foreigners he's killed over the years. When the fifth Rambo movie comes out--currently, it's going under the title of Last Blood and there were rumors a few years back of a science fiction turn adapting The Savage Hunter into a Rambo story--I will go see it. Plenty of people will. Probably not as many as saw Rambo: First Blood Part II in theaters. But, enough. And, Rambo's story, far outgrown beyond Morrell's novel, will come to an end.

Until any of us rewatch the movies again, of course.

Works Cited

Anderson, M.C. (2013). How to win the Vietnam War: More Rambo. West East Journal of Social Science 2(2), 11-22.

Black, R.E.G. (2012). The solution to violence in the streets: Framing the 1968 Democratic National Convention Police Riot in the National Consciousness. Unpublished manuscript. Department of History, California State University Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California.

Morrell, D. (1988/2000). Rambo and Me [Introduction]. In First Blood (vii-xiv). New York, NY: Grand Central.

Wilder, C. (1990). Wounded warriors and the revisionist myth. In A. Berger (Ed.), Media U.S.A. (197-205). New York, NY: Longman.

do we get to win this time?

Winding down on Rambo--I gotta wonder if there isn't some (probably unconscious) juxtaposition between the prison at the beginning of the film, working the rock quarry, and the traveling POW camp group, working those prisoners harvesting crops. An enslaved group working the fields--no, that couldn't be worth exploring.

There are always topics left behind when limited to a week. Hell, I've still got things to say about Groundhog Day and I've watched that somewhere around 400 times (and will be watching it again a week from tomorrow). There is an implicit homoeroticism in how the camera loves Rambo's body (or John Matrix's body last week, John McClane's the week before, Martin Riggs' the week before that), but I've left that topic as maybe an occasional aside. I haven't written about how rude Rambo is to Ericson (Martin Kove), who seems genuinely excited to meet him. Lifer, on the other hand, is a bit of a dick. There's some room for a discussion about Buddhism--not just because of the ruined temple seen in the jungle. And, more. The line "Did not expect woman, no?" deserves a series of entries on its own.

Today, though, James Cameron's script--First Blood II: The Mission. Generally, it plays a lot like the movie. There's a bit more setup before the mission gets going, there's a sidekick, and Rambo has no bow--which I think is actually quite significant--and the ending plays a little differently (but only a little differently). Cameron's usual line about how the script changed once Stallone took over writing, is that he wrote the violence and Stallone wrote the politics. Most of the politics comes right out of Cameron's draft, though. The basic plot is the same, revolving around the existence of POWs still in Vietnam. Now, what is missing is what is Rambo's big line at the end of the movie--

I want what they want and every other guy that spilt his guts and gave everything he had wants: for our country to love us as much as we love it.

--which arguably puts a big exclamation mark on the political message. Instead, at the VA Hospital (Rambo is retrieved from the "Neuropsychiatric Wing" of a hospital instead of prison. He's kept in a cell "that hasn't been used since the Spanish Inquisition" according to Doctor Singleterry, who also has a tranquilizer gun at the ready whenever he opens Rambo's door.), Trautman asks Rambo what he wanted (instead of his various military awards). Rambo replies, "haltingly":

I just wanted... I don't know... after all that... I just wanted one person, one person, to come up to me and say "you did good, John." And mean it. That's all. (pause) After all that. (Cameron, 1983, p. 6)

Trautman's priceless response (because Cameron wasn't writing politics): "You just picked the wrong war to be a hero in." Rambo's conversation with Co about the "quiet war" at home is not in Cameron's draft, either, though, so I suppose Stallone did play up the politics a little from what was already there.

There's an interesting moment early in the script, just before Rambo leaves the hospital. All his belongings fit in a shoebox. The last thing he does before he leaves is dump the contents into the toilet and flush. Effectively, he leaves behind who he was before. This is just the first baptism in this story (in this script or the final one).

Then, there's Brewer. The sidekick. While his presence makes the first act a little more interesting, once they make the jump into Vietnam, he is superfluous. Ultimately, he serves very little purpose and I see why he was cut by Stallone. He was supposedly going to be played by John Travolta and there's an amusing meet-cute for he and Rambo accidentally sharing a taxi in Bangkok, but that's not enough to be worth including him.

Cameron's Rambo, like John Matrix (who really didn't need it), uses greasepaint to camouflage his face and hands. Cameron describes him, "dressed for the mission: tiger stripe cammies, jump pack, chute pack, hands and face mottled with camouflage greasepaint. Ferocious looking. Demonic" (p. 26). Rambo also darkens his knife blade by burning it over a candle, which... I don't know if that's a thing military guys actually do on covert ops, but it sounds cool.

As for Rambo's weapons, instead of being saddled with a pack of high-tech gear that he is forced by plot contrivance to drop someplace in the jungle, Brewer carries the extra stuff and remarks to Rambo, "Where's your stuff?" His small pack has some C-4, a map and a knife. Smartass Rambo quips, "There's a compass in the handle." He's also got a "beat-to-shit AK" and a crossbow pistol. (When he first finds the POWs, there's a Christ-Figure moment--

Rambo stands a few feet from them as if giving a benediction, the crossbow raised in one hand. (p. 53)

--proving that, yes, a bow works as a cross.) Rambo is not yet half Navajo--that's in Stallone's draft--so there is no larger bow, there to evoke the American frontier... but reversed. Anderson (2013) compares the settings of First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III to the American frontier myth. The backward savages who occasionally kidnap our people are no longer the Native Americans. On his website, David Morrell compares Rambo in the second film to a cowboy. That comparison is certainly invited by the story--this is American myth building, the rewriting of history to change a bad ending (our losing in Vietnam) into a good one. At the end of First Blood, Rambo tells Trautman," Somebody wouldn't let us win." That somebody is the liberals, the half the country soft on Communism, the hippies, and whatever Teasle and his people initially thought of Rambo, he is far from a hippie. Rambo is the conservative half the country who blamed the liberals for our loss and now it was time to fix that. The conservative Reagan years--our military didn't lose. And it didn't leave anybody behind. "Rambo gets America," Anderson writes (p. 21). Per my cultural artifact speech in 2009, Rambo is America.

But, back to Cameron.

Getting back to that "Did not expect woman, no?" line, there this bit about Co's name. She tells Brewer (after Rambo introduces her), "It means 'virgin.' My mother was comedian" (p. 39). Thing is, I can't find any evidence online that Co means "virgin." In Vietnamese, Co means either aunt/madame, or have/exist/hold/possess. I'm just going by Google Translate and a Vietnamese name guide, so if someone reading this speaks the language and I'm wrong, let me know, please. In Cameron's script, Co's full name is Co Phuong Bao. Phuong means direction/way and Bao means protection/security. So, on the one hand, Cameron has named her, essentially, madame guide and protector, which is nice... except for that virgin problem. Rambo's named (in part) after an apple (more on that, probably, tomorrow), so maybe Co gets the better deal, a more interesting name. Nevermind the sexist presumptions involved.

Continuing on that track, Co is initially described in Cameron's script as being "absolutely beautiful, with wide, calm eyes and strong but sensuous mouth" (p. 38) and she has "the delicate hands of a child" (p. 39). She is an embodiment of femininity and innocence next to Rambo. When they are on the riverboat, "Rambo watches Co, her face serene in sleep. Childlike. Beautiful" (p. 45). Keep in mind, this is the love interest. In this draft she not only suggests he take her back to America but that they get married. But, she's small; when she holds a .45, "It is enormous in her child's hand" (p. 59). On the one hand, she's hardly a woman. On the other hand, she manages to sneak up on Rambo on page 99, plus she's got a 12-year-old son who lives with her brother (she works for the "spooks" so that her ARVN Captain of a brother could get travel papers) in Huntington Beach, California. She hasn't seen him in 9 years. His father died in the war. She's a virgin on the one hand, small like a child, but also a mother. (Maybe I should have given Rambo the virgin Mary-Figure point, which would actually put him at 26/25.)

"John Wayne is dead, man," Brewer tells Rambo on page 51. But, cowboys clearly are not. In fact, Kirkhill (Murdock in the movie) says, "Rambo's gotta be a hero. Thinks he's starring in his own war movie or something" (p. 70). The only Vietnam War movie to come out during the war was the John Wayne-starring The Green Berets.

The first POW found--the unnamed Banks in the movie--is named David De Fravio in Cameron's script, and he's got some personality to him. He was separated from the other POWs (in "the box" in this draft, hanging on that rack in the movie) because he caught a cobra and put it in the guards' barracks. There's also a nice moment late in the script in which Brewer is trying to explain Star Wars to De Fravio.

(...and there's this guy with a black helmet and cape, right, and he's got this sword... except it's not a sword, it's light... (p. 118)

Cameron's Russian commander, Podovsk (no Y in this draft), has a great line before the torture gets underway. He asks Rambo to provide information and Rambo stares off, ignoring him. Podovsk says, "Of course you won't. But, as a moral man, I felt compelled to ask." It's a nice moment for a character who has little to say otherwise.

To add to the Christ-Figure side of things, Cameron refers to a "godlike shaft of light [that] moves through the brush" behind Rambo on page 85, then the "celestial shaft of the searchlight" on page 86. Rambo is being watched over.

I mentioned the numerous baptisms Rambo undergoes. I mean, going back to the shower at the beginning of First Blood, Rambo is constantly being cleansed... well, I suppose the pool of excrement in this film isn't very cleansing, but visually, his emergence from the pool serves the same purpose. His final baptism in this film comes after the napalm is dropped. Instead of staying above the water, the camera is down below with Rambo. "The napalm on the surface lights the bottom orange despite the daylight. He seems suspended in a fiery maelstrom" (pp. 105-106).

The first part of the ending that plays differently is that Brewer takes out the bigger helicopter. Rambo's piloting skills make it possible, but he only gets the assist; Brewer makes the shot with the minigun on the side of the Huey. Now, since the minigun has been spent, Rambo is left with a much smaller weapon (an AK) when they get back to the base.

But, before they even get to the base, things work a little differently. Kirkhill (Murdock) actually orders Doyle (a mercenary pilot who doesn't make it to the next draft) to shoot down the Huey full of POWs. Murdock doesn't just want to hide their existence, he wants them killed outright. He says,

When the unidentified helicopter has crossed the river into Thailand, shoot it down with air-to-air rockets. Then proceed to the crash site and fire your remaining rockets into the wreckage. (p. 118).

"Mission Accomplished" plays with an AK pointed at Kirkhill's (Murdock's) forehead. Rambo pulls the trigger and it clicks. I would assume that Rambo knows he spent all its bullets on the door lock (he does not take out all the modern equipment with the gun), but I would guess a good portion of the audience could assume Rambo intended to kill Kirkhill (Murdock).

Finally, there is no coda with Trautman talking to Rambo. Instead, Brewer, taking pictures, says they'll be on the cover of Time. De Fravio tells Rambo, walking away, "You did good, buddy. Real good!" And, then this:

Rambo stands blinking for a second. He raises his hand in a big "thumbs up" and allows himself to grin.

Rambo's speech to Trautman may be a bit much, but I prefer the more serious ending to this corny one.

Works Cited

Anderson, M.C. (2013). How to win the Vietnam War: More Rambo. West East Journal of Social Science 2(2), 11-22.

Cameron, J. (1983, December 22). First Blood II: The Mission. Retrieved from

Sunday, January 25, 2015

he's hung up. he'll be torn apart

I can't help it. It's time for a little Kozlovic (2004), but an amended scale. You'll see what I mean, as this gets going.

Start simple: 1. tangible Rambo is definitely this. 2. central Rambo is definitely this. In Cameron's version, he would have had a sidekick of sorts, here he gets Co Bao but not for long. Rambo is definitely the main character here.

Complicate things a bit: 3. outsider Rambo is an outsider in this second film but is even more an outsider in the first (being the hippie-looking drifter), the third (being the white guy among all those Afghan fighters) and the fourth (white guy among Burmese, this time). But, more importantly, John Rambo actually represents an entire class of outsiders, Vietnam vets who came back from war to find the public turned against them.

4. divinely sourced Rambo is merely responding to circumstance in First Blood but here in the second film, he is definitely sourced by someone above him. Kozlovic does not demand the source be literally divine.

4.5. miraculous birth A new category I want to add to the scale, but this is a weird time to include it. Rambo's literal birth is not an element in the films. Bell-Metereau (2010) points out what could be construed as a birthing scene in First Blood; she compares the "slimy tunnel" full of rats to Freuds' vagina dentata--I would suggest this plays a little like Clover's (1992) "terrible place," womb-like. In this film, Rambo emerges (read: is birthed from) the river after his near death and also is pulled up from that pool of excrement. One could make an argument for birth imagery, but they don't qualify for what I'm going for in adding this point. I'm thinking something more like The Beastmaster's birth from a cow. But, this is a bonus point anyway, so it doesn't matter that Rambo doesn't get it... without a stretch.

5. alter ego and 6. special/normal This one applies more to Rambo in First Blood than this film, but I am inclined to take the whole Rambo story into account--and you'll see why later. Rambo starts both First Blood and Rambo: First Blood Part II as a quieter, calmer character and then he is forced to erupt into something else. He is never normal in the story we see, though he does keep his special nature hidden until he needs it. But, taking the whole story into account, John Rambo was once a normal guy. He is not the Punisher, who was shown in the Born comic book miniseries to have been a bit of a crazy, homicidal guy long before his family was slaughtered (his usual origin story).

7. twelve associates Kozlovic does not require that there be twelve, but Rambo should have a usual collection of characters that surround him to get this point. Other than Trautman, no one follows Rambo through more than one story. And, some of the supporting characters in this film, specifically, will fit roles below better than here. So (-1) unless we count Turbo and Kat and White Dragon from Rambo: The Force of Freedom.

Another negative on 8. holy age. (-2)

Now, some more specific roles (and, I should reorder the Kozlovic-Black scale to position these right after the twelve associates). Murdock serves as an obvious 9. judas-figure in this film. I'm not sure Jesus would threaten Judas with physical violence as Rambo does Murdock, though. Outside of this specific film, America serves as the Judas-Figure for Rambo. Warner (1992) tells us,

Rambo's violence is motivated by America's betrayal of the mmory of the men of Baker Troop, now gone, or the demand for love founded in patriotism that closes Rambo: "We just want [sic] our country to love us, as much as we love it." (p. 680)

Co Bao also serves as a clear 10. mary magdalene-figure, with the implicit romance captured in some very brief interactions. There is no 10.5. virgin mary-figure, but that is a category I am adding, not a necessary point. (I am adding 4 points but still want to total out of 25, potentially proving Larsen's (2013) point.) Colonel Trautman is the 11. john the baptist-figure, pointing the way to Rambo and announcing to all how great he is.

12. death and resurrection Rambo is, of course, presumed dead by the Podovsky at the end of the film, before he abruptly sits up and fires that bazooka at Podovsky's helicopter. And, this results in a cheer from the audience--13. triumphalism. Bell-Metereau (2010) suggests that Rambo should be viewed "as a sacrificial rather than a triumphant hero" (p. 41) but I see no problem with him being both. That is kind of the point of a Christ-Figure.

14. service to lessers and 15. willing sacrifice Rambo serves Murdock, who is little more than a bureaucrat and who lies about his own Vietnam service to Rambo then admits to Trautman that Vietnam was not his war. But, more importantly, Rambo serves forgotten POWs and the American people, his betrayers. Us. Within the story, Rambo serves people who cannot help themselves. (Gibson (1991) suggests that the Missing in Action and Rambo films "resuscitate" the "old American figure of the avenging warrior who saves a society that cannot save itself" (p. 389). Outside the story, though, I would argue, Rambo serves us, the American audience. His triumphs and his suffering serve to free us from our guilt. If there were POWs still in Vietnam, surely we would send a real-life Rambo in to get them, so since we have not, there must not be any POWs. We don't have to feel guilty about the possibility of said men being there, forgotten.

15.25. torture Something I think needs to be added. A Christ-Figure may not have the apparent (or literal) death and resurrection but may undergo severe torture, which also suggests a link to Christ. Rambo is definitely tortured, and even positioned appropriately:

McWilliams (1992) asks,

Why this morbid focus on suffering? Why does Stallone do this to himself and to those in the audience who identify with him? The American male, he seems to say, must pay for the softness, the self-indulgence and the lack of resolve which allowed the black male [this piece, mind you, also deals with Rocky's black opponents] to triumph at home and the Vietnamese and the Russian to triumph abroad. (p. 94)

Rambo suffers for American masculinity/hegemony, but he also suffers so that we do not have to (see above, regarding "service to lessers."). Back to (-1)

15.5. stigmata Another one of my additions. John Matrix only real injury in Commando just happens to be in his side. Rambo's biggest injury (in Rambo III, mind you) is to his side. Jeffords (2005), detailing Rambo's torture, writes, "But the best scene is reserved for Rambo III, where a piece of flying shrapnel from an explosion during the prison escape is lodged in Rambo's right side" (p. 151). Walker (1991), while not specifically referring to that injury, describes "the lance that delivers the wound" myth. It is only "when that lance can touch the wound again that the wound can be healed" (p. 8). Walker is referring to the Vietnam War as the lance, and returning to fight the war again--in movies like Uncommon Valor, Missing in Action and Rambo: First Blood Part II--as allowing that wound to heal. But, the reference is notable because Rambo literally suffers such a stigmatic wound in the third film. So, bring us up to an even score.

15.75. atonement Added because of Larsen (2013). McWilliams continues: "Only after full purification and proper atonement can Americans hope to regain their masculinity and recover their natural superiority" (ibid). Read: hegemony. Mortimer (1999), citing Studler and Desser (which I cannot get my hands on), argues that the "POW-Avenger" movies were "part of a conservative shift in American ideology, a manifestation of... a 'will to myth'--a communal need, a cultural drive--for reconstruction of the national past in light of the present..." (p. 146). That is to say, these movies serve to create an extra-textual story that Vietnam was not a failure on our part. We were the underdogs, and victory was possible, if we has just stuck it out a bit longer, like to 1985. Rambo is not just atoning for other vets within the story or for vets outside the story but for all Americans. The character is bigger than his story. A novel, four films (so far), and a cartoon series cannot contain him. (+1)

16. innocence This one is debatable, but Rambo's crimes in First Blood (the film) are presented as justified, if a little extreme. And, here in the second film, he is specifically let off the hook for those crimes, released from prison to go back to Vietnam. His innocence is vital to him being able to kill in our name. Not very Christ-like, but definitely befitting a Christ-Figure.

17. cruciform pose ...

18. cross associations Nothing too obvious, at first. Maybe the bow and arrow. But, then I realized, Rambo was literally hung up on the plane in this film's first act. What shape is a plane?

19. miracles and signs Morag (2009) calls Rambo after Co Bao's death "omnipotent" and a "mud-covered monster." Walker (1991) lists off Rambo's miraculous accomplishments: "...over the course of the films, the character can jump off cliffs, repair his wounds with a fishook and fishing line [no mention of the gun powder?], fight off whole armies with a bow and arrow, and so on" (p. 74). Rambo performs superhuman feats, and has barely any scars to show for it.

20. simplicity Rambo has very little to say, and can easily be characterized by his grunts and his yells more than his few speeches.

21. poverty Rambo is a drifter at the start of First Blood, a prisoner at the start of this second film, and there's also that tunic he fashions for himself in First Blood. The latter qualifies him for 22. jesus garb as well... sort of.

23. blue eyes Nope. Back to an even score.

24. holy exclamations Writing this entry, I actually didn't notice any in the second film. That doesn't mean there aren't any. Plus, in the first film, there is this exchange: "Will, it's Rambo! He's still alive!" "Jesus Christ!"

25. j.c. initials I desperately want Rambo to get this one. If only his middle name were, say, Charles instead of James. Really, I think the J alone qualifies. So many cinematic heroes with J names. John Matrix. John Rambo. John McClane... Stallone has played Jack Carter, Joe Tanto, Jake Malloy, Judge Joseph Dredd, John Spartan. Willis has played Joe Colton, Old Joe, Jimmy, Jack Mosley, Jeff Talley, Jimmy Tudeski, Joe Blake, John Smith, James Cole (a definite Christ-Figure in Twelve Monkeys), Joe Hallenbeck, and James Urbanski (which is such a generic movie name). Schwarzenegger has played John Wharton, Jericho Cane (a definite Christ-Figure in End of Days), John Kruger, Jack Slater, John Kimble... and he's both tried to kill and saved John Connor. Either every screenwriter is just not that creative, or they want many a hero to evoke Biblical names, especially the good New Testament name John. I am inclined to give Rambo this one, which means a perfect score. (25/25)

Works Cited

Bell-Metereau, R. (2010). Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger: Androgynous Macho Men. In R. Eberwein (Ed.), Acting for America: Movie Stars of the 1980s (36-56). Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Clover, C.J. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gibson, J.W. (1991). The return of Rambo: War and culture in the post-Vietnam era. In A. Wolfe (Ed.), America at Century's End (pages unknown... I've only got a photocopy of a single page, unfortunately).

Jeffords, S. (1994). The Reagan hero: Rambo. In R. Eberwein (Ed.), The War Film (140-154). Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Kozlovic, A.K. (2004). The structural characteristics of the cinematic Christ-Figure. Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 8. Retrieved from

Larsen, J. (2013, June 18). Man of Steel and the tiredness of Christ Figures. think CHRISTIAN. Retrieved from

Morag, R. (2009). Defeated Masculinity: Post-Traumatic Cinema in the Aftermath of War. Brussels, Belgium: P.I.E. Peter Lang.

Mortimer, B. (1999). Hollywood Frontier Captives: Cultural Anxiety and the Captivity Plot in American Film. New York, NY: Garland.

Walker, M. (1991). Vietnam War Films. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow.

Warner, W. (1992). Spectacular action: Rambo and the popular pleasures of pain. In L. Grossberg, C. Nelson & P. Treichler (Eds.), Cultural Studies (672-688). New York, NY: Routledge.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

it was just supposed to be another assignment

Reported in 1987 (so, in regards to Rambo III) in Forbes:

Stallone was so shocked by the negative critical and listless box office reception for his latest movie, Over the Top, that he is rewriting the next Rambo to be more philosophical, in the vein of Oscar winner Platoon. Such talk elicits quick denials from Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar, the industry veterans who own 87% of Carolco. They insist that Stallone cannot turn the movie into a talky-thinky film punctuated with a little machine gun fire. "Rambo is an action/adventure film, so if you take out the action," says Vajna, "you don't have a film." (p. 88)

Reading this now, I find it actually more interesting than when I referenced this passage in one of my Rambo speeches back in 2009. See, now I've seen some of James Cameron's comments on the script for the second film. I haven't seen the draft [edit: just as I was about to post this entry, I found Cameron's draft online, so I will read it ASAP], but Cameron claims his was oriented less on action and more on character. His approach, he tells the Hollywood Reporter in 1986, "was a lot heavier, a lot more character. ... I thought it was much more interesting to kind of explore this traumatized character" (Quoted at James Cameron Online). More interesting than what he calls a "superhero-type quality" the final film has.

Stallone shifted the film more toward action. Which is fine, because, yes, this is an action film. Over the Top, on the other hand, presents itself as an action film, but contains--from what I can remember--no real action. Arm wrestling is not action, not cinematic action, anyway. Still, that film got a line of toys just as Rambo did.

Yes, those are action figures who arm wrestle. No Over the Top cartoon, though. The Rambo cartoon is an... amazing thing to see, by the way. For, you know, reasons, Rambo goes on missions shirtless because that is the Rambo the kids know. Still, black pants and no shirt is better than Chuck Norris fared in his cartoon miniseries, Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos. And, the show's writers could never reference Rambo's Vietnam past or POWs, and they could certainly never even hint at the violence against police officers in Hope, Washington (Madison, Kentucky in the novel, but why bother referencing the novel at all while dealing with the cartoon? At the end of the novel--SPOILERS for a 40+ -year-old book--Rambo dies.). Rambo had to be toned down so much that fans of the movies (or novel) wouldn't like it. But, it still had the stink of being directly associated with the movie character so plenty on the opposite end of the spectrum wouldn't like it either.

A cartoon is not what John Rambo is supposed to be.

Whether pro-war or anti-war, Rambo is violent, too violent for a children's cartoon. He's supposed to be innately dangerous, disturbed. Rambo in Morrell's (1972) novel is unstable, a man who would "show a fight to anyone who pushed him" (p. 276). At old FAQ that doesn't seem to be there but I've got a printout from 2009--Morrell called the character from his novel "angry, burned-out, and filled with self-disgust because Rambo hates what he is and yet knows it's the only thing he does well." (He's actually referring to Stallone's portrayal of the character in the fourth film in comparison with the character in the novel.)

On a current page at Morrell's website, Morrell says,

Sly phoned me before making the [fourth] movie and said that in retrospect he didn't care for the second and third films because they glorified the violence. [Gotta interrupt to point out that after making the fourth Rambo, Stallone has gone on to make the three Expendables films, which certainly glorify violence.] He said he wanted to get back to the tone of my novel. This time the character is the way I imagined--angry and burned out. There's a scene in which Rambo forges a knife and talks to himself, basically admitting that he hates himself because all he knows is how to kill. He spends a lot of time in the rain as if trying to cleanse his soul. At the start, he gathers cobras in the jungle, and he's comfortable with them because he knows he has nothing to fear from another creature of death. The most telling line of dialogue is, "I didn't kill for my country, I killed for myself. And for that, I don't believe God can forgive me."

On that older FAQ, Morrell added: "While that statement is in keeping with my novel FIRST BLOOD, it's jaw-dropping when compared with the dialogue in the second and third Rambo films." And, it is light years from Rambo: The Force of Freedom.

Works Cited

David Morrell on Rambo. (n.d.) David Morrell: The Master of the High Action Thriller. Retrieved from

Is there life beyond Rambo? (1987, June 1). Forbes 139. 88.

Morrell, D. (1972). First Blood. New York, NY: Grand Central.

Rambo First Blood Part II. (n.d.) James Cameron Online. Retrieved from

Friday, January 23, 2015

that's a hell of a combination

(There's a whole lot to be said about Rambo and masculinity and hegemony and everything I talked about yesterday, but I want to cover something else before I get back to that... for two reasons: 1) to not be too repetitive and 2) to give myself a little time to look over a whole lot of new research in between some bits of homework I've got to do tomorrow. For tonight, this may come mostly from me, but beware: in addition to several things found in new research earlier tonight, I've got a stack of sources from 2009 when I did two speeches on Rambo, so the entries for the rest of this week may be dense. Then, a fifth movie this month, but only for 6 days, so that I can watch Groundhog Day on Groundhog Day. Now, on with Rambo.)

Right from the start, this movie tells us a couple things. The opening shot: an explosion, not fiery but still an explosion. We're in for something big. Then we get to see our location a little better: a prison. Most of the prisoners: black. This is not a movie about race, but it depends quite a bit on notions that twisted up in racial identity as well as cultural identity. But, there is something worth noting--John Rambo is not entirely white. The Russians in this film are far whiter than he is. Podovsky and Yushin both have blue eyes. His father was Navajo.

His mother was German. (Sylvester Stallone's father is Italian, by the way, his mother part Ukrainian Jewish, part French.) Another one of Stallone's big characters--Rocky Balboa--is Italian. Rocky, by the way, had a film out in 1985 as well--Rocky IV, and he too was battling the Communists. Both Rambo and Rocky forego modern technology for something more... natural. While Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) trains in high-tech facilities, Rocky trains in the snow and in the rafters. While even Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) suggests Rambo rely on (modern) equipment for his venture into the jungle, Rambo is forced by plot convenience, having to cut himself loose from a) his equipment and b) the plane to survive. But, it isn't just plot convenience. It is mythological convenience. Like the dual training montages in Rocky IV, there is a strange delight in pretending that we--and, Rocky represents us just as much as Rambo does--don't need all the modern technology to be great, even if we were quite convinced at the same time that we were winning the arms race and the Cold War. That is to say, sure, we had all the best equipment, we had the best weapons, but ultimately, our greatest asset was just being American, coming from good American stock. Having Rambo be a little foreign himself--this actually makes him more American for the same reason; what we imagine ourselves to be is the melting pot, or something more like a crucible, with the best rising to the top and the downtrodden being left on the bottom, forgotten.

Except, there is another contradiction. Rambo, at the start of First Blood is a drifter, presumably homeless. At the start of Rambo: First Blood Part II, he's in prison. He is there with all of those black men, and it is a fitting place because he is both the best of us and the worst of us. In terms of American myth, he can be both at the same time because that is part and parcel of the American Dream. A man can work his way up from nothing--Rambo was born in Bowie, Arizona, a town whose population today is still under 500--to be something great. Rambo has become (presumably, though this might be limited to jungle missions) one of the top three American soldiers; his name was on a list that I assume also includes John Matrix

(Or, whatever his name was before retiring. The rest of his unit, he says, received new identities. If that sort of protection was necessary, I would guess it was even more necessary for him, which would explain why he has such a made-up-sounding name; it was made up. Except, Bennett and Arius, who knew him before, are a little too comfortable calling him "Matrix" so this theory may be flawed.)

and Martin Riggs, but not "Big" or "Little" Johnson (from Die Hard, for those not paying attention). Nevermind that the mission Rambo is actually sent to do is something that just about anyone could do. What matters is that he's the best for whatever it is, and he's obviously the best for the mission he actually undergoes. Even then, though, he is isolated into the role of underdog, "expendable" no matter what Co says. And, that's how we like it. We assume we're the best, but want to be underdogs because but we love a fight. A bowl of contradictions, we Americans are.

McWilliams (1992) argues that Rocky Balboa's black opponents in Rocky, Rocky II and Rocky III are "stand-ins for Muhammad Ali, the champion who had defeated all white challengers and who mocked many white American pieties." The specificity may not be true, but doesn't it seem possible that many in the audience found themselves cheering for Rocky not just because he was the protagonist but because he was white? "Through Rocky," McWilliams continues, "the white male could vicariously regain the sports supremacy - and the virility - which he lost to black nationalists in the sixties. Similarly, Rambo allowed him to win on the movie screens the war he had lost in Asia" (p. 92). As I've been arguing all month, a great deal of the action movies in the 1980s were about the American (white) male winning, and John Rambo, James Braddock, John Matrix, Martin Riggs and the soldiers in Uncommon Valor quite specifically are refighting the Vietnam War. The childrens cartoon Rambo: The Force of Freedom identifies Rambo as "the honor-bound protector of the innocent" and "liberty's champion." Nowhere in First Blood or Rambo: First Blood Part II have we really seen honor. James Cameron, who wrote an earlier draft of the script for this film told Us magazine in 1991 that while his script "was pretty violent [it was] not in such an amoral way." Rambo kills indiscriminately after Co is killed. He is no longer fighting the Communist Vietnamese soldiers or the Russians; he is fighting Vietnam. Co, by the way, is an acceptable love interest, even if there is no time for consummation, because she longs to travel to America with Rambo; she is effectively no longer Vietnamese, or as Morag (2009) puts it, she is "rehabilitated" (p. 192) only to die in Rambo's arms before she can make it to America. And, isn't that the true tragedy here? Isn't that what Rambo is avenging? (I mean, aside from all those POWs.) An innocent, wide-eyed foreign girl who longs to come to America has been killed. Nevermind her own fighting ability, or her disguising herself as a whore. A Native American born and raised in Arizona, Rambo must absolutely avenge her death because what else would he be fighting for? (Aside from all those POWS.)

It's actually a little manipulative putting Co in there--and that was Stallone's idea, by the way. Rambo already has a fight worth fighting. But, that conversation on the boat with Co humanizes him just a little, and their scene by the river just before she dies, which is just a little too bright and soft like it's part of some other, more romantic film, connects these characters, personalizes Rambo's fight to come. Why give any of the POWS personality when you can just "put a girl in it" (as Stallone told Cameron)? That first POW Rambo rescues, Banks (Andy Wood)--he's got a nice (not nice as in pleasant but well acted and potentially deepening his character) moment when he asks, "What year is it, anyway?" Told it's 1985, there is the briefest of moments where you can see that fact sink in. It's really Bank's only moment to emote (that and a little cowering in the torture room) and the camera cuts away before we can really see the years he's been imprisoned. This is a movie ostensibly about rescuing Banks and the other POWS and yet the movie never spends any time with them, never gets to know them. For the film, just as with Murdock, they are effectively as expendable as Rambo says he is. They cannot even really participate in their own rescue because that would ruin the setup of the rugged individual American soldier fighting off the foreigners and saving the day.

Works Cited

McWilliams, D. (1992). The search for an icon: Values in American popular films in the 1980s. In W. Grunzweig, R. Maierhofer & A. Wimmer (Eds.), Constructing the Eighties: Versions of an American Decade 85-96. Tubingen, Germany: Gunter Narr Verlag.

Morag, R. (2009). Defeated Masculinity: Post-Traumatic Cinema in the Aftermath of War. Brussels, Belgium: P.I.E. Peter Lang.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

the mind is the best weapon

(Before I get to Rambo tonight, there's this: earlier tonight in Media Theory and Criticism class, I got to talk about Groundhog Day. Went down a list of what our instructor calls Classic Hollywood Cinema criteria, matched up Groundhog Day to each one. Then, there were some followup questions--is it a Marxist film? is it a feminist film? something about Freudian psychoanalysis, something about class... and a few others--and the answers were easy. I told my instructor about this blog (or the first year of it, anyway) after class. He wants to read some entries. I'll have to figure out some good ones. Anyway, that's one more class I've included Groundhog Day in.)

In Rambo and the Dalai Lama, Gordon Fellman (1998) calls Rambo "the personalization of war, the reduction of it to its pure elements of men facing each other in all their anger, toughness, power, confusion, and fear" (p. 108). Fellman, in writing about First Blood, details the scene in which Rambo does not defend his ragged appearance to the local police. "...Rambo says nothing in his own defense. Acting as if he owes words to no one or as if he does not know how to use words or as if they are not effective in tight situations anyway..." (p. 109). That last bit is important because, yes, John Rambo is a man of action, not of words, even though he does say today's titular line to Murdock. Rambo is not only a man of action, though; he is a symbol for all men of action, a symbol for the very notion that actions speak louder than words, that force is perhaps the best way to get anything done. "Gone is the chance of mutual understanding," Fellman continues. Then, later: "A soldier is schooled in not explaining himself... To explain himself would be to acknowledge the possibility of misunderstanding, the chance that force is not the way to manage human encounter" (p. 110).

Force. American force. Masculine force. Still dealing with First Blood, Susan Jeffords in "The Reagan Hero: Rambo" suggests a couple notable point regarding masculinity in the film. Jeffords compares the physical form of Rambo to Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehey); Rambo's body is lean, muscular while Teasle's is, well, not. Jeffords argues: "Brian Dennehey was an excellent choice to play the part of Teasle, making Rambo's judge and opponent the possessor of a corpulent male body, which in its weakness and lack of stamina and self-assured fullness represents all that Rambo sets out to defeat" (p. 142). (Murdock is not as corpulent as Teasle but he has the lazy physicality of a guy who is little more than a bureaucrat, a guy who lies about his Vietnam experience to the one guy who he should know will know better.) How, though, is Rambo fighting this decaying masculinity? Is he fighting decaying masculinity?

In my cultural artifact speech about the character of Rambo just over five years ago, I equated the character of John Rambo to American Hegemony. Coming off the loss of Vietnam, he is a damaged creature in David Morrell's novel and the film adaptation of the same. (He is actually much more damaged in the novel, a near psychopathic killer who cannot survive the events of the novel.) But Americans embraced the character and his violence. With this film, Rambo becomes something more jingoist than contrary. But, I'm getting ahead of myself...

Jeffords argues--again, regarding First Blood--

If, this film argues, the masculine body is to be reclaimed, it will have to be done, not simply by reclaiming some value or usefulness for that body (for example, its serviceability in time of war), but by rejecting the corpulent body altogether, showing its uselessness and destructiveness even in time of peace. (p. 142)

And, this turns political in Jeffords, not just in my own argumentation about hegemony. She argues, referencing An Officer and a Gentleman as comparison:

The very plot of the film--how a no-good, flip, useless, and soft male body is changed into a triumphant, resilient, and determined heterosexual hard body--narrates the transformations promised by the Reagan presidency. The softened, pampered, and ill-trained male body will become, for the Reagan imaginary, the body of the Carter presidency, the body that was unable to defend its own country/its town/its values against outsiders. (ibid)

Rambo is the American male, as exemplified by the mythological cowboy--keep in mind, of course, that President Reagan has, as an actor, played a cowboy and was still, arguably, playing the cowboy as President--masculinity as primal force. Teasle and then Murdock--these are not men in the strictest cinematic sense. Not in any way that it counts, anyway. They've got the parts, sure, but do they know how to use them? Rambo wields guns, knives, and makeshift weapons he creates with his own hands to penetrate and injure the policemen of Hope, Washington. He knows how to use--and Clover (1992) would agree with this characterization, for sure--his phallic weapons. Jeffords (1994) hones in on the fact that we don't actually see any of Rambo's victims in First Blood actually die. "...the film requires that Rambo not kill these deputies," she argues, "first, because it would be difficult to maintain his characterization as a victim if he became a successful killer; and second, because helpless, screaming men far more effectively portray the consequences of a weakened masculinity than silent corpses do" (p. 143). Bergeson (2006) compares Rambo to Don Quixote, both men being "cultural icons of national decline." He argues that what he calls the "ideal/reality gap... at the heart of Don Quixote and the Rambo films may actually have a geopolitical origin in the early moments of hegemonic decline" (p. 57). This gap between what we believe we are and what we actually are, essentially, leave identities in question. The American male is something... new if American status as a world power is on the decline. To prove his masculinity--or for the nation to prove its power--he must lash out; it must lash out. Don Quixote and John Rambo both, Bergeson argues, are "actors acting on the basis of a hegemonic code, which is what chivalry is, when the material base of that hegemonic dominance is dissipating" (p. 58). Rambo's films (and Don Quizote's exploits) must be "about senseless violence to those who carry the code... and to all the other collateral otehrs who get in the way of the dated moral code, forcing reality to meet its needs" (ibid). That is to say, Rambo's victims in First Blood may be cops, his victims in Rambo: First Blood Part II may be Russians and Vietnamese, and more Russians in Rambo III and Burmese in Rambo, but these designations are arbitrary. Rambo--America--simply needs someone to kill. Convenience dictates that it be whoever we are actually fighting (at least after that initial burst of violence in First Blood), or whoever qualifies as an "evil" regime in the case of the Burmese in the fourth film, but really, it doesn't matter. The American male is slaughtering the foreigners, the scary Other. Like a bully reclaiming his dominance after an absence from the playground, the choice of victim (enemy) is arbitrary as long as it demonstrates our strength, our masculinity, our hegemony.

Works Cited

Bergeson, A.J. (2006). The Depth of Shallow Culture: The High Art of Shoes, Movies, Novels, Monsters, and Toys. Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Clover, C.J. (1992). Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fellman, G. (1998). Rambo and the Dalai Lama: The Compulsion to Win and Its Threat to Human Survival. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Jeffords, S. (1994). The Reagan hero Rambo. In R. Eberwein (Ed.), The War Film, Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 140-154.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

the old vietnam's dead

Context: it's still 1985, but we're a few months earlier than we were yesterday. The ex-special ops guy is John Rambo rather than John Matrix. And, he doesn't start in a mountain cabin but in prison.

(I wonder, offhand, who the other two men whose names came up for this mission were? James Braddock? John Matrix? Martin Riggs? All of these movies take place in the same reality, right?)

So, it's 1985, I'm 9. Beverly Hills Cop has been doing well at the box office for a few months, now. Amadeus as well. I've already seen Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment and Witness and Code of Silence. There's a few other movies in theaters I wouldn't see until they show up on cable: Gotcha!, Mask, Desperately Seeking Susan, Just One of the Guys, Ladyhawke (though, I remember really wanting to see that one when it came out in theaters). New movies this weekend are A View to a Kill, the latest Roger Moore James Bond movie. Gotta see that opening weekend. Brewster's Millions, which I would see at a drive-in... some time later. And, Rambo. I never saw First Blood on the big screen, but I'd seen it more than once by the time Part II came out. And, of course, I did not realize that the character of Rambo was being manipulated outside the context of the story almost as much as he was inside the context of the story. (More on that later this week, though. I haven't gotten my pages of notes out, yet.)

(Speaking of box office, Rambo: First Blood Part II was apparently the first movie to be released into more than 2000 theaters.)

The next weekend, we'd go see Fletch. This weekend was all about Bond and Rambo, two very different characters who actually get similar results--a lot of dead people. Bond is obviously more talkative; he can handle big words more than Rambo can...

I'm trying to start off just watching this as a movie, save the subtext for another day, but it's hard. "Sir, do we get to win this time?" It's a pathetic line for the character. It works, and I guess it makes sense, but it's pathetic. And, it makes it impossible to not take this movie as refighting Vietnam on the big screen. How, though, to take Murdock's bit about not covering his ass but "a nation"? And, Murdock even asks Trautman, "What do you want to do... start the war all over again?" It's not exactly subtext.

Rambo has a very simple structure, a brief setup, a simple first act the ends in betrayal, then... a second act full of death and explosions and a lot of running through the jungle. Co Bao dies in the middle of this act--more using the female as a prop/motivation for the male. Her death turns Rambo from fleeing the camp to actively going after the soldiers that are pursuing him. Then, he returns to destroy the camp after he's got the helicopter. The actual transition from act two to act three is hard to pinpoint. After the waterfall explosion and Rambo is presumed dead--John Rambo is so obviously a Christ-Figure with a gun that I won't even bother bringing Kozlovic into this.

Really, what is important to note on this Day 1 is that only one villain in this film (not counting Murdock or his mercenary pals) speaks any lines in English. The enemy here is more an idea of Russians and Vietnamese than actual people. And, Vietnam is portrayed as nothing but jungle with primitive villages, with a sprinkling of monks. The action is straightforward, though the overarching plot gets into some confusing politics. The acting is pretty good for an action movie--though it's hard to tell sometimes if Co's lines are poorly (read: racist-ly) written or poorly acted--and it provides villains worth cheering the death of... assuming such a thing exists at all.

It's nice jingoist fare for the end of the Cold War (not that we knew it was about to end, of course).

Monday, January 19, 2015

this green beret is going to kick your big ass

I really wanted to have some fun and write about the homoerotic subtext in Commando for Day 7, but as I was readying to start the movie, I turned on that Siskel and Ebert special I mentioned the other day. (You can watch it in four parts on YouTube starting here.) And, I was reminded of my research for my Rambo speeches a few years back... (fall 2010, I think). One of the things I watched while putting together my two speeches on Rambo was an episode or two of Rambo: The Force of Freedom, Rambo's cartoon that aired in 1986--between Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III. I'll get into Rambo more in the next week (i.e. I'm watching Rambo next for this month of 80s action movies), so I won't get into too much detail there (yet). But, as I'm looking into some information about this special--I do scholarly writing so I like to know the specific citation for my sources (even if, for this blog at least, I sometimes let a hyperlink suffice)--and I find reference to the special in a footnote in the book Film Study: An Analytical Bibilography, Volume 1 (Manchel, 1990), along with, among other things, reference to a New York Times article: "Groups Protest Toys with War Theme" (4 December 1985, p. C12). As I'm looking through articles from that issue of the New York Times, I notice a few headlines:

Radicals Say They Killed West Bank Lawyer

8 Latin Countries Call for U.S.-Nicaraguan Talks

6 Killed in Sri Lanka Blast

Iraq and Iran Assaults

Israeli Unit Kills 5 Palestinians

Convoy Attacked in Afghan Clash

My thing: these don't sound so very long ago, these headlines. These headlines, or very similar ones, could be found in today's New York Times. Meanwhile, the #1 movie this holiday weekend (for future readers, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the end of a nice three day weekend) was American Sniper. It's not a movie that's going to have a toy line or a kids cartoon like Rambo but it certainly works, though perhaps not deliberately*, to glorify not only American war but also killing foreigners. In that Siskel and Ebert special, Siskel paraphrases child psychiatrist Elva Poznanski (who appeared briefly in the special), saying, "These films are setting up combat as idealized male behavior, that blowing people away--particularly foreigners--is the essence of manliness" (At the Movies, 23 November 1985).

Sidenote--that asterisk: I say that American Sniper may not deliberately glorify our role in Iraq or in killing foreigners primarily because Eastwood's direction is not as energetic as Cosmatos' direction on Rambo or Lester's direction here in Commando. The film is not fun. Still, it has its cheerleaders who are definitely taking a pro-killing message out of it--just see the New York Daily News article: 'American Sniper' sparks hate toward Arabs on Twitter. It has its detractors as well--Seth Rogan compared the film to the film-within-a-film in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: Nation's Pride. Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry Callahan was famously quoted by President Ronald Reagan--and Manchel (1990) points out, Dirty Harry was "listed as the No. 1 hero to 18- to 25-year-old Americans" in a 1985 Roper Poll (p. 437)--but it's hard to really argue that Eastwood's latest film actually is pro-war. Of course, that won't necessarily stop Americans from taking it as such. As I'll note in the next week, First Blood is very much anti-war, but by the time of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III, John Rambo was a symbol for war. Audiences take what they want from a film sometimes, regardless of the filmmakers' intent. What is worth noting in regards to American Sniper, though, is that recent marketing of the film focuses on the scene in which Bradley Cooper as real-life sniper Chris Kyle sits in a bar talking on the phone with his wife. He's on the verge of breaking down after all he's seen and/or done. The scene implies a film about how much war can damage a soldier, especially one with such a high kill count as Chris Kyle. But, the actual film spends so much time away from, say, Kyle's interactions with his wife, that the damage is relatively minor next to everything else. The film is structured quite simply around the hunt for Kyle's Iraqi counterpart, an assassin killing American soldiers. He is given no dialogue, but just enough screentime to allow those in the audience who would to hate him. If a film can only be designated propaganda if its pro-war message is deliberate, then American Sniper is not propaganda, but it certainly is playing like propaganda to the right audiences.
Image from a Democracy Chronicles piece about Arnold's supposed intention to run for president

Of course, movies like Rambo or Commando (though its villains are only vaguely defined inasmuch as Val Verde is never specifically located, though it seems to be Central American) do the same. The big wars were behind us, arguably. Vietnam had been replaced by secretive campaigns in Iran, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Beirut, Grenada, Libya and Afghanistan... and wherever else we were "intervening." But, audiences don't want nuance. 1980s audiences wanted obvious villains and bigger-than-life heroes. PopMatters says Commando is "like cinematic crack for guys. The mere mention of its title evokes an adolescent grin, of not outright exclamations and high-fives." I've already mentioned how I was only 9 when Commando came out. But, at the height of the Cold War--

(And, really, isn't that a phrase that bears very little meaning? I mean, shouldn't the "height" of the Cold War be Vietnam, when the Cold War turned hot at its largest scale? But, I think of--and I know I've heard it called as much--the 1980s as the "height" of the Cold War, even though that was when the Cold War was really waning. That is why Martin Riggs is who he is in Lethal Weapon, why John Matrix is who he is in Commando, why John Rambo is who he is in Rambo. There was no use for them on a regular basis anymore as the soldiers they had been trained to be. They are now just men trying to live their lives, but Americans didn't want men, not regular men anyway. We wanted something better.)

--we wanted... no, needed heroes to fight the enemy. A generation had grown up inside the Cold War and just didn't know what it was to not have an enemy. We couldn't imagine it. Hell, in my religious upbringing, we didn't need to imagine it because this enemy was going to incite World War III and the world as we knew it was going to come to and end and then Christ would return and all would be well. I've argued before--in one of my non-film blogs or on Facebook or on an old message board, or probably all three--that conservative audiences, of course support real war because real war means the Revelation and a nice happy ending where the infidels suffer and the devout are blessed and everything is just fine. It would be a nice, uplifting idea if it didn't mean war and pestilence and death would come for a huge percentage of the world's population first.

Then again, one must wonder if we Americans even care about that percentage. Just as long as it's foreign and far away, good riddance, right? Just like all of those soldiers Matrix kills in the third act of Commando--it doesn't matter that each one of those men is a son and maybe a brother and maybe a husband or a father. It doesn't matter that each one of those men is defending a cause he (presumably) finds to be the right one. All that matters is a little white girl was kidnapped by a vaguely Latino (Dan Hedaya is actually of Syrian, Jewish descent though he often plays Italians) would-be dictator and her father needs to get her back, damn the consequences.

Imagine a war movie in which both sides are treated with equal respect and dignity, in which both sides are presented as having a cause worth fighting for, or not (both sides could be manipulated)... hell, Clint Eastwood sort of did that a few years back [checked and that was nearly a decade ago] with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. War films have gotten a little more... real, a little scarier, as filmmaking has evolved. There is room for something with more nuance.

But, that doesn't mean the audience will get it.

Or want to.