On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese military forces took Saigon, ending the war in Vietnam. But the war would resume less than a decade later on another front: movie screens. It’s hard to pinpoint when and where the first shots were fired, but easy to point to a 1982 battle outside Hope, Washington, as the inciting incident. The skirmish, as depicted in the 1982 film First Blood, pitted a small-minded, vet-disrespecting sheriff against a Medal of Honor–winning ex–Green Beret named John Rambo (played by Sylvester Stallone) who found himself pushed too far. By decade’s end, hostilities had spread and escalated as an army of heavily armed musclemen returned to Southeast Asia to deal with the unfinished business of a war that left America scarred and confused by what it had lost and left behind—business that, in the movies at least, could be concluded with determination, grimaces, and a seemingly bottomless supply of ammunition.
Rambo was far from the first troubled, violence-prone Vietnam vet to appear on the big screen, but at heart, First Blood had more in common with Coming Home than Taxi Driver. Rather than depicting a vet being unable to adjust to the America to which he returned, it faulted America for not caring enough about those who fought in the war, a point Rambo drives home through a combination of (purposefully nonlethal) attacks and one impassioned monologue. Adapted from a 1972 novel by David Morrell and directed by the Canadian-born Ted Kotcheff, it’s impossible to pin down First Blood’s politics. In his new book Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, critic J. Hoberman notes that Rambo “can be read as a grunt, a hippie, an Indian, an anti-American guerrilla fighter (which to say a Viet-cong), and a war hero.” Mostly, Rambo is a stand-in for everyone who served in the Vietnam War and returned to an America that was working hard to forget it.
When Rambo returned three years later in Rambo: First Blood Part II, politics were front and center in a movie that drew upon the POW/MIA issue—the widespread belief that American soldiers remained alive and imprisoned in Vietnam and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, years after the end of the war. A less charitable reading: The film exploited the painful subject in the service of a crowd-pleasing action film. Either way, Rambo: First Blood Part II wouldn’t be the last of its kind (Rambo: Last Blood premieres this Friday). But in fact, it wasn’t even the first.
Also directed by Kotcheff, the 1983 film Uncommon Valor cast Gene Hackman as Jason Rhodes, a retired Marine colonel who recruits a ragtag group of Vietnam vets (and a young Patrick Swayze) to mount a mission into Laos, where Rhodes believes his son and others remain imprisoned. The idea didn’t come out of nowhere: The possibility that American soldiers remained behind enemy lines had become a fraught matter by the early ’80s, when “Bo” Gritz, an ex–Green Beret who claimed knowledge of Americans still held in POW camps, mounted a series of raids into Laos. Gritz had a gift for self-promotion. He didn’t, however, have much luck finding proof of living POWs, much less bringing them back home. Rhodes, on the other hand, meets tremendous success in a skillfully directed war movie in the familiar men-on-a-mission mode. Critics remained wary, however, put off by its politics. In the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas called it “not nearly uncommon enough for its prickly, painful subject.” Writing for the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel noted that he’d heard audiences, “particularly Vietnam vets,” were enjoying the film. “That’s terrific,” his review continued. “I’m sure they must have a lot of bitterness that his movie allows them to displace. But I think they are enjoying the idea of this film more than its execution. A more serious, challenging treatment of the subject could have knocked everybody out.”
Enter Chuck Norris, as if on cue, with the least serious, least challenging treatment of the subject imaginable. An oft-repeated, tough-to-confirm story suggests that Cannon Films, the premier source for low-budget ’80s genre films, rushed both Missing in Action and its prequel, Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, into production after being “inspired” by James Cameron’s treatment for Rambo: First Blood Part II (which Cameron wrote in the same rush of activity that led to The Terminator and the Vietnam War–inspired Aliens). It could be true, but it doesn’t have to be. Even if it’s not impossible to imagine the Missing in Action films without Rambo: First Blood Part II, it’s hard to imagine them without First Blood.
In his 1994 book Vietnam at the Movies, Michael Lee Lanning dedicates a chapter to the “superhero genre” of Vietnam movies. A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who served in Vietnam, Lanning doesn’t have a lot of patience for films that present unrealistic depictions of warfare. (A chilling observation from his Apocalypse Now review: “Anyone believing that Brando and his men would hang bodies and body parts around their camp has never smelled a ripe corpse on a warm Southeast Asian afternoon.”) The superhero soldier has roots older than First Blood, in films like the ’70s hit Billy Jack, but it was John Rambo who defined the type that Norris and others would take to cartoonish extremes.
Called out of retirement as the U.S. government attempts to come to terms with Vietnam in the 1980s, Missing in Action’s protagonist, Colonel James Braddock, takes it upon himself to go behind enemy lines to rescue the POWs he knows to be there. He succeeds, returning to Ho Chi Minh City in time to show up his doubting U.S. handlers and humiliate a sneering Vietnamese general. “America had no more heroes … until now,” the film’s trailer blares as Norris emerges from water with a massive gun in his hand, a recurring image in many Vietnam action films that followed.
Cannon seemed to understand how an action hero could double as a salve on a national psyche. Released in November 1984, Missing in Action became a considerable hit, as did its March 1985 follow-up, Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, a prequel filmed first but deemed inferior to the film originally slated as its follow-up. The former earned nearly $23 million on a reported budget between $1.5 million and $3 million, while the latter took in nearly $11 million on a similar budget. In truth, the POW-camp-set The Beginning is slightly superior, highlighted by a scene in which Norris does battle with a rat placed in a sack around his head. (Both films are better than 1988’s Braddock: Missing in Action III, which sends Norris’s character searching for his heretofore unmentioned Vietnamese wife and takes on the real issue of Vietnamese children fathered by American soldiers in the most exploitative way possible.) However, by the mid-’80s, movies like this started to seem less and less novel; at the same time, though, their success only hinted at what was to come.
The impact of Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which John Rambo follows in Braddock’s footsteps and rescues American POWs from their Vietnamese captors, could be felt at the box office, but also on the opinion pages. A few weeks after the film’s release, The New Republic published “The Myth of the Lost POWs,” an essay by long-serving diplomat James Rosenthal that offered a clear-eyed argument against the possibility of finding American POWs alive in Southeast Asia, condemning the exploitation of families who’d “had their hopes raised by politicians, publishers, filmmakers, and lawyers in pursuit of self-promotion and profits.” That was the reality. Instead, filmgoers opted for the fantasy, one that involved a buffer-than-ever Stallone agreeing to return to Vietnam after asking the question, “Do we get to win this time?” Once there, he strips shirtless, straps on ammo, and takes out his frustrations on Vietnamese soldiers, their Russian allies, and the American government he learns has no interest in seeing his mission succeed. What does reality—the truth of America’s failures, or the fact that the war resulted in the deaths of over a hundred thousand Vietnamese civilians—matter when we get to win?
Then came the deluge. Rambo: First Blood Part II might not have changed the outcome of Vietnam, but it did open the country up for action movies for years to come, movies that sent would-be Rambos to fight the war again in both the present and the past. They came from all over the world, via films made for American, Italian, and Filipino production companies, and traveled to a variety of countries that stood in for Vietnam—Spain, Zimbabwe, but most often the Philippines. (Anyone in the business of renting helicopters and weaponry to make film productions around Manila in the 1980s probably did pretty well for themselves.) They were men of few words and many bullets, and they left a deep mark on the back half of the 1980s.
Typical of the subgenre, Cannon’s 1986 film P.O.W.: The Escape (a.k.a. Behind Enemy Lines, a.k.a. Attack Force ’Nam) cast David Carradine as a renegade military man in the Braddock mold who mounts a raid on a POW camp against the backdrop of the 1973 Paris peace talks. (Even less subtle in its symbolism than Rambo, one long sequence features Carradine draped in a tattered American flag.) The film received poor reviews and tepid box office returns, but, like the Missing in Action series, its ultimate destiny was to live alongside First Blood on video shelves and fill up blocks of late-night cable programming, appealing to those who’d already seen Rambo in action and wanted more. It found plenty of company there, ranging from the silly to the inventive.
Few were sillier than 1987’s Strike Commando, starring Uncommon Valor’s Reb Brown as Michael Ransom. (If Rambo was the subgenre’s Coca-Cola and Braddock its Pepsi, think of Ransom as the RC Cola.) A virtual one-man army, Ransom kills an absurd number of enemy soldiers while attempting to escort a group of villagers to safety. Along the way, he does battle with a towering Russian and attempts to comfort a dying boy by tearfully telling him about the wonders of Disneyland. (“They have tons of popcorn there. All you gotta do is go climb a tree to go eat it.”)
Strike Commando reduces the Rambo formula down to its essence: a man with a gun, some maudlin sentimentality, and soothing scenes of explosive anti-communist violence. Directed by Bruno Mattei and scripted by Claudio Fragasso (now best known for the infamous Troll 2), it’s an example of the Italian B-movie industry doing what it did best for decades: picking up on a trend and offering cheap variations starring American actors who’d settled into sub–Rick Dalton levels of stardom. Most of them look a lot like the 1986 film War Bus. Shot in the Philippines and helmed by veteran spaghetti Western director Ferdinando Baldi, that film seems to exist mostly because its producers had access to a school bus and decided to build a movie around it.
Not to be outdone, American producers saw low-budget opportunity in Vietnam as well. In stunt coordinator/director B.J. Davis’s White Ghost, Greatest American Hero, William Katt plays Steve Shephard, a Green Beret who decides to stay in Vietnam after witnessing a My Lai–esque atrocity. There he leads a Tarzan-like jungle existence with the help of his girlfriend, Thi Hau (Rosalind Chao), but eventually has to fight some Americans sent to take him out before he can tell the truth. (Fighting on Steve’s side: none other than Reb Brown, making another return to the subgenre.) Left unanswered: How Shephard gets the product needed to maintain his magnificent curls in the middle of the jungle. Largely bypassing American theaters, White Ghost became a cable fixture. So did Eye of the Eagle, a Roger Corman production starring future T2 bad guy Robert Patrick and directed by veteran Filipino filmmaker Cirio Santiago. A sort of action movie gloss on Apocalypse Now, it pits an elite group of American soldiers against both the NVA and nogoodnik American deserters seeking to profit from the war.
Quite watchable, this led to the even better (if unfortunately titled, and completely unrelated) Eye of the Eagle II: Inside the Enemy, directed by Carl Franklin. Corman “gave me three days to come up with a treatment,” Franklin told Chris Nashawaty in the 2013 book Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie. “And then they gave me three weeks to write the script. And then I was on a plane to the Philippines.” The resulting film plays as much like a film noir as an action movie, with star Todd Field (another future director) encountering unfathomable depths of military corruption after an act of courage turns him into a PR tool.
Hitting video stores in 1989, Eye of the Eagle II hinted at new possibilities for the Vietnam action movie. (And, like White Ghost and its predecessor, it suggested such films’ politics didn’t have to be to the right of G. Gordon Liddy.) But those possibilities went unrealized; the film appeared in the final days of the subgenre, which roughly coincided with the final days of Hollywood’s interest in Vietnam stories. After 1987, which saw the release of Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, The Hanoi Hilton, Gardens of Stone, and Good Morning, Vietnam (and, of course, Strike Commando), interest began to wane. The lackluster returns that greeted Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War suggested that audiences’ appetite for challenging Vietnam films, no matter how accomplished, had ebbed. Even Rambo himself had moved on to new battlegrounds with Rambo III, which found him fighting the Russians alongside our friends the mujahideen of Afghanistan.
Yet the stories they told have lingered, and decades later it’s still hard to get a grasp on what they meant, in the 1980s and beyond. The first wave exploited the loss and confusion of families that didn’t know what had happened to their loved ones, but they also found audiences drawn by a sense of anger and discontent, tapping into feelings too real and powerful to dismiss. The films that followed confirmed that even the most divisive wars could be recycled as entertainment and reduced to a few easily repeatable elements. Films like White House Down and its sequels have essentially moved the superhero soldier fantasy to another venue. Meanwhile, watch a film like Strike Commando on a streaming service and you can easily find yourself drawn by its algorithm into a bullet-ridden rabbit hole of similar films, some old, some new, some set in Vietnam, some elsewhere, all driven by the same fantasy of a powerful man righting history’s wrongs from behind the barrel of a high-powered gun. John Rambo incredibly returns to theaters on Friday—but his children have also lived long, and traveled widely.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.