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  • Stefan Riedlinger

First Blood - Rambo - Jerry Goldsmith - Soundtrack Review

Jerry Goldsmith’s music for “First Blood”, the first movie in the Rambo-series from 1982, is classical action music and a good example why Goldsmith’s music was not becoming such popular like John Williams, John Barry or latest Hans Zimmer.

The main theme is one of the most beautiful, Jerry has ever written:

The movie

While re-writing this post, I was reading the Kirk Douglas autobiography called The Ragman’s Son, which I really recommend if you have not yet read it. It is a great book written in a unique style full of romance, sadness, tragedy and anecdotes. I very much admire Kirk Douglas for hiring Dalton Trumbo as the writer for Spartacus even though he had been blacklisted as a Communist sympathiser. When Stanley Kubrick had no scruples taking credit for writing the script, Douglas announced that Trumbo was the writer of the screenplay and helped end the power of the blacklist.

Douglas was considered for the role of Colonel Trautman, but he said that he wanted changes to the script. Stallone, not director Ted Kotcheff, made the final creative decision, as Douglas pointed out in his book, and rejects Douglas’s idea of Trautman killing Rambo. Douglas’s idea was that the Colonel realised what kind of Frankenstein-like creature he had created and wanted to end his life. Even though I admire Douglas as an actor and for his body of work, I think this idea shows that he did not get the idea of the script. Compared to the sequel, Rambo is not a killing machine. He is an innocent character and just started going crazy because he was being tortured by the local police.

In my opinion, the most important scene is when Sheriff Teasle, played by Brian Dennehy, tells Rambo that he is not welcomed in the city and has to go. Rambo refuses, so Teasle picks him up, discovers his knife and wants to lock him up. The policemen begin to abuse Rambo. When they want to cut his hair and Rambo sees the knife, he has memories of torture in Vietnam and freaks out. This scene is underscored by one of the most excellent tracks in the score called The Razor.

Even after he escapes, the abuse continues and Rambo is hunted like an animal without having done anything. In my opinion, he is just acting in self-defence but is slowly losing his mind and overacts due to his will to survive. Trautman, played by Richard Crenna, finally stops him as he is about to kill the sheriff. So why should Trautman kill him? The movie criticises how American war veterans are treated. Rambo explains that they were blaming him for doing his job and not blaming the politicians who started the war. So, if Teasle had let Rambo have his meal, he would have left the city and nobody would have been killed. Another aspect to consider is that the movie is also focusing on the hostile attitude of more right-wing people towards “hippie”-looking people because Rambo was also attacked for his long hair. The same motifs are shown at the end of Easy Rider (1969).

Years ago, I read the 1972 novel by David Morrell. Canadian-born writer Morrell worked as an English professor at the University of Iowa in 1970 before he gave up his job and concentrated on writing. The book was inspired by hearing about the experiences of his students who had fought in Vietnam. The character's name was developed from the Rambo apple Morrell’s wife brought home while Morrell was struggling to find a suitable name for the main character.

In the DVD commentary, Morell comments that one of the inspirations for Rambo was Second World War hero Audie Murphy. In the end, Rambo gets wounded in the shooting with Teasle and both die. Trautman tells Teasle that he killed Rambo and the sheriff feels a moment of affection for the man he had killed. While I was reading it, I thought that it was not a suitable ending for a movie because it is too intellectual, especially in the way Rambo wants to kill himself in the book. You can decide for yourself which ending is more convincing – the movie or the book – when you read the novel.

The music

If you listen to the main theme, I think the idea of Rambo as an innocent character might be right. It is one of Jerry Goldsmith’s most lyrical main themes and the track Home Coming is a beautiful example of transforming the feeling of loneliness and peacefulness into music. The guitar is exactly the right instrument for this approach, while the trumpet reminds you of the military aspects of the plot.

For this score, there are also different CDs to buy. I recommend buying the two-CD set by Intrada, which has 19 tracks including the song It’s a long road performed by Canadian singer Dan Hill with lyrics by South African songwriter Hal Shaper, an instrumental version of It’s a long road and the theme from First Blood (a pop version). In the liner notes to this CD, Douglass Fake gave a very personal insight into the history of Intrada, a very interesting read, about how it took 25 years to present a complete release of First Blood Finally. Fake explained how Jerry Goldsmith “cut significant bars off the ends of certain cues to allow for smooth edits into other unrelated cues, removed the opening bars of other cues for similar reasons and completely re-organized the sequence apart from the picture.”

Compared to the sequel in particular, this score has the right balance between the more lyrical tracks and the now famous action tracks such as Hanging On (perhaps the best track), Over the Cliff (a great piece), Escape Route and The Truck. The already mentioned The Razor is one of most interestingly orchestrated tracks. It slowly builds up the suspense, transforms Rambo’s terrifying memories of torture in Vietnam in atonal music, then mostly underscores the violent action with percussion and just rhythm. When Rambo escapes with the motorbike, you can hear the powerful first blood theme in a full orchestral arrangement.

Here you can listen to the track "Over The Cliff":

If you compare this first score with the later ones, it is surprising how little Goldsmith in the end uses the main theme. Except for Mountain Hunt, First Blood is the longest track, working like a summary of the score and bringing a typical action track in the Goldsmith style with a heavy focus on the percussion. The action music is Goldsmith at his best, and it is clear how artificially the composer likes to compose his action music. He mostly uses 5/8 and 7/8 time signatures, and the tracks are highly enjoyable. One of my favourite pieces is the shorter track The Truck.

Unlike the score of the sequel, this score does not feature heavy electronics. The music to the second part is highly action-orientated ( The Jump is one of Goldsmith’s best action tracks), and the third score is a good mixture of action and more lyrical pieces with beautiful end credits music that was not used in the film.

Jerry Goldsmith died on 21 July 2004 after a long battle with cancer. Brian Tyler took over and composed the music for the fourth instalment, an unnecessarily violent movie with gore and splatter scenes to compete with sadistic horror movies such as Hostel (2005) – a bad move. Even though Stallone directed this movie and tried to bring the franchise to a good ending, the violence in the showdown is so over the top that this sequel can be considered the worst of the whole series.

I found a nice live version with Goldsmith conducting:

One final aspect about Kirk Douglas: the actor considers his western Lonely are the Brave (1962), also with a script by Dalton Trumbo, his favourite movie. The movie tells the story of a cowboy who cannot fit into the modern society and refuses to be part of it. He later becomes an outlaw and is hunted down by a local sheriff, played by Walter Matthau. This movie starts with the idea that the main character wants to visit a friend and then the trouble starts. There are a lot of similarities with First Blood. In the end, the cowboy’s horse is severely injured and the sheriff kills it. The wounded cowboy is taken to hospital. It is unclear whether he will survive his injuries.

Jerry Goldsmith composed the music to this western too, and his score was greatly praised by critics and colleagues alike. Bernard Herrmann said that the music was too good for the movie. In this western, the main character was also hunted by helicopter, like Rambo in First Blood. If you compare both scores, there are a great many similarities between the two scores. And perhaps Douglas developed the idea that Rambo should get killed because his cowboy in Lonely are the Brave might not have survived the movie either?

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2015, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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