Sylvester Stallone got trapped by the characters he’d built for himself in the ’80s. An intelligent and remarkably articulate man, he was stuck portraying monosyllabic tough guys in movies that could never be as smart as he would have liked them to be.
This is nowhere more clear than in Rambo III, a film released on May 25, 1988, that he conceived of as a political and moral meditation on war, only to find most of its runtime taken up by explosions, squibs and shots of his glistening chest muscles.
The character of John Rambo first hit the screen in 1982’s First Blood, which took a stripped-down action novel by David Morrell and turned it into a bloody tale about the American conscience in the wake of the Vietnam War. The results were far more interesting than virtually all of its contemporary action films. Co-written by Stallone and made for $15 million, it ended up being a massive hit with box-office earnings over 10 times its budget.
This led to a 1985 sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, which saw the titular Vietnam War veteran returning to rescue American POWs. Stallone found that an early draft, written by James Cameron, didn’t engage with politics enough, and so he rewrote parts of it to emphasize what he said in a 2006 Q&A was Rambo’s “obvious neutrality” – in contrast with his superiors’ “right-wing” beliefs.
He tried to epitomize this through the character’s final speech in the film, which was about Vietnam veterans only wanting to be loved by their country as much as they loved it. Stallone added that he was aware that the speech “may have caused millions of viewers to burst veins in their eyeballs by rolling them excessively.” Regardless, the film was a box-office smash and one of the biggest hits of the 1980s.
Watch the Trailer for ‘Rambo III’
Because of this success, a third film was immediately put into the works by the famed producing team of Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna at Carolco Pictures. The question with this new movie was which war Rambo would find himself engaging in. The national obsession with the Vietnam War was fading, and so the choice was made to set it in Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union was at the time engaging in its own horrifyingly bloody boondoggle.
The plot of Rambo III centers on Rambo’s trusty commanding officer, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna) who gets himself captured by a notoriously brutal Soviet commander. This necessitates a rescue by Rambo, who ends up befriending the Afghan Mujahideen freedom fighters in the area, rescuing Trautman, and defeating the Soviet commander by driving a tank into the helicopter the bad guy is piloting.
In typical Stallone fashion, the project started with more grandiose aspirations than it ended with. He later revealed that the original idea for the script was much closer to the 2003 Bruce Willis film Tears of the Sun, which tells the story of a team of Navy SEALs caught between the orders of their callous superior officers and the dictates of their consciences.
Stallone turned down a version of the script he had hired Bullitt screenwriter Harry Kleiner to pen and eventually wrote it himself in conjunction with Sheldon Lettich, who had risen to fame by writing the Jean-Claude Van Damme action film Bloodsport. The version they eventually produced is less a global conflict think piece than it is a chance for Rambo to kill bad guys with everything from a 10-inch knife to a compound bow that shoots exploding arrows.
Rambo III also suffered from numerous production difficulties. Stallone originally picked Russell Mulcahy – most famous for making Highlander – to direct, and then summarily fired him. This incident was explained by Stallone in his typically colorful way in 2008, when he noted that he had sent Mulcahy to Israel (where they were going to film) to recruit actors to play the tough Soviet troops, only to arrive himself and find that Mulcahy had cast “two dozen blond, blue-eyed pretty boys that resembled rejects from a surfing contest” and would not intimidate John Rambo. Disappointed by this choice, Stallone summarily dismissed Mulcahy and “his chiffon army.”
Watch Rambo Run His Tank Into a Helicopter in ‘Rambo III’
His replacement was Peter MacDonald, a famed camera operator and second-unit director who had worked on everything from Cabaret to Zulu Dawn to The Empire Strikes Back. MacDonald was an expert at fitting into an existing vision since the second-unit director’s role is to shoot sequences that can’t be distinguished from the main director’s work. He also shared Stallone’s ability to be irreverent about his work, remembering in 2013 that he “wasn’t shooting Shakespeare and at times it was hard to take on [Rambo III] seriously.”
After returning to Arizona to finish the movie because of the difficulties of filming in Israel, Rambo III was finished. As always seemed to happen to Stallone, it had been turned into a film with a vast number of explosions and almost never-ending sequences of machine-gun fire, and vanishingly little character development or philosophizing.
By this point, even Stallone appeared to accept that his fate was to be reduced to a big-muscled violent guy. In a 1988 interview with Roger Ebert, he smilingly noted that audiences might find the movie “unrealistic.” Beyond this, it seemed that no matter how smart he was, no matter his interest in highlighting how “war is the most vile of all agents of man,” Stallone’s audience was interested in only one thing.
“They came for action,” he told Ebert. “They were waiting for their fix at the end of the movie. If a time came in the script where I got the chance to locute, you could hear the people in front of their VCRs: Fast-forward this mother!“
As happens to so many actors, he had begun by creating a character. Then Sylvester Stallone found that the character was the only thing his audience wanted.
Watch Rambo Use His Exploding Arrows in ‘Rambo III’
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It started out with good intentions, then swerved into something entirely different.