Rambo: First Blood Part II Ending Explained: The Bloody Legacy Of A Blockbuster Lie

One year before Oliver Stone pricked America's conscience with "Platoon," Sylvester Stallone used the Vietnam War as a backdrop for his unabashedly pulpy "Rambo: First Blood Part II." Conceived at the height of the POW/MIA dispute, which demanded a full accounting of all American soldiers who never returned home from the conflict, the film is both entertainingly exploitative and morally repugnant. It transforms the first movie's grievously traumatized John Rambo into a cartoonishly lethal one-man-army, and preys on the hopes of military families who at the time were clinging to dreams that their loved ones were still being held in bamboo cages somewhere in Southeast Asia. Stallone's intent might've been dubious, but it was right in line with the zeitgeist. Despite a raft of scathingly indignant reviews, "Rambo: First Blood Part II" was the second highest grossing movie of 1985. 

For some, the title character represented the stirring, hyper-macho apotheosis of the all-American hero who passed out of fashion when John Wayne bit the dust. For others, Rambo embodied a regressive jingoism that gradually manifested in a whole new series of military misadventures. For Stallone, the film gave voice to veterans' disillusionment not with the United States, but its citizenry's lack of ardor for the greatest country on Earth. This is the gist of Rambo's anguished closing sentiment. Where did Stallone get this notion, and does his protagonist's impassioned plea make a lick of sense given the film's ambiguity about the war? Let's unpack this sucker.

To survive a war, you gotta become a war

At the outset of "Rambo: First Blood Part II," our hero is doing hard time in a labor camp as punishment for the events of the first movie when his former superior and only remaining ally, Colonel Trautman (Richard Crenna), drops by to dangle a presidential pardon. All Rambo has to do to earn his freedom is parachute into Vietnam, obtain photographic evidence of U.S. prisoners of war still being held in the country, and get airlifted out. Rambo accepts, but throws up an immediate red flag when he asks Trautman "Do we get to win this time?" Rather than reiterate that this is strictly a reconnaissance mission, Trautman replies, "This time it's up to you."

Rambo is promptly flown to a military base in Thailand, where the operation's treacherous manager, Roger Murdoch (Charles Napier), immediately throws cold water on the ex-Green Beret's inclination to resume the war. The only shooting is to be done via camera. What Rambo and Trautman fail to realize is that Murdoch's congressional overseers expect Rambo to find zero evidence of imprisoned U.S. soldiers; worse, they have no idea that Murdoch plans to leave the Medal of Honor winner to die in the unlikely event that he does put eyes on POWs. It's yet another weak-willed, bureaucratic betrayal of a patriot willing to die for his country. In other words, it's Vietnam all over again. What Murdock does not know is that Rambo is determined to win this time.

I want what they want

The bulk of "Rambo: First Blood Part II" is sensationally entertaining nonsense. Director George Pan Cosmatos, working with the insanely overqualified cinematographer Jack Cardiff (best known for lensing such cinematic landmarks as "A Matter of Life and Death," "Black Narcissus," and "The Red Shoes"), dazzle the viewer with muscular action set pieces, while Jerry Goldsmith's propulsive score gets the blood pumping something fierce. Rambo is captured and tortured by a couple of stock Russian baddies, who disastrously underestimate the warrior's capacity for bloodshed. They mess around, and they sho'nuff find out. Rambo avenges — via explosive-tipped arrow — the death of the river pirate (Julia Nickson) he'd abruptly fallen in love with, kills the Russians, returns with a clutch of POWs, delivers his aggrieved valedictory, and wanders off into the wilds of Thailand. Audience cheers. Credits roll.

It's tempting to shut off your brain and enjoy the ludicrously thrilling ride, but Stallone isn't one for mindlessness. He's a serious artist who invests each of his signature franchise films with a piece of his soul and/or mind. The "Rocky" films reflect his evolution as an artist and a man, while the "Rambo" movies express his political worldview. "First Blood" did not originate with Stallone (Clint Eastwood and Robert De Niro were in the early running for the lead role), but, once cast, he leveraged his "Rocky" star power to make the character his own. That film is a grounded, wholly uncontroversial tale of a combat-addled soldier who came home to disdain instead of a parade. And because all decent people, regardless of political affiliation, can agree that Vietnam vets got the rawest of deals after the war, we sympathize with and root for Rambo. The sequel, however, is a completely different beast. It's as adrenalized as "Rocky III," but thematically unsettled. This is why the final scene, while heartfelt, strikes a strangely discordant tone.

After settling his debts with the duplicitous Murdock, Rambo gets into a heated exchange with Trautman. The colonel is conflicted. In an earlier fracas with Murdock, he acknowledges the war was a mistake based on a lie, but, as a soldier, his duty is to bring every living American back home. If that requires a resumption of hostilities, so be it. Now that Rambo has carried out this mission, Trautman implores his protégé to return home as well. When Rambo resists, Trautman tells him that, while the war was wrong, he shouldn't hate his country for it. He then asks Rambo what he wants. Rambo explodes. "I want what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it! That's what I want!"

A rousing corrective to a needlessly bloody failure

In a wide-ranging 2006 Q&A, Stallone said, "I realize his speech at the end may have caused millions of viewers to burst veins in their eyeballs by rolling them excessively, but the sentiment stated was conveyed to me by many veterans." This may very well be true, but for many of the 2.2 million unfortunate sons who couldn't defer their way out of service, the Vietnam War was a reminder that the poorest Americans will always fight the misguided battles of the ruling class. Furthermore, these Americans will be forced to join a second fight on the homefront just to ensure their government lives up to its obligations. The failure of the Vietnam War, and the miserable treatment of the men who fought it, had nothing to do with insufficient love of country. Rather, it was a tragedy of blind, unquestioning affection by millions of patriots who knew they'd never be called to serve.

At the height of his Hollywood powers, and in the midst of the Reagan era, Stallone's commercial instincts were spot-on. The majority of the country was raring to flex its military muscle again and remind the world that the United States will always be the premiere superpower on the planet. But by creating a rousing corrective to a needlessly bloody failure, Stallone spun a new, equally pernicious lie, one that many Americans believe to this day. Rambo might've been invincible, but the true believers who enlisted to fight the Iraq War based on wholesale fabrication were not. The lessons of "Platoon" and the sobering films it inspired were, in the end, no match for the fantasy of "Rambo: First Blood Part II."