In David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood, a Vietnam veteran named Rambo runs afoul of a small-town Sheriff. A manhunt ensues, and the nihilistically vindictive bloodshed: By the end of the novel, Rambo and the Sheriff are both dead. Almost a decade later, director Ted Kotcheff signed on to direct an adaptation of First Blood, and he had his own vision for the movie: The character of Rambo would be on a suicide mission. The film was originally going to end with Sylvester Stallone’s brutalized veteran dying by suicide… with a little help from Kirk Douglas, who was originally cast to play Colonel Trautman.
How were you originally planning to end the movie?
TED KOTCHEFF: I did a lot of research with Vietnam veterans. They were treated so badly, terribly. I think it was a very stupid war to begin with, based on a very stupid idea called the Domino Theory. The Domino Theory was: If Vietnam became Communist, then the whole Southeast would fall like dominoes, and they would all become communist as well. Fifty-eight thousand American troops, and a million Vietnamese – a million! – died for this stupid idea. A lot of the veterans felt horrible, guilty, they felt they’d dirtied their souls for absolutely nothing.
Then, of course, the veterans were treated so badly. In previous wars, like World War II – I remember, because I’m that old! – they had marching bands. They were treated like heroes! Vietnam veterans were vilified, and rejected. The right wing thought the Vietnam veterans were a bunch of losers, and lost the war – the first time America had lost a major war like that. The left wing thought they were a bunch of babykillers. A lot of veterans came home to find there was no place for them.
This is what happens to Rambo. That’s why I conceived of First Blood as Rambo’s suicide mission. The film was basically conceived as Rambo’s tragedy, that mirrored the tragedy of so many of the veterans that I talked to. I met guys that actually later on killed themselves. His tragedy mirrored their tragedy, and how they came to this sad conclusion to kill themselves.
My first choice for the picture was Sylvester Stallone. Usually, you submit a script to a star, you’d be lucky if you get an answer within two or three months. In his case, I sent it to him on a Thursday night. On a Friday morning he phones me: “I love this script! I want to do it!” I couldn’t believe my luck! Money always revolves around getting a big star name.
He said, “I only have one request: I hear that you’re going to do some rewriting on the film. I’d like to participate in the rewrite with you.”
I said, “I’d love that, Sylvester. You’re a terrific writer. Rocky is wonderfully written. Yeah, sure!”
One thing about Sylvester: He has a populist sense. He knows what audiences like to see, and what they don’t like to see. I’ve never had that. [Laughs] We came around to do the ending. He’s surrounded by the army, and by the police. He’s in the police station. The Colonel comes in there to put him out of his misery. [Rambo] says, “I know you have a gun underneath your jacket there. You created me. Now, you have to kill me.” And he pulls out the gun. But he can’t do it, of course. But Rambo reaches out, presses the trigger, and blows himself away. The whole scene was awfully moving. He kills himself!
We shot it. It was incredibly moving, after all we’d been through. Sylvester got up and said, “Ted, can I talk to you for a second?” He said, “You know, Ted, we put this character through so much. The police abuse him. He’s pursued endlessly. Dogs are sent after him. He jumps off cliffs. He runs through freezing water. He’s shot in the arm and he has to sew it up himself. All this, and now we’re gonna kill him?”
I said, “Sylvester has a point.” Something popped into my head right away. I said, “I know exactly how to do it.” We cut away from this scene, just before [the Colonel] pulls the gun out. They come out of the police station. They start to walk down the steps. I’ll pan over to the ambulance, and see the Sheriff being loaded into the ambulance. He’s been shot, but not killed. We go back to Sylvester – all one shot! – he’s so happy he didn’t kill him. The camera pans over, follows them as they go onto the street. The whole townspeople are there. They’ll look at him, he’ll look at them. They’ll end up on a jeep and drive off. All one long camera shot. And Sylvester loved it! So, I said, “Okay, guys!” I lined it all up.
So you filmed the new ending on the same day you filmed the original ending?
Right afterwards! The two producers, Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, they came running over to me, and said, “What the f— are you doing, Kotcheff? We were supposed to be wrapping for the day!” I told them about my alternate ending, and they went bloody nuts. “Kotcheff! We agreed this film was Rambo’s suicide mission, and now you’re altering it? Plus, you’re over budget and over schedule! You’re not gonna do it! We’re done for the day!”
I said, “Listen, you a–holes, I don’t take any s— from producers. I’m only gonna take two hours, I promise you. And then, when the American distributor wants a happy ending, which I’m sure they will, you won’t have to spend a ton of money bringing the whole cast and crew back — in March, in bad weather — at that time, you’ll be kissing my ass in gratitude!”
The film was picked up by Orion Films, whose head was Mike Medavoy, who I knew very well. The producers and the Orion executives made an agreement: Let’s have a test screening, with the original hara-kiri ending where he shoots himself, and see what the audience would respond. [The test audience] were all unanimous. They all said, in different words: “This is the best action film I’ve ever seen. But the ending is horrible!” In the face of this universal disapproval, they agreed to change the ending.
Was it mentally jarring to film that different ending, after you had conceived of the movie as Rambo’s suicide mission?
You have to go with your intuitions in making a film sometimes. That thing had been niggling at me in the back of my head: The town killed him. The evil Sheriff killed him. All those people that symbolized America had killed him. They were the evil people who did this.
Initially, Kirk Douglas was cast as Colonel Trautman. Why didn’t he ultimately appear in the movie?
He came in at the very beginning, towards the beginning of the shooting of the film. Had he stayed, he would have been involved in the scene where Rambo dies by suicide. He was a strange man, Kirk. He always had an unsettling manner of always talking about himself in the third person. For example, he would say, “This is a great line, but Kirk Douglas should say this line.”
I said, “But Kirk, that sentiment is appropriate for that nasty Sheriff, not for you.”
Later on, I heard from other producers that worked with him that he was habitually stealing good lines from other actors, even though they were not quite right for his character.
He was a big star. We wanted to bend over backwards. I sent him the script when he was performing in a play in San Francisco. He loved the script and said he wanted to do it. Then when he got up there, he started quarreling, before he even started to shoot. “This line’s gotta be changed.” “I don’t like this scene.” The dialogue he was suggesting was like a B-film, circa 1940.
Finally, I said to the producers, “I can’t please this guy! I’ve rewritten this damn scene four times trying to incorporate the things he tells me, then when he sees it in front of the page he doesn’t like it.” Finally they allowed me to go to him and say, “Kirk, you read the script three months ago. You liked it, and you agreed to do it. This is the script that we want to make, and this is the script I want you to be in. But if you don’t want to do this script, then you can go back to Los Angeles.” He said, “Okay, Kirk Douglas goes back to Los Angeles.” [Laughs]
What did you think of the direction that the sequels took Rambo in?
In my film, he’s against killing, he won’t kill anybody. In the sequel, he’s turned into a killing machine. He kills about 75 people! I said, “That’s not the character I created. If you’re gonna do that, good luck, have a good time.”
Forgetting about the sequels for a moment, where do you think Rambo goes after the end of First Blood?
The Colonel’s gonna take him back to the army cabin, maybe give him psychiatric assistance! He would find himself in a better place. I thought maybe even the Colonel gives him a job on the army field, or makes him an officer, because he’s so experienced. I thought that maybe the Colonel could see what had gone wrong. He’d help Rambo to get back to a more fulfilling life.