Thursday, November 17, 2005

Civilian Blood

Colonel: We can’t have you running around wasting friendly civilians.
Rambo: There are no friendly civilians.

First Blood was on the tube tonight. I got a glance at much of it, watched some as carefully as possible on the silly box. I’m pleased to find that I liked it almost as much as I did in 1982 when bk and I caught it fairly early in its first run. I’ll list a couple of things I like best about it, pretty much unchanged I find by the decades.

The movie brought the Vietnam war home -- where it belonged. US involvement in Vietnam killed an estimated four million Vietnamese; here the green beret tears up the local constabulary: and, boy, do they deserve it.

I liked its action. I liked Sly’s posing. I liked everybody’s overkill on everything they do, everything they touch.

I liked the movie’s silence. It’s terrific: until they start talking; then it’s ghastly.

I adore the utter realism: Sheriff Will Teasle violates the law, morality, decency, ethics, police procedure ... at every opportunity, but he’s still the boss, still in charge, still respected: even obeyed, in so far as the yokels were capable of following orders. The Americans here really didn’t make very obedient Nazis, but then the Nazis themselves turned out to be not quite so robotic as they were cast in WW II. Teasle gets his cops killed, his town blown up, and no one kicks his head through the street.

Hollywood has never failed to provide scripts in which the authorities, like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, learn nothing from their experience. Before long it’s pretty clear that Sheriff Teasle’s stupidity is deliberate. I find that First Blood is a sterling example of that tradition: and Brian Dennehy performed the brainless beef beautifully: born for the role. My first memory of Brian Dennehy dates to 1957 or 1958. My old buddy Brian Carey had come to room with me in the Apple. Brian was sporting the beard that, among other things, had gotten him thrown out of Notre Dame. On our way to the West End Tavern we crossed from Amsterdam Avenue toward Broadway on West 114th Street. The DEKs were already well-partied up as we passed, Brian and I, for the moment, utterly sober. Brian, I presume for his beard, got drenched in beer which the DEKs were quaffing directly from pitchers. They must have had a keg, so what the hell, dump it by the pitcher-full on the beatnik. When I glowered at them, myself having been spared the shower by accident or by design, the one drunk who met my gaze without flinching his eyes away was Brian Dennehy: our Lion center: and future terrific character actor for red-neck cop roles.

But back to the movie for at least a moment more: as a kid I loved the Burroughs Tarzan novels. Tarzan had only one weapon other than his body and his wits and his will to prevail: his knife. The cops have stripped Rambo down to hose him, so he’s half naked as he escapes. The one thing he is careful to grab as he flees the precinct house is his knife. The cops have cars, guns, radios, helicopters ... automatic weapons, bazookas ... That’s all right: the morons always bring the hero all the additional weaponry he will need when they come after him. All the hero has to do is take it away from them and shove it up their ass. But I don’t remember Tarzan bawling like a baby. Tarzan goes through kraut soldiers like butter. But I don’t remember Tarzan chickening out the second he sees an officer. Rambo kills the dogs, kills the cops, spares a kid with a hunting rifle, then resumes chewing up the non-coms. But as soon as he faces the sheriff, he backs off. As soon as he sees his old colonel, he goes all to pieces.

Rambo was half-naked, Tarzan was all naked (except in the movies). Tarzan didn’t hold his hand because the bad guy had a commission from some kleptocracy. Rambo blows everything to hell, sees the trinket of rank: and blubbers.

But at least the civilians got mauled.

The dialogue is really awful, but some of the lines are nevertheless revealing: gems. As his town is getting torched, Sheriff Teasle, over the bull horn, commands that the civilians "get indoors; await further instructions." The sheriff who’s gotten their town blown up assumes authority not just to harass unfamiliar long-haired pedestrians but to tell the citizenry what to do?
Leni Riefenstahl reported that Marlene Dietrich, on learning that Hitler had been elected, said, "Oh, good. Now the German people will have someone to tell them what to do." Sheriff Teasle makes sure that his pillaged Americans get the same privilege: he tells them what to do, promises to tell them more.

PS 2005 11 21 Same thing in Batman Begins (another movie I like; though I don’t love it as I love First Blood): Hollywood always offers a hero who mows through the pawns, chops up the knights and bishops, but stalls at the rook, queen, king. Rambo kills the dogs, kills the helicopter, kills the cops; but just talks to the sheriff, whines at the colonel. What would he do if he saw a congressman? or the president? What would he do if he saw the damn Pope?
Batman shows up for the big drug smuggle. He kicks hell out of the longshoremen, the truck loaders. Good thing there are no mail clerks, assistant copy boys around. Hierarchical society is a triangle with a very broad base. But Batman too can’t climb the sides of the triangle, doesn’t seem to even aim for the top. The crime king pin is sitting in his limo: right there, fer CrySake. Batman pulls him up through the limo’s moon roof, gives him a shake, a good talking to. If Batman really wanted to do something, why didn’t he leave the truck loaders alone, just show up in the limo, and kick hell out of the king pin?

Anthropologists tell of the African tribal villagers who were plagued by some white-man crooks. Some other white-man colonialists rounded up the crooks, arrested them, told the tribal villagers to keep them guarded in the hut. The crooks just slept for a day, and then walked out. The crooks were a worse parasite on the tribe than the colonial officials; but the tribesmen could do nothing to interfere with the free movements of a white man: except when some other white man was standing there, giving and supervising the order.
When my German shepherd was a puppy it was cute when he jumped toward my knee. But as he grew it was time to dissuade him from the habit. I read that all I had to do was to wait till he was on his none-too-well-balanced hind legs, half-way toward my crotch, and deflect him with my knee. The advice came with a theory, an explanation: the dog doesn’t see your knee deflect him, neither does he feel it: he feels only his failure: after a while he decides that it is simply impossible to put his front paws on a human body above the ankle. It worked.

So it’s understandable if the Rambos of the world can kick hell out of each other, maybe even frag a lieutenant, but they tremble at the captain, the major, the colonel ...
But Batman? Bruce Wayne? raised in a freaking gothic horror of a castle? Why couldn’t he stomp the chief?

I don’t think it’s Bruce Wayne. I think it’s Hollywood: doesn’t want to give the audience, the little would-be Rambos, chasing the popcorn with steroids, the little cops-to-be, the pups, the local tribesmen, any ideas.

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