Mention Sylvester Stallone and two characters immediately come to mind: Rocky Balboa, and John Rambo, introduced in 1982’s First Blood. Although Rambo became a major action movie icon, the original film is a down-to-earth story about a troubled Vietnam veteran who suffers a psychological breakdown when challenged by local law enforcement in rural Washington State and goes rogue in the woods.
Here are some facts you might not have known about director Ted Kotcheff’s action drama, which kickstarted the Rambo franchise.
15. The first cut was three and half hours long, and it was so bad Stallone wanted it destroyed
First Blood may be considered a career highlight for most of its cast and crew these days, but early expectations for the film were not so high. The first rough cut of the film assembled by director Ted Kotcheff reportedly ran to around three and a half hours, and according to some it was near unwatchable. Sylvester Stallone thought the film was so bad it might ruin his career.
So great was Stallone’s anxiety, he at first tried to buy the film outright so he could block its release and have it destroyed. When this failed, the actor instead demanded significant re-editing. The final cut of First Blood that made it to screens was 93 minutes, with almost two hours of footage deleted from the initial rough cut.
14. The film deviates significantly from David Morrell’s original novel
First Blood began life as a 1972 novel by author David Morrell. The film adaptation had been in development for the best part of a decade when it finally got off the ground with Stallone starring and Kotcheff directing, and after going through many different drafts, the screenplay wound up making some significant changes from what Morrell wrote.
Most significantly, Sylvester Stallone (who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Kozzol and William Sackheim) insisted on making Rambo more sympathetic. To this end, Rambo does not deliberately kill any policemen in the film as he does in the novel; he also survives at the end, whereas the book ended with his death. On top of this, Rambo was not given the first name ‘John’ by Morrell.
13. Other actors considered for Rambo include Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino
As First Blood spent nearly an entire decade in development before it finally reached screens, a lot of other actors were considered to play Rambo along the way. This included many notable stars of the era, among them Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Kris Kristofferson.
As the film got closer to production, Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte and John Travolta were candidates for the part before Sylvester Stallone, hot from the success of the first two Rocky movies, signed on instead.
12. Sylvester Stallone demanded a hefty salary
When Sylvester Stallone started out as an actor at the tail end of the 1960s, he had to take whatever he could get professionally. However, after Rocky became a huge hit and a multiple Oscar winner, his career sky-rocketed, and soon enough Stallone was in a position to demand a whole lot more. To take the lead in First Blood, he told the producers he would do it for $3.5 million.
As the film only had a $15 million budget, the studio couldn’t afford this, so a compromise was found: Stallone was paid $2 million up front, then a further $1.5 million later from TV sales. In the years since, Stallone is believed to have earned more than $300 million from film salaries alone.
11. Trautman actor Richard Crenna was an eleventh-hour replacement for Kirk Douglas
The makers of First Blood were keen to cast a big name elder actor as Rambo’s mentor Colonel Trautman, and to this end the role was initially set to be taken by Kirk Douglas. However, the legendary Spartacus actor wound up dropping out of the movie not long before production began as he wasn’t happy with the script. This sent the producers in a mad rush to find a replacement.
Second choice Rock Hudson also had to pass as he was recovering from open heart surgery, so the role was finally offered to Richard Crenna. After saying yes to the role, Crenna was on set within a week and had to have his lines directly fed to him, having not had time to learn the script.
10. Sylvester Stallone really broke Alf Humphreys’ nose
First Blood is a very physical movie, and occasionally things got a little rough on set. While filming the jail escape scene, Sylvester Stallone accidentally struck his co-star Alf Humphreys for real, elbowing the Lester actor in the face. Humphreys was left with a broken nose, and this is why he is seen wearing a band-aid throughout the rest of the film.
This proved entirely appropriate, as it’s written in the original novel that Rambo did indeed break Lester’s nose whilst breaking out of jail. Alf Humphreys went on to enjoy a prolific career as a character actor, clocking up 123 credits on film and TV before sadly passing away from brain cancer in 2018, aged 64.
9. A stuntman suffered a broken back shooting a car chase
Movies hire stunt doubles for a reason: sometimes they have to do things that result in very real injuries. Unfortunately, this was the case on First Blood for stunt man Bennie E. Dobbins, who doubled for Brian Dennehy’s Sheriff Teasle. Whilst shooting the scene in which Teasle chases Rambo in a police car, the car went over a ramp and was launched into the air at 70 miles per hour.
The vehicle landed on its chassis, leaving Dobbins with a broken back. Dobbins recovered and went on to work on plenty more films during the 1980s, but tragically he passed away in 1988, suffering a heart attack whilst shooting a fight scene on Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Red Heat.
8. Stallone suffered some serious injuries including broken ribs
Stallone may have broken the nose of unfortunate co-star Alf Humphreys, but the leading man himself also suffered for his art shooting First Blood. In one of the most eye-popping scenes, Rambo is hanging from a cliff face as police open fire on him from a helicopter: he leaps down into the trees far below, and we see Stallone wince in pain as he crashes onto a thick tree limb.
Stallone isn’t just acting in this scene. While he didn’t fall from quite the same height that Rambo is meant to, it was still a significant enough drop that the actor hit the tree at great force, and actually broke some ribs for real. He also seriously hurt his back performing this stunt.
7. Several shot scenes didn’t make the final cut
Considering that the original first cut of First Blood was around two hours longer than the version that made it to screens, we obviously lost a fair few scenes in the re-editing process. Some of these scenes were re-inserted for extended TV versions of the movie, including a moment when Rambo is treated dismissively by staff in a diner, scenes of the men hunting Rambo receiving medical attention, and further conversations between Teasle and Trautman.
The original cut of First Blood even featured a love scene. Rambo, whilst in the cave after dispatching Teasle and his men, has another flashback to himself and his buddies in a bar in Vietnam being entertained by the local ladies, one of whom Rambo takes back to his room. The scene flashes back to the present and Rambo begins to cry.
6. Stallone now considers it one of his best films
Although he was hugely unhappy with the film when the first cut was produced, today Stallone looks back on First Blood with considerably greater fondness. In an interview with Graham Norton, Stallone declared First Blood to be his personal favourite of all the films he’s made, stating he wouldn’t change anything in it.
Stallone also remarked in a 2006 fan Q&A that he considers First Blood to be “my best action film because the action is believable and accomplished without any high-end technology.”
5. Rambo’s makeshift coat was actually a rotting canvas
While First Blood was made on a then-respectable budget of $15 million, the filmmakers were still keen to avoid unnecessary expenditures. They were also keen to convey the tale of wilderness survival as authentically as possible. This attitude extended to the clothing Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo wears, as the film sees Rambo finds a piece of rotten canvas in the woods and cuts it into a makeshift coat.
This was not a prop, but an actual piece of canvas that the crew found during the movie’s production. Usually when making films, there are several of each piece of clothing made. Since there was only one of this coat, Stallone joked how it became a precious prop on set. After filming finished, Stallone kept the canvas and still has it today.
4. The film pushed back production on Rocky III
First Blood proved to be a somewhat gruelling production, shot almost entirely on location under fairly harsh weather conditions. As a result of these difficulties, production overran on the film, forcing Stallone and company to delay production on Rocky III, which the actor shot next. (First Blood was shot first, even though in the end Rocky III made it to cinemas first in May 1982, with First Blood opening five months later in October.)
All this hard work paid off, however, as Rocky III and First Blood proved to be Stallone’s biggest hits to date: Rocky III earned $275 million, whilst First Blood made over $125 million. Three years later Stallone would have an even more profitable year with these same characters, with the release of Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II.
3. An alternate ending was shot in which Rambo is killed by Trautman
Originally, the film First Blood ended the same way David Morrell’s source novel did, with Rambo being shot and killed by Colonel Trautman. While this scene was filmed, it caused disagreements behind the scenes: Sylvester Stallone, for one, complained bitterly, feeling that the film should end on a more hopeful note with Rambo surviving.
Eventually Stallone had his way, but other endings were considered. Another planned ending might have seen Rambo commit suicide by charging at the police, only to be gunned down.
2. The ‘Rambo knife’ gave a massive boost to the cutlery industry
Aside from his red headband, the thing that really defines Rambo physically in the original First Blood is his eye-popping survival knife. Modelled on the type of knives carried by pilots in the Vietnam War, the weapon was designed and constructed by famed knife maker Jimmy Lyle, and was notable both for its hefty serrated edge and the compass in its hilt.
Knives of this nature became a lot more popular among hunters and outdoorsmen as a result of the Rambo movies, and in the years that followed the franchise was applauded for having encouraged a massive upsurge in the knife industry in the US.
1. Rambo doesn’t actually kill anyone in the movie
Over the years, ‘Rambo’ has become a byword for large-scale action movies with an absurdly big body count. It may come as a surprise, then, that in the original First Blood, John Rambo doesn’t actually kill anyone. The only casualty is the cop who falls from the open door of the helicopter after Rambo hurls a rock, and it’s debatable as to whether or not Rambo really intended to kill him.
Still, the later Rambo movies more than made up for First Blood’s comparative lack of carnage. 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II sees the hero kill 75 people; in 1988’s Rambo III he kills 78; in 2008’s John Rambo, 81; and in 2019’s Rambo: Last Blood, he kills 46. (These, we should note, are estimates.)