John Rambo – Humanitarian?

I finally got around to watching the latest Sly movie – Rambo. This movie went through more name changes than the artist-formerly-known-as-the-symbol-for-the-artist-formerly-known-as-Prince. Seriously, first it was Rambo 4 then Rambo 4: End of Peace, Rambo 4: Holy War, Rambo 4: In the Serpent’s Eye, Rambo: Pearl of the Cobra, Rambo: First Blood part 4, Rambo: To Hell and Back,then penultimately John Rambo. Finally they just settled on Rambo, which is going to bring a lot of confusion since First Blood Part 2 was also called Rambo. Somehow, there never was Rambo 2. We skipped from Rambo: First Blood Part 2 over to Rambo III.

Come to think of it, it is more than just confusing. It’s terrible misleading. Sequentially, the films are called:

  1. First Blood (1982)
  2. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
  3. Rambo III (1988)
  4. Rambo (2008)

Isn’t that the most confusing sequence of films you’ve ever seen? What is really fascinating is that the name “Rambo” is only said twice in the entire film, both times by a minor character, Pastor Arthur Marsh (played by Ken Howard).

But I digress…

The amazing thing is not that this film got made but that it was as good as it was. I had very low expectations but high hopes, if you know what I mean. Rocky Balboa was the kind of film I love, much more like the first Rocky film. It was a story about the world happening to you, old age happening to you and fighting back against the tides of time – not because you will win but because there is a lesson to be learned. That was great film making.

So, there I was, in the cheap theater in Manchester, waiting for my all-time body-building idol, Sylvester Stallone, to strap on the headband and show his bulging muscles to prove how real men fight for something.

But the film surprised me. For one thing, the movie is not really about Rambo. It is about atrocity, about having to do what needs to be done to help people. It was not a movie about war and death (although there was a lot of death and violence). It was a movie about the human spirit, and most importantly about Christians.

That’s right. This Rambo movie was about Christians – a representation of the Christian missionaries helping the Karen people – a small minority living in the eastern, mountainous region of Myanmar (Burma). The Karen people have been waging a civil war against the Burmese government, a war not for independence but for sovereignty. They simply want to be a self-governing state in Myanmar – something that the Burmese government granted to three other ethnic groups but denied to the Karen since 1946.

Christian missionaries have been infiltrating the Myanmar/Thailand border for decades now, providing the Karen with medical help and necessary supplies. The Karen are mercilessly slaughtered by the Burmese military, and until recently nothing was done about it. So, Sly made a movie about it.

Sly called Myanmar, “A hellhole beyond your wildest dreams.” The movie is gruesome, violent and awful. You cringe and you almost cry as innocent people fall victim to their Burmese tormentors.

In the pivotal scene of the film, a group of western mercenaries sit crouched in hiding as a group of soldiers torture a group of Karen people. And then Rambo shows up and takes down the soldiers with some extremely well-aimed arrows. When the mercenaries attempt to leave the area without rescuing the missionaries, Rambo challenges them: “You can live for nothing or die for something.”

And there is where the humanitarian part comes in. HOW? You ask. Ah, my friend. Check this out:

Bootleg copies of Sylvester Stallone’s latest Rambo movie are popping up all over Myanmar (Burma), despite efforts by authorities to prevent the film from being circulated, Reuters reported today (Tuesday). In a report from Yangon, the wire service said that the movie, in which the country’s military junta is portrayed as the enemy, is “fast becoming a talking point among a population eager to shake off 45 years of military rule.” Reuters indicated that a paraphrased line from the movie, “Live for nothing, die for something,” has become a rallying cry within the country and has buoyed the resolve of opponents of the military regime. (

That’s right. John Rambo’s words on the edge of a killing field are becoming the “Remember the Alamo” of the Karen people. Sylvester Stallone has become an icon of revolution. Now, if that isn’t ironic, I don’t know what is.

But this is exactly what Sly intended. He wanted the western world to be aware of just what is going on over there. Even the pacifist Christian missionaries are calloused by the violence of it all. In one of the most poignant moments of the film, after a bloody battle where he kills a man by beating him with a rock, the lead missionary (played by Paul Schulze), raises his bloody hand and gives Rambo a wave. It is almost as he says, “Now I understand. I don’t like it; I don’t like that men like you exist, but we needed you.”

Rambo is the violence we cannot commit but we need for our own protection. He comes full circle in this final (?) film. He is the wild dogs that keep the wolves at bay. What was not understood when he came home from Vietnam is finally accepted and he accepts who he is and why he exists.

All in all, it was full of meaning. I cannot say I “enjoyed” it. But I will say that I was moved by it.

4 thoughts on “John Rambo – Humanitarian?”

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