[REVIEW] First Blood, by David Morrell

A tablet displaying the cover of First Blood is held up in front of a leafless fall tree at twilight. The cover depicts a lone man standing in shadow, looking towards a light.

(Buy it here.)

I remember thinking, the first time I watched the Sylvester Stallone film Rambo: First Blood, that it wasn’t what I expected at all. I expected a dumb, violent, muscley action flick. It is all of that, but wrapped around a surprisingly empathetic portrayal of a scared young Vietnam vet with PTSD using the only skillset he has to fight back against the authoritarian behavior of another PTSD-stricken vet from a different war.

All of the good parts of the first Rambo film are taken directly from the 1972 novel it’s based on. Every year on Veteran’s Day I tell myself to post a review of this book, which is widely considered the beginning of the action novel genre. Every year I forget, and this year I finally decided to post it late anyway.

Even though the book is about small-town conflict between a young homeless Vietnam vet (Rambo) and an older Korean war vet turned small-town sheriff, I wouldn’t actually recommend this to any of the vets I know. Even for me, who has not a lick of military experience, this book is triggering. It’s violent and gory and frighteningly intense at times. But perhaps for those of us who can be a bit self-righteously smug when criticizing the military and look down on soldiers, this could be an empathy-builder. War is hell, and it follows you home. That’s not a thing you can blame individuals for.

The events in First Blood are horrible. A police stop turns into a PTSD-triggered murder, a manhunt and a very tragic end for all involved. But while Rambo and the sheriff are both wrong, they’re also both sympathetic. They’ve both been scarred by combat and given no healing tools to reintegrate into society. Rambo is a scared kid, misused by his government. The sheriff is a man who never fully recovered from his own combat ordeals, and the two don’t understand each other until it’s too late.

This book is hugely dramatic and would probably be too broad for publication now. But like the movie it inspired, it made me think and feel past the violence. It’s also very well written. I can smell the mountains the characters are surrounded by, and the alternating points of view between the two main characters work well.

I’d say more, but I honestly don’t feel qualified to really unpack all that this book does. It shocked and surprised me, then made me fall into one of my empathy gaps, look around, and start mending my thinking.

A good therapist, a safe place to stay, and good post-combat support to First Blood.

(Beautiful people and fellow readers, this one isn’t usually my genre, but it was a nice stretch for my mind and heart. It IS very violent though, so reader beware. If you’re interested in this or any other books, please take a look at the Equal Opportunity Bookshop. We have an affiliate partnership with that site, and any books you buy will earn a commission. Thanks! )

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