First Blood (novel)

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First Blood
First edition
AuthorDavid Morrell
Original titleFirst Blood
CountryUnited States
PublisherRowman & Littlefield
Publication date

First Blood is a 1972 American action thriller novel by David Morrell about a troubled homeless Vietnam War veteran, known only by his last name of Rambo, who ends up in a bloody standoff with local police in Kentucky. It was notably adapted into the 1982 film First Blood starring Sylvester Stallone,[1] which ended up spawning an entire media franchise around the Rambo character.


The story begins when a homeless Vietnam War veteran, Rambo, becomes a drifter after his return to America. Rambo wanders into Madison County, Kentucky and is intercepted by Police Chief Wilfred Teasle who believes he is trouble. Teasle takes him out of town in a police car and drops him off at the city limits. When Rambo repeatedly returns, Teasle finally arrests him and drives him to the station. He is charged with vagrancy and resisting arrest and is sentenced to 35 days in jail. Kept inside a claustrophobia-inducing cell, Rambo experiences a flashback to his days as a POW in Vietnam, and he attacks the police as they attempt to cut his hair and shave him, verbally assaulting one officer and disemboweling another with the straight razor. He flees without any clothes, steals a motorcycle, and hides in the nearby mountains. He becomes the focus of a manhunt that results in the deaths of many police officers, civilians, and National Guardsmen.

It is eventually revealed to Teasle that Rambo was a member of an elite Special Forces unit in Vietnam, trained to hunt and kill the enemy, and survive by any means necessary. It is also revealed that Rambo has been awarded the Medal of Honor for actions above and beyond the call of duty while in Vietnam, only to become a vagrant after returning to the States and being discharged from the Army, mostly due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a climactic ending in the town where his conflict with Teasle began, Rambo is finally tracked down by Green Beret Colonel Sam Trautman, and Teasle. Using his local knowledge, Teasle manages to surprise Rambo and shoots him in the chest, but is himself wounded in the stomach by a return shot. He then tries to pursue Rambo as he makes a final attempt to escape back out of the town. Both men are essentially dying by this point, but are driven by pride and a desire to justify their actions. Rambo, having found a spot he feels comfortable in, prepares to commit suicide by detonating a stick of dynamite against his body; however, he then sees Teasle following his trail and decides that it would be more honorable to continue fighting and be killed by Teasle's return fire.

Rambo fires at Teasle and, to his surprise and disappointment, hits him. For a moment he reflects on how he had missed his chance of a decent death, because he is now too weak to light the fuse to detonate the dynamite, but then suddenly feels the explosion he had expected—but in the head, not the stomach where the dynamite was placed. Rambo dies satisfied that he has come to a fitting end. Trautman returns to the dying Teasle and tells him that he has killed Rambo with Teasle's shotgun. Teasle relaxes, experiences a moment of affection for Rambo, and then dies, succumbing to his wounds.



Morrell stated he was inspired to write the novel by hearing about the experiences of his students who had fought in Vietnam.[2] The author also said "When I started First Blood back in 1968, I was deeply influenced by Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male."[clarification needed][3] The character's name was derived in part from the Rambo apple, a supply of which his wife brought home while he was trying to come up with a suitable name for his character.[4] In the DVD commentary for First Blood, Morell comments that one of the inspirations for Rambo was World War II hero Audie Murphy. The town that Madison, Kentucky, was modelled after was Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.


Critical response[edit]

While John Skow of TIME described the book as "carnography",[5] this negative review appears to be the exception: the book was praised by Newsweek as "First-rate", by The New York Times Book Review as "A fine novel" and by the thriller writer John D. MacDonald as "one hell of a hard, fast novel".[6] When Stephen King taught creative writing at the University of Maine, he used it as a textbook, and the book has been translated into 26 languages.[7]

Film adaptation[edit]

Cuban-Italian actor Tomas Milian read First Blood soon after its release and wanted to star in an adaptation of it; however, he was unsuccessful in persuading Italian producers to support the project. Still, he used "Rambo" as the name of his character, an ex-cop, in the 1975 film Syndicate Sadists.

In 1972, Morrell sold the film rights to First Blood to Columbia Pictures, who in turn sold them to Warner Bros. The film languished in development hell for ten years, with the story passing through three companies and eighteen screenplays. Finally, Andrew G. Vajna and Mario Kassar, two film distributors looking to become producers, obtained the film rights. Sylvester Stallone was cast in the lead role, due to the star power he had from the films Rocky and Rocky II. Stallone was able to use his clout to force changes to the script to make Rambo a more sympathetic character, including having Rambo not directly kill any police or national guardsmen (in the novel, he kills many), and having him survive at the end instead of dying as he does in the book.

Rambo, whose first name is not specified in the novel, was given the first name "John" for the film as a reference to the song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home".[8]

The resulting film, First Blood, was a major success, earning $125 million on a $15 million budget, and spawning an entire Rambo franchise.


  1. ^ David Morrell. "Rambo". Retrieved July 21, 2012.
  2. ^ Drawing First Blood. First Blood DVD: Artisan. 2002.
  3. ^ Joe Hartlaub (March 23, 2007). "Interview". The Book Reporter. Retrieved 2007-10-10.
  4. ^ Morrell's 2000 introduction to the novel, entitled "Rambo and Me", gives insight on the inspirations and development of the novel (pp. vii–xiv).
  5. ^ Skow, John."Carnography". TIME. May 29, 1972.
  6. ^ Praise for "First Blood".
  7. ^ David Morrell on Rambo. Archived 2013-09-28 at WebCite
  8. ^ Morrell, David (1985). "Introduction". Rambo (First Blood Part II). ISBN 0-515-08399-2.

Further reading[edit]

  • First Blood by David Morrell (1972). Morrell's 2000 introduction, entitled "Rambo and Me", gives insight on the inspirations and development of the novel, as well as the development of the film adaptation and its first two sequels (pp. vii–xiv).
  • Stiffed by Susan Faludi (1999). Chapter 7 (pp. 359–406) offers a fuller treatment of the genesis and metamorphosis of First Blood from book to theater, including the screenplay's radical and reactionary swings in development and the alternate movie ending.