It’s hard to imagine anyone but Sylvester Stallone wearing John Rambo’s famous sweatband, but he was far from first choice for the role. According to Stallone, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, James Caan, Nick Nolte, Robert Redford, and Burt Reynolds were all considered before him. "I think they were going to lab animals before they got to me," he told Howard Stern in 2019. First Blood had been kicking around Hollywood for so long by the time Stallone got a call that he almost passed on it. "It was kind of a jinxed project," he said. "It had been around so many actors and gone through many changes with directors, and I was very nervous. As a matter of fact, the day of filming I was hoping that it would never happen, that it would just go away."
Despite Stallone’s reservations, First Blood became one of the defining films of the 1980s. The first sequel, 1985’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, managed to surpass it at the box office, but the critics were not so receptive. 1988’s Rambo III and 2008’s Rambo both failed to reach the high bar set by the original, but Stallone has promised a "very intense" finale in Rambo V: Last Blood. The character will remain forever ingrained in pop culture, regardless. No amount of substandard sequels can change the fact that John Rambo is one of the most influential action heroes in film history, but how much do you really know about him?
It all started with a novel
The story of Vietnam War veteran John Rambo was first told in David Morrell’s 1972 debut novel First Blood, a huge hit for the Canadian-born author that has been translated into as many as 26 different languages since publication. To this day, the book has never gone out of print, remaining popular among readers and fellow writers alike (Stephen King used it as one of his core texts while teaching creative writing at the University of Maine), though the film version of First Blood deviated from Morrell’s novel on a number of occasions in terms of tone.
While the novel jumps back and forth between Rambo and Sheriff Teasle’s viewpoints so the reader is always unsure as to who is in the right (the key to the story’s success, according to the author), the film does everything in its power to paint Rambo as the undisputed hero of the story. An early example of this is the scene in which Rambo is jailed for being a bearded vagrant and experiences a Vietnam flashback when confronted with a razor. In the movie, Rambo simply escapes police custody after the deputy in question continues to harass him, while in the book, the former POW takes the razor from the guard and proceeds to gut him. Sylvester Stallone’s take on the character is far less violent, going through the entire film without directly killing a single man.
Stallone was "very close" to being killed in the motorcycle chase
After escaping custody, Rambo finds himself on foot with armed officers in close pursuit. Luckily for him, a man passing on a Yamaha XT250 presents an opportunity for escape. The spooked vet pulls the motorcyclist from his bike and uses it to lead the police on a chase through the town and the dense woodlands beyond—a well-shot scene with many of the twists and turns handled by Stallone himself. It wasn’t quite as easy as the leading man made it look on film, however. Sly revealed that the freezing weather they experienced while filming on location in British Columbia presented a certain set of problems, though nobody predicted that the driver of an 18-wheeler would ignore the crew and use the road where they were filming the chase.
"It was very dangerous," admitted Stallone. "Just before I came off the road, we almost had a head-on collision. The stunt people tried to block off the highways, but they couldn’t, and this one truck came by … let me tell you, it was very, very close. I was ready to shake hands with the angels."