Rambo True Story: Every Real War & Conflict He Fought In – Screen Rant

John Rambo is, of course, fictional but he’s been inspired by some real-world analogs and has participated in fictional versions of real conflicts.
While the Rambo movies aren't based on a true story, the character has participated in fictionalized versions of several real-world conflicts. David Morrell's original novel First Blood spent the best part of a decade optioned for a feature film that never quite materialized. The tale of a psychologically scarred Vietnam veteran who wages war against a distrusting and dispassionate small town was an ideal project for the more complex storytelling of the New Hollywood of the 1970s.
First Blood finally took off as a greenlit project and was released in theaters in October 1982, co-written by its star, Sylvester Stallone. The film was a huge commercial success at the box office, which predictably led to two sequels – Rambo: First Blood Part II in 1985 and Rambo III in 1988. The character was later resurrected for two further movies, John Rambo and Rambo: Last Blood in 2008 and 2019 respectively. It even spawned a family-friendly cartoon series entitled Rambo: The Force of Freedom in 1986. The action hero franchise potential for John Rambo is at odds with the character of Morrell's original novel, something the author was particularly critical of when the fifth movie, 2019's Rambo: Last Blood was released in theaters. Rather than continue to address the psychologically harmful effects of warfare, the sequels instead dropped unstoppable action hero John Rambo into a number of real-world wars.
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John Rambo is, of course, fictional but he has been inspired by some real-world analogs. Novelist David Morrell based Rambo on Audie Murphy, one of America's most decorated soldiers. Murphy faced down German tanks alone and took over the operation of a .50 caliber machine gun when an American tank destroyer was destroyed, his actions in France earned him a Medal of Honor and stuck in Morrell's mind. In creating John Rambo, Morrell combined Murphy's impressive WWII service record with the difficulty some veterans experience in turning off their war mentality. While the Rambo movies eventually used this inability to turn off as a strength, they retained the character's connections to real-world events by deploying him in various contemporary military conflicts.
The war in Vietnam leaves lasting psychological scars on the young John Rambo. In First Blood, he recounts the horrific death of his friend Joey to his mentor, and recurring Rambo character, Colonel Trautman. Joey's death was the final straw for John Rambo, who had served in Vietnam for three years, a tour of duty that earned him two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, four Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. During his time in Vietnam and his classified elite missions as a Green Beret, Rambo endured many horrors and witnessed the deaths of many of his friends. This had such an impact that he was honorably discharged following the mental and emotional distress caused by Joey's death, returning to America, Rambo found that he was no longer welcome among people that fiercely opposed the Vietnam War.
The initial controversy lay in a belief that Vietnam was not America's war to fight. The Vietnam War was a national conflict for the future of the country, following the withdrawal of Japanese forces at the end of World War II. However, the ideological clash between communist leader Ho Chi Minh in South Vietnam and the staunchly anti-communist Emperor Bao Dai in the North turned the conflict for Vietnam's future into a Cold War proxy war. Following years of military and financial support, President Lindon B. Johnson sent active combat units to the country in 1964, drafting young Americans into military service. The anti-war feeling only increased when military units were sent in, and the war was punctuated with various high-profile controversies such as the horrific Mai Lai massacre carried out against Vietnamese civilians caused both national and international outrage.
In the original Rambo movie, First Blood, he's arguably traumatized by the treatment he's received on returning to America more than he is by the horrors witnessed in Vietnam. "I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me, huh?" It's this perceived lack of gratitude for his military service, and the death of another friend – from cancer caused by exposure to the chemical weapon, Agent Orange – that eventually leads Rambo to wage a one-man war against the town of Hope, Washington. In one moment toward the ending of First Blood, Rambo decries the lack of career prospects and difficulties he's experiencing in returning to civilian life. "Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million-dollar equipment, back here I can't even hold a job parking cars!" It's clear that war gave John Rambo purpose and there will always be a part of him that wishes to return to active duty.
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Rambo gets this wish in the next movie, Rambo: First Blood Part II, which sees him return to Vietnam to locate American prisoners of war. If successful, Rambo will receive a presidential pardon for his destructive actions in Hope, Washington. Predictably, Rambo's grudging promise to simply photograph the POWs and not engage enemy troops is abandoned early in the movie, much to the horror of the stuffy American bureaucrat who authorized the mission. Abandoned once more by his government, Rambo kills multiple enemies in the jungle, practically single-handed before eventually commandeering a Soviet helicopter to rescue the POWs. The movie ends with a tearful plea from Rambo to the bureaucrat, and likely the real American government, to seek out the remaining prisoners of war that are still imprisoned in the Vietnamese jungles.
The plot of 1985's First Blood Part II bears striking similarities to the Chuck Norris movie Missing in Action from the previous year. This is because the so-called "live prisoners" theory was a hugely topical issue following the end of the Vietnam war in 1973. It was the result of a disparity between the number of American POWs returned and the number of soldiers listed as either killed or missing in action. Activist groups like the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia continued to campaign for more information on those still listed as MIA. Not satisfied with the pace of government intervention and investigation of the area, independent contractors mounted their own prospective rescue missions, as Stallone does in Rambo 2. One of these contractors, former Special Forces officer Bo Gritz embarked on several highly publicized missions to rescue POWs, and his efforts were heavily criticized for being counter-productive to the POW/MIA issue. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a self-publicist like Gritz, he proclaimed to be the inspiration for the characters of both John Rambo and The A-Team's Hannibal. Whether or not this is true is open to debate, but the POW/MIA issue inspired a number of action movies throughout the late '70s and '80s. It's also inspired plotlines in shows as diverse as Magnum P.I. and The X-Files.
Once deemed the most violent movie ever, Rambo III sees him rescue his former commanding officer Trautman from Afghanistan, against the backdrop of the real-life war between the Soviet Union and the Islamist rebel group, the Afghan Mujahideen. In simplistic terms, Afghanistan was the Soviet Union's Vietnam. Following the Iranian revolution, the Soviet Union was concerned about the spread of religious extremism to the Soviet Muslim Central Asian republics. They were also concerned about new Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin, who was a suspected CIA agent, something which is still disputed to this day. On December 27th, 1979, Soviet forces marched on Kabul, occupying key strategic locations, executing Amin, and installing a new leader in the form of Babrak Karmal. It was an event that shocked the international community and began a devastating nine-year guerilla war, causing the deaths of an estimated 6.5%–11.5% of Afghanistan's population.
Not much of this granular political detail is present in Rambo 3 or its ending, but it dates it. Where previously John Rambo represented those left behind by the American government, Rambo III sees him fully embody American foreign policy. It was in the best interest of the American government to support the Mujahideen, however, they also didn't want to get drawn into another costly war like Vietnam. Due to the effort of politicians like Charlie Wilson, support of the Mujahideen became a key factor of President Reagan's foreign policy, supplying the rebels with weaponry, training, and financial assistance. In the movie, they send Rambo to wage war against the Soviet Union in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. After helping the Mujahideen overwhelm the Soviet troops, Rambo declines the offer to continue their fight, instead choosing to live a peaceful life in Thailand. He's essentially a walking metaphor for how America learned from Vietnam and avoided direct military involvement in Afghanistan. This seemingly happy ending for Stallone's Rambo takes on a bitter irony when a new ideological war brings American forces to Afghanistan in the early 2000s, following Al-Qaeda's devastating attacks on American landmarks.
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Wisely, given the complex geopolitical landscape of the world post-9/11, in the fourth movie, 2008's Rambo, the former green beret doesn't return to Afghanistan to take on Al-Qaeda. Picking up two decades after the events of Rambo III, John is still living in the relative peace of Thailand, near the Burmese border. Living a quiet life as a snake-hunting ferryman, he's eventually drawn back into action when former ferry passengers, a group of missionaries, are captured by Burmese soldiers. Rambo responds predictably, meeting the brutality of the military junta with his own brand of brutality. On release in 2008, the visceral violence was a big talking point, but it was crucial to Sylvester Stallone's vision for Rambo 4. In interviews, he emphasized that the violence of the movie was reflective of the brutal actions undertaken by the Burmese military, who attempted to intimidate the production by shooting at them across the Salween River that separates Burma and Thailand.
While the movie was being made, the national military government of Myanmar was cracking down on peaceful protests across the country against the astronomic rise in fuel costs. Dubbed the Saffron Revolution in reference to the involvement of Buddhist monks and the color of their robes, these non-violent protests were met by threats of military force. There then followed a crackdown by the military dictatorship, which arrested hundreds of pro-democracy figures and shot at protesters. The death toll has never been officially confirmed, but the response to the protests was indicative of the brutality of the country's military dictatorship. Maung Maung Khin, who played Rambo 4's villain, agreed to star in the movie to raise awareness of the military regime in Myanmar and their genocide of the Karen people.
On release, commentators debated whether or not Sylvester Stallone was doing the right thing or not by using an action movie to highlight this international issue. Whatever the answer, it's hard to deny that Rambo 4 didn't draw wider attention to the Karen nationalists' fight for an independent state. The movie was even used as propaganda by the Karen in their struggle against the Burmese military. The Saffron Revolution, and the Karen latest in a long line of real-world conflicts that, depending on audience perspectives, have been plundered or highlighted by Sylvester Stallone's Rambo franchise.
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Mark Donaldson is a film and TV features writer for Screen Rant. As an arts graduate and former movie theater employee, he is fascinated by the current streaming landscape and its impact on the box office. Mark also has a passionate love of TV, from prestige dramas like Better Call Saul to classic sci-fi like Doctor Who. He also loves comedy, and his SR highlight so far was when his comedy hero Tim Heidecker shared one of his articles. Another highlight from his time at SR so far is getting the chance to champion Seth MacFarlane’s brilliant The Orville on a weekly basis. Mark is also a freelance film programmer, podcaster, and writer who never misses an opportunity to share their love of movies and tv shows via screenings, podcasts, and the written word. He’s also currently working on a book about multiplex theaters and a documentary about Doctor Who fandom in the 1990s.

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