Film Reviews

RAMBO (Elizabeth Shepherd)

By • Mar 15th, 2008 •

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“Live for nothing – or die for something – your choice”:
Rambo’s challenge to the feckless mercenary Lewis.
“Live for nothing. Die for something” has become a rallying cry in Burma today.

“Massacre” was the word the brutal military spoke in reply to the recent ‘Saffron Revolution’ when Buddhist monks chanting “metta” (loving kindness) led thousands in peaceful protest against intolerable conditions of poverty and misrule. Massacre by the thousands had also been the junta’s response to the last popular uprising, in 1988. The peoples of Burma have suffered under this increasingly murderous repression since 1962.

Monks, undaunted, and resolute activists in Burma who yearn passionately for Democracy to return to their beloved country, are prepared to die for their beliefs if that is what it has to take. Non-violence is their preferred method of opposing the evil of the machine guns pointing at them.

Yet, deep down some have a fantasy: if only, instead of the UN’s ineffectual envoy Gambari, RAMBO could triumphantly infiltrate the hated Nay Pyi Taw stronghold where the bloated Generals squat, to once and for all demolish the evil, vicious military for real.
“Do we get to win this time?”

When Sylvester Stallone decided to revisit John Rambo’s story after 20 years he questioned Soldiers of Fortune magazine: “Where is the one place on earth where the worst atrocities are taking place and getting the least amount of attention?” Answer: BURMA.

It is appropriate that this Rambo movie is the most bloody and violent of all, since the scene is set with documentary facts and footage of the actual, viciously brutal genocidal attacks which Burmese military junta soldiers perpetrate today and every day against their own people.

In the movie story, the ruthlessly sadistic extermination of innocent peasants in their mine-strewn paddy fields draws first blood, and Maung Maung Khin’s portrayal of the savage General Tint is no exaggeration of truth. When he enforces his first devastating attack on a Karen village, to kidnap young boys for soldiers, he barks out threats chilling in their cruelty: “They belong to me now. Obey or I will cut out your tongues, feed you your intestines. Hear me, believe me”.

Later, the missionary work in the Karen village is horrifyingly interrupted by an attack by General Tint’s troops so barbaric that my heart was pounding in fear and distress, knowing that this kind of attack is no fiction. No one and nothing is spared. Screaming with terror, villagers are shot down as they run, babes in arms blown to bits, bodies are beheaded, a pregnant woman ripped open at knifepoint. Men, old women and children stumble in petrified panic across paddy fields, mown down by machine guns. The huts are torched and the blaze reflected in the General’s sunglasses as he smokes his cigarette. When later the mercenary hired-guns behold the ravaged rotting bodies, residue of this depraved slaughter, they witness another obscenity as returning soldiers arrive to goad terrified Karen prisoners to run the diabolical mines-in-the-paddy-field gauntlet while the laughing torturers place bets on the outcome.

I compare these scenes with current news out of Burma, reporting on the ongoing 60-year genocidal civil war between the Karen people and the Burmese military junta.
March 11 2008: “Thousands of Karen civilians displaced in fresh attacks as UN envoy visit fails”.
March 8 2007: “Scorched earth terror campaign against civilians continues”.
March 4 2008: “Ga Yu Der village burned, Tay Bo Kee mortar rounds fired, villagers fled, Burma Army pursuing, seeking out more villages destroying homes, food and property”.
In a recent attack on humanitarian group Free Burma Rangers, who provide medicine and food for refugees near Maw Pu, 1,700 villagers fled from devastation: elsewhere 9 houses burned while 85 were forced to flee. In total an estimated 30,000 were displaced and on the run, in constant danger of rape as weapon of war, or death, or both.
Since 1996, Burma’s regime has destroyed 3,200 villages in eastern Burma – nearly twice the number destroyed in Darfur, Sudan. It has recruited up to 70,000 child soldiers to carry out attacks, more than any other country in the world. US ‘Campaign for Burma’ petitions to have the regime brought before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Sylvester Stallone has evidently taken this to heart.
The Daily Mail newspaper in England quotes him as saying:
“I witnessed the aftermath (in Burma) – survivors with legs cut off and all kinds of land mine injuries, maggot infested wounds and ears cut off. We saw many elephants with blown-off legs. We hear about Vietnam and Cambodia, but this is more horrific. This is a hell-hole beyond your wildest dreams”.

In the US, the movie has publicized to a general public the tragic plight of this benighted country.

In Singapore’s Bugis Junction Cinema, a special screening was attended by hundreds of Burmese exiles. The organizers played Burmese revolutionary and student movement songs, the audience stood and “in all their strength sang the Burmese national anthem.
But as the movie began there was a great silence and a feeling of sadness and anger filled the hall. As the crowd witnessed rape, mass killings, and the burning of villages, there were sympathetic groans from some viewers who had witnessed the 1988 crackdown”.

In Burma itself the film is banned, and clandestine DVDs are secretly treasured and shared, at great risk. The danger is manifest in the arrest on March 10 of two Democracy activists in Rangoon for “Rambo” possession. They join the more than 1500 political prisoners and monks wasting away in punishing incarceration. Two of the Burmese-born actors in the film have reported that, in retribution, members of their family have been arrested also.

Stallone has said that reports of his film becoming a bootleg hit in Burma, and an inspiration to dissidents, is a pinnacle in his movie career. “These incredibly brave people have found, kind of a voice, in a very odd way, in American cinema … They’ve actually used some of the films quotes as rallying points. That, to me, is one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had in film”.

This seems to me to be perfectly in keeping with the Rambo legend, as he continues his hero’s journey. David Morrell has said he was conscious of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces ” when he first created the character of John Rambo as a mythic embodiment of the warrior spirit. Stallone has been consistent and convincing in conveying the ethical struggle constantly waged inside between outrage at hypocrisy in high places (“Fuck the world”); the knowledge that in himself “when you’re pushed, killing’s as easy as breathing”; and the honourable imperative to use his skills to out-massacre the bully and save the victim – courage to embrace “the hell that he calls home”.

Stallone, the actor, is perfectly cast: more even than his impressive physique, his face as it has changed over the years from the tough yet vulnerable young Vietnam vet trying to find his way in a hostile society to this stone-faced world-weary Thai exile carrying the weight and disillusion of the years on his shoulders, expresses what has been described as a kind of “blockheaded poetry”.

Stallone, the writer and director of this movie, has said: “I wanted to do something more spiritual and visually interesting”. He has succeeded on both counts. The landscape of the river scenes is breathtaking, and the orgy of destruction in the battle scenes is epic as well as explosively graphic and bloody. Amid and beyond the action, there are ethical and spiritual themes.

Ethically: Lewis (Graham McTavish), the hard-bitten tough-talking leader of the mercenaries, is the equivalent of the corrupt Marshall Murdock (FIRST BLOOD 2) in his cynical trivializing of the mission at hand: “ We’ll check it out – if we can extract them, good – if not, anything wrong at all, we fuck off”. Rambo’s arrow drawn tight against Lewis’s forehead stamps that out. Lewis is in the end badly wounded, but shamed into accepting the kindness he does not deserve. Michael (Paul Shultz) the missionary leader, who pompously rails against the killing of pirates who would have killed him and raped Sarah Miller, is seen to be himself roused to bloodlust in the final battle for survival.

Spiritually: through the humanity of Sarah (Julie Benz), the missionary who treats Rambo with compassion and concern, Rambo is slowly reborn to his feelings. She persuades him to take them up river by saying: “Maybe you’ve lost your faith in people. But you must still be faithful to something … Maybe we can’t change what is. But trying to save a life isn’t wasting your life, is it?” I could see the memory of Colonel Trautman and Afghanistan (RAMBO 3) in Rambo’s eyes. In an echo of the jade Buddha given to him by Ca Bao in FIRST BLOOD 2, Sarah presses the small wooden cross she wears into Rambo’s hands as she arrives at her destination. He holds it as he searches his soul for the meaning of his life.

She has also asked him whether he is curious to see what has changed “back home” –
“Got to have a reason for that” he replies.
It seems by the end of the story that he has found his reason.
From the mayhem of Burma to the farmland of Arizona, he approaches a mailbox – “R. Rambo” – he takes the long walk towards the family homestead …

The icon of Burma’s aspirations is Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the struggle for democracy and freedom from fear, Nobel Prize winner, prisoner of house arrest. She challenges the world to “Please use your liberty to promote ours”.

It is fitting that through John Rambo, icon of American cinema, Sylvester Stallone has had the grace to accept her challenge.

ELIZABETH SHEPHERD / Daughter of missionaries, who spent her childhood in Burma.

The quotes used are from the BurmaNet News.

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