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American Film Genres: Rambo and Male Body Essay

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Updated: Sep 13th, 2021


When American liberals woke up to a Republican Congress last fall, they were equally shocked to determine that a whole other American culture was thriving – the so-called non-normal media in which the news is distributed by Rush Limbaugh rather than Peter Jennings and in which William Bennett, not Quentin Tarantino, regulations. But given what we know after Oklahoma City, the physical fault amid the new media and the old now looks like comparatively tame stuff. Though many conservatives and liberals may battle, they are still occupied in the same, although irritated, discussion.

The right-winged America brought into the light because the bombing is something else – a true counterculture that tripped under the normal’s radar and talks mostly to itself. It has its own talk-radio and Internet stars, religion, magazines and political supermen. You can flounder in its writing for days without bumping into the O. J. Simpson examination or the agreement With America. It is so far out of the circle that when Ted Koppel held a “Nightline” town gathering in the armed force stranglehold of Decter, Mich., after the violence, the language blockade was so said he seemed to have staggered into “Village of the Damned.”

Where did this background come from? Everyone is looking for frantically for origins in other suspicious movements in American history in which fundamentalism, white supremacism, anti-Semitism and unplanned scheme theories shaped toxic detonations of revolutionary rage. But easily the most cogent clarification had been written (and ignored) before Oklahoma City, in a well-certificated, scientifically 1994 book Hill & Wang is now rushing back into print: “Warrior Dreams: Paramilitary Culture in Post-Vietnam America,” by James William Gibson, a sociologist at California State University.

Rambo and male body

Rambo: First Blood Part II is one of those movies that do not really have much going for it these days save for the communal implication for the time in which it was discharged, where it tapped a nerve with American spectators who guzzled the revisionist oratory up and clamored for more. Despite the R rating, it would be the subsequent uppermost box office player of the year, a chartbuster year for its star, Stallone, with Rocky IV coming in third place. Vietnam, America’s freshest and genuine injury, might seem to cure a bit with the tagline “This time, we win,” a proposal that had a lot of merit to the worried public who wanted vengeance for the lives lost, and the supervision that sent them there.

The story follows First Blood, where John Rambo is in prison for his one-man army heroics against the law powering up in the first film. Here, Colonel Trautman advances Rambo to experience a covert maneuver that will most likely save the lives of thousands of POWs still in Southeast Asia, if he can find confirmation that they are still being held enslaved. Rambo is hired only to take pictures, but that doesn’t sit well with the disgruntled vet, who uses the opportunity to get them out while he can.

However, corrupt government officials don’t want Rambo to find any POWs, as this would complicate American relations in the area, and when irrefutable evidence is given, the mission is aborted, leaving Rambo all by himself – one man against an army of sadistic Vietnamese and Russian soldiers.

Removing political importance aside, Rambo: First Blood Part II is a mediocre film at best, poorly shot, with anemic dialogue by screenwriters Stallone and James Cameron (The Terminator, True Lies). The direction by Cosmatos (Tombstone, Cobra) is serviceable at best, and the dispatching of the villain’s borders on the level of high camp. Wrong turns are taken at nearly every step, with an awkward romance coming into play in the strangest of environments. The enemies Rambo’s faces are nameless fodder for his wrath, while the POWs have no distinction – just a huddled mass there for Rambo to protect and to give him a thumbs up when he saves their bacon from the fire.

Action junkies may rejoice at seeing mindless carnage on display without heavy plotting or thinking ruining the tempo, but it sure would be nice to have had a script accompanying it that contained more than five pages of dialogue. Rambo II features the famous shot of Rambo tying his headband on and preparing for battle. I’m guessing the rest of the crew tied one on as well, as big-budget filmmaking this imbecilic could only come as a result of a lack of blood to the brain.

What makes Mr. Gibson’s book startling is that this entire culture has been in place for two decades, well before the 1990s brought Waco and the militia movement. “The Turner Diaries,” a novel that features the fertilizer-bombing of a government building and is known to be a favorite of Timothy McVeigh’s, has been a best-selling bible of the paramilitary culture since 1978. Indeed, Mr. McVeigh’s blank stare, military history, known ideology and biography are anticipated almost uncannily by the fictional Vietnam vet out to cleanse America of its “scum” in the 1976 movie “Taxi Driver.”

When Mr. Gibson was writing in 1994, he could point to only scattered examples of paramilitary violence spilling beyond weekend-warrior gunplay into real-life tragedy, notably the 1984 murder of the liberal Denver talk-radio host, Alan Berg. Even so, “Warrior Dreams” warned of “great danger” and sketched in links between the paramilitary right and the Christian right, just before the Christian right began to make significant inroads into the Republican Party.

The male body has been a cinematic fetish for many years. This is not to deny that women have been featured as erotic objects throughout cinematic history. It is simply to observe that from the late fifties there has been an awareness of the female gaze such that the physiques (or at least naked torsos) of Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and (since 1964 and A Fistful of Dollars) Clint Eastwood have constructed what one film studies scholar has termed “masculinity as a spectacle.”

In the early 70s Burt Reynolds was the first of many male film stars to pose nude for the centerfold of a women’s magazine (Cosmopolitan) and with the appearance of Gibson, Ford, Stallone and Schwarzenegger we have moved into another generation of male icons. The presentation of this female gaze can present problems in the form of erotic sub-currents. For quite frequently the kind of action films in which these iconized bodies feature are orientated towards a male audience; the Mad Max, Rambo, Die Hard and Terminator series, for example.

A homoerotic gaze plays about these screenings of the male body. Hollywood has become more frank about this gaze and its appeal. Several of its younger stars have submitted their bodies to such a construction: River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho, Brad Pitt in Interview with a Vampire, Leonardo DiCaprio in Total Eclipse.

Each of these presentations of the male body in cinema reinforces the ideology of masculine potency. The bodies are shaped to elicit audience desire. Whether what is screened is the muscular, hirsute and toned physique of Bruce Willis (in Twelve Monkey) or the lean, pale and hairless body of Brad Pitt (in Thelma and Louise), both, in their different ways, are representations of phallic power–though the more toned and muscular, the more the body consciously and visibly presents itself as one great hard-on.

What is interesting and significant, therefore, is a series of recent films where the male body is stripped and exposed to the erotic gaze in a way that expresses not its potency but its vulnerability. Rather than figuring male erection, these representations critique phallocentrism and, in their frank shots of the male penis, show that for the majority of the time, that penis is detumescent.

Three films, in particular, point the way towards different scripting of the male body: The Pillow Book (Peter Greenaway), Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson), and The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo). In the first of these films, Jerome (Ewan McGregor), an English translator living in Japan, allows his body to be written upon so that a women poet might enable her work to be read by an important, exploitative homosexual publisher.

The camera lovingly films, in close-up, the calligraphic movement of the pen upon the male body. Jerome then delivers himself into the hands of the publisher and strips before him in such a way that we are conscious of how both Jerome’s body and the homoerotic desire and gaze are scripted. The flesh becomes text–quite literally, for Jerome’s body is finally skinned and made into a book.


In each of these films there is a staging of the self-conscious spectacle of the male body. The exposure of the genitals receives an audience within the film itself, and this audience is significant for the naming of the ostensive gaze and desire. Jerome is caught between the gaze of the female poet and the male homoerotic gaze of the publisher; his body functions as a screen for the projection of their parallel desires. Dirk gazes at himself, but it is a gaze without desire.

His narcissism is fragile; it is required so that he can give himself an erection, because without an erection he will not be able to perform for the cameras which await him. But the dick remains limp as he folds it away and bursts out of his dressing room door determined to conquer.


Ramsay Burt The Male Dancer: Bodies, Spectacle, Sexualities Routledge. Place of Publication: New York 1995.

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IvyPanda. "American Film Genres: Rambo and Male Body." September 13, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/american-film-genres-rambo-and-male-body/.


IvyPanda. 2021. "American Film Genres: Rambo and Male Body." September 13, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/american-film-genres-rambo-and-male-body/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'American Film Genres: Rambo and Male Body'. 13 September.

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