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Rambo and Burma

An emotional Sylvester Stallone told the Associated Press this week that he had witnessed some horrendous things during the filming of his action movie “John Rambo” on the Thai-Burmese border recently. “Survivors with legs cut off and all kinds of … Read More

By / October 5, 2007

An emotional Sylvester Stallone told the Associated Press this week that he had witnessed some horrendous things during the filming of his action movie “John Rambo” on the Thai-Burmese border recently. “Survivors with legs cut off and all kinds of land-mine injuries, maggot-infested wounds and ears cut off… We hear about Vietnam and Cambodia and this was more horrific.”

Sly’s political antennae have always been finely tuned. The last time we saw John Rambo, you will recall, was some twenty years ago, when he almost single-handedly liberated [sic] the people of Afghanistan from Soviet rule in Rambo III, a movie that immediately entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most violent ever made. I say ‘almost’ single-handedly because Rambo doesn’t have to do everything himself, of course; he enlists the help of the plucky mujahideen to kick the invaders’ collective ass, and the film is famously, if with hindsight slightly ironically, dedicated “to the gallant people of Afghanistan”. Sample dialogue:

Mousa: This is Afghanistan… Alexander the Great try to conquer this country… then Genghis Khan, then the British. Now Russia. But Afghan people fight hard, they never be defeated. Ancient enemy make prayer about these people… you wish to hear? Rambo: Um-hum. Mousa: Very good. It says, 'May God deliver us from the venom of the Cobra, teeth of the tiger, and the vengeance of the Afghan.' Understand what this means? Rambo: That you guys don't take any shit? Mousa: Yes… something like this.

Rambo was scarcely the only celluloid franchise to lionize the bravery of the mujahideen, of course; perhaps the apogee of this late 80’s trend was The Living Daylights’ ludicrous, Oxford-educated Kamran Shah, who helps a grateful James Bond escape from a Russian airbase in a commandeered cargo plane. (Hollywood, for all its faults, sniffs the zeitgeist carefully. By 1994, Art Malik’s heroic mujahideen rebel had morphed, with eerie prescience, into True Lies’ controversial Arab terrorist, Salim Abu Aziz, threatening to “rain fire” on American cities unless US troops were pulled out of “the Persian Gulf area immediately and forever”.)

The Afghan freedom fighters were anti-imperialists for the Reagan era; Rambo gave us license to cheer on the good guys against a easily identified enemy, but was careful not to require us to bring our brains into the theater if we didn’t want to; no complicated politics for audiences to digest, just a quick set-up to establish that the Soviets were the bad guys and on with the shooting.

So if the grizzled Vietnam vet is now setting his sights on the bastards who now subjugate the Burmese people, maybe there is hope yet for this forsaken corner of the world. Rambo doesn’t have the time, or inclination, to wrestle with the great geopolitical issues of our day; he was never a political animal, after all, but just wanted to be left alone. Stallone says that he decided on Burma by phoning up Soldier of Fortune magazine and asking them who the worst guys in the world were, a conversation I would have paid good money to listen in on. (“It’s who?”) It may be a crassly simplistic way of getting across a complex political message, but if this dull-witted action hero reminds ordinary moviegoers of a long-forgotten injustice, than maybe some good will come of it after all.

Lest you be tempted to belittle the Stallone effect, witness the shameless bandwagon-jumping on the part of the UN’s infamous Human Rights Council, who this week caused a minor sensation by adding Burma to the hitherto rather short list of countries singled out for censure by that august body. In fact, until Sly weighed in earlier this week, only one country had ever been condemned by the UNHRC (I won’t demean your intelligence by wondering if you can guess which one). Hell, even the Chinese voted for censure – having carefully vetoed an earlier Security Council resolution to the same effect. The pecs may not ripple quite as brightly as before, but John Rambo still has the power to make men tremble, and we can learn a surprising amount from watching cultural trends, however low-brow. If I were a Sudanese government minister, I’d take out a subscription to Variety.

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