Friday 6 July 2012

First Blood by David Morrell (British First Edition, Barrie & Jenkins, 1972): the Original Novel, Basis for the 1982 Movie

This next novel I'm featuring in this series of posts on books wot begat perhaps more famous films didn't just inspire a movie: it inspired an entire franchise, comprising film sequels, a TV series, action figures, games and so forth. Moreover, its protagonist's name eventually wound up in the Oxford English Dictionary, coming to denote "an exceptionally tough, aggressive man"...

David Morrell's First Blood was first published in hardback in the UK by Barrie & Jenkins in 1972, the same year as the US M. Evans edition. The dust jacket on the British edition differs from the American one, and was painted by Michael Codd, who, as well as illustrating a variety of jackets and paperback covers, also illustrated a number of articles in top shelf men's magazine Mayfair. As the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed, unusually for a novel, there's no text on the front of the wrapper: no title, no author name, no nothing. But if we take a look at the whole jacket:

There's the title and author credit on the back.

As with one or two others of the books I've featured in this novels-into-movies series, I think I must have borrowed First Blood from Beckenham Library sometime in the 1980s, possibly even in this edition. I bought this copy of the Jenkins first – on Amazon Marketplace – much more recently, specifically because I wanted to include it in this run of posts, but dipping into it again after all these years, I was reminded how brilliantly gripping it is. For those who've been living in a cave for the past forty years, First Blood is the story of Rambo – I don't believe he's ever given another name in the novel, although he was christened "John" for Ted Kotcheff's Sylvester Stallone-starring 1982 film adaptation – a young man hitchhiking in Kentucky who lands himself in trouble with a local Sheriff and winds up killing a cop. Thereafter he escapes into the mountains and becomes the subject of a manhunt, leading to further deaths and a bloody climax. 

The first line of the novel is still one of the best I've ever read – "His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky" – which is all the more remarkable in that First Blood was David Morrell's debut novel. He's since penned another twenty-five-plus – a handful of which I've also read and enjoyed – including novelisations of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III – this despite Rambo – and look away now if you want to avoid a major spoiler – dying at the end of the first book.

I've only ever caught parts of the two Rambo film sequels – and I've definitely not seen 2008's Stallone-directed Rambo – but I have seen First Blood the movie, and though it's neither especially faithful nor the equal of the book, it's still a decent enough adaptation. As ever with these things, though, there's more to Morrell's novel than there is to the movie – an unexpected depth which belies the book's ostensible nature as a thriller. Because of course what First Blood is really about is the Vietnam War – of which Rambo is a veteran – which, by the early 1970s, had become highly unpopular in the States, reflected in the extreme violence Rambo metes out to his pursuers (see Olman's 2010 review of the novel for more). But it also displays a visceral feel for the mountainous wilderness that Rambo flees into, informed by a novel which Morrell cites as a major influence on First Blood: Geoffrey Household's superlative manhunt classic, Rogue Male (1939).

First Blood is set in the American south, but we'll be heading even deeper south for the next book and film in this series of posts: a 1970 novel about a canoe trip that turns into a test of endurance, which begat a 1972 movie that, to my mind, is even better than the source text...


  1. I've always wanted to read this book. I once found a first paperback edition and sold it before I could read it. Thought I'd make a chunk of change on it, but barely made a profit. Never seen the movie. Morell is an interesting writer with some unusual ideas and plot ideas. He likes to dabble in all genres, too. His quasi-supernatural thriller THE TOTEM is one of the most original spins on the entire zombie/vampire/undead type of book and puts many of them to shame. One of his more recent books, CREEPERS, I thought was pretty darn good. It's about the strange urban hobby of exploring abandoned buildings which incorporates the skills and equipment needed in cave exploring and rock climbing.

  2. Can't recall if I've read The Totem, John, but I have read Testament, Blood Oath and maybe one or two others. Good to hear that his more recent work is worth reading too; I may have to investigate...

  3. Plenty of Morrell on the TBR pile, though I did read a fair bit of him when I was younger.

    The Fifth Profession was my most recent outing...okayish - wouldn't recommend it to anyone.

    Fist Blood though was the dog's proverbials,

  4. The fourth film is certainly worth a watch. Morrell was pleased with it, saying that it captured the essence of the book better than the three previous films, and he's right.