Rambo: First Blood

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982)


Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo, tough and resourceful Vietnam veteran who’s more than “just another smart-ass drifter”

Hope County, Washington, December 1981

Film: First Blood
Release Date: October 22, 1982
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Costume Designer: Tom Bronson

WARNING! Spoilers ahead!


Six years after exploding to stardom having written and starred in Rocky, Sylvester Stallone returned to a similar formula playing a tough guy with a heart of gold and unbreakable determination whose five-letter name began with an “R” in First Blood, adapted by Stallone, Michael Kozoll, and William Sackheim from David Morrell’s 1972 novel of the same name, with Morrell himself having said that he prefers the film over his own novel!

Former Green Beret and Medal of Honor-winner John Rambo arrives in rural Washington state in search of his war buddy Delmar Barry, only to learn that Delmar had died the previous summer from cancer contracted by Agent Orange in Vietnam. “Got himself killed in ‘Nam, didn’t even know it,” Rambo later assesses when talking to his former commander, Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna).

Aimlessly wandering the area after the shocking news of his friend’s early death, Rambo encounters Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy), the sheriff of Hope County who has let his power go to his flat head as he bullies Rambo for being a drifter in their “quiet little town” and ultimately arrests him for vagrancy. (The unspoken cause for Teasle’s treatment was more fleshed out in Morrell’s novel: the sheriff was a Korean War veteran who resented the attention being given to Vietnam vets like Rambo while his own war was all but forgotten.)

Unfortunately for these “Jerkwater, U.S.A.” deputies, a war-conditioned badass with severe PTSD isn’t going to take their mistreatment laying down, and they’re about to learn that he doesn’t need that massive Bowie knife in his belt to make them regret their decisions.

The decorations strewn throughout Hope’s businesses—including Sheriff Teasle’s station—remind us that this is set during the Christmas season, which effectively stresses Rambo’s isolation as he has no one welcoming him for the holidays.

What’d He Wear?

“You know, wearin’ that flag on that jacket—lookin’ the way you do—you’re askin’ for trouble around here, friend,” Sheriff Teasle greets Rambo upon their first meeting outside Hope.

Rambo wears what was presumably his Army-issued M-1965 field jacket, detailed with an American flag patch over the right breast and “U.S. ARMY” taped over the left. The jacket was originally produced in olive-green (OG-107) cotton sateen, water-treated and tightly woven to be windproof and weather-resistant, though the fabric evolved to a hardier and less expensive blend like the 50% cotton, 50% nylon used to make Stallone’s screen-worn jacket as seen on the tag from its Heritage Auctions listing.

Sylvester Stallone and Brian Dennehy in First Blood (1982)

Sheriff Teasle disarms Rambo of his knife as he arrests him for vagrancy.

Officially designated the “Coat, Cold Weather, Man’s Field” (MIL-C-43455J), the M-65 was authorized for U.S. military usage in 1965, replacing the M-1951 that had been an evolution of the World War II-era M-1943 and its shorter-length predecessor, the M-1941.

The M-65 retains the overall hip-length design of its two predecessors, featuring shoulder straps (epaulets) and four outer pockets. The two chest pockets and the two larger hip pockets each close with a single covered snap on a pointed flap. The most substantial difference between the M-65 and its field jacket forebears is the rounded collar with a built-in protective hood enclosed by a zipper around the neck. (A fur-trimmed winter hood could also be buttoned onto the collar, with additional buttons along the inside to accommodate a cold-weather lining.) An inner drawstring cinches the waist for a tighter fit, and the jacket closes with a large brass zipper that’s covered by a snap-closed front storm flap.

The classic M-65 pattern ended its service in 1980 as the U.S. military transitioned to standardized camouflage Battle Dress Uniforms (BDU), where the M-65 design lived on in each branch’s respective camo schemes until being ultimately phased out in the 2000s by the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) and Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) uniforms.

Due to the timeframe when it was issued, the M-65 retains a cultural association with Vietnam veterans, particularly disillusioned characters in film like Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Taxi Driver and, indeed, John Rambo.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982)

The dirty red cotton crew-neck sweatshirt that Rambo wears under his green Army field jacket suggests a Christmas color scheme, consistent with the informed setting of the movie. We see little of the sweatshirt, other than the fact that it has raglan sleeves after it’s been laid out with his field jacket following his delousing at the police station.

Sylvester Stallone and David Caruso in First Blood (1982)

Rambo continues to wear his stainless steel Army-issued “dog tags”, torn from his neck by Deputy Mitch Rogers (David Caruso) when “Rambo, John J.” refuses to identify himself to the Hope County deputies.

The novel depicts Rambo escaping from the police station completely naked (and eventually bartering for clothes from some local Kentucky moonshiners), but First Blood spares Sylvester Stallone this humiliation as the cinematic Rambo has already put his undershirt, jeans, and boots back on. (The boots give Rambo a tactical edge over John McClane, who wears a similar tank top and trousers but barefoot while fighting the terrorists taking over the Nakatomi Plaza on Christmas Eve.)

Rambo’s undershirt is actually a light stone-gray cotton Adidas sweatshirt, modified with the sleeves removed and the crew-neck cut out wider to resemble a baggy tank top.

“When I did the rewrite on the First Blood script, I thought about John Rambo’s escape from the prison and how he would be wearing this flimsy sweatshirt,” explained Stallone in the Heritage Auctions listing for one of these shirts. “I decided to have the character wear it inside out because that’s the way I used to wear my sweatshirts in high school when I would play football. It was the style in my neighborhood back then and I just thought, ‘Well, why not keep it going? It always looked kinda cool.’ Also, these sweatshirts would get incredibly cold and wet while driving on the motorcycle and they constantly had to be rotated with other identical ones so I could avoid getting severe chest colds and bronchitis.”

Though Stallone explains that the shirt was worn inside-out to reflect his high-school football days, it was likely also a tactical choice by the costume department to hide the Adidas logo over the left breast.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982)

Rambo eyes the sinister shaving kit that brings back painful war memories and unleashes his PTSD-induced beast mode.

Rambo’s wears light blue denim jeans that follow the usual five-pocket and belt loops configuration, but they lack any characteristic stitching, patches, or tags that could easily identify their maker, at least among the “big three” American denim outfitters. His belt is a dark olive webbed cotton belt that closes through a squared single-prong buckle and has a matching silver-finished end.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982)

Rambo initially tucks the flared boot-cut bottoms of his jeans into the tops of his boots, as he would have with his Army fatigues, though he doesn’t do this after he pulls his clothes back on after his arrest and leaves the bottoms of his jeans untucked over his boot shafts.

Said to be made by Texas Steer, Rambo’s combat boots have dark brown leather uppers with an apron-toe and either 7 or 8 sets of brass-finished eyelets derby-laced up the mid-calf shaft.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982)

Rambo floors the accelerator in his commandeered National Guard truck.

In need of some form of outerwear to combat the chilly Pacific Northwest woods in December, Rambo finds a large piece of rotten brown canvas that he cuts into a makeshift tunic, secured with a thin rope around his waist.

In a Heritage Auctions listing for this prop, Stallone explains that the scene unfolding on screen reflected a real-life need discovered during the production:

What makes this garment so significant is that it saved me. What I mean by that is, while working on the script, I had no idea how cold it was going to be in Canada. I had written that John Rambo escapes in a flimsy, sleeveless, sweatshirt. Once we were out there filming, I realized, “I’m not gonna survive much longer unless I’ve got something to wear.” Rather than make the character steal a policeman’s jacket or something, low and behold, in real life, I found this discarded piece of industrial canvas underneath a truck that must’ve been there for thirty years. It smelled of oil and it was stained and rugged and weathered and I thought, “What a perfect garment for this character!” And it was made right at that moment. What you’re seeing in the film is actually what happened spur of the moment—I took the canvas, cut a hole in it, and wrapped it around myself; the wire around my waist was also just something I happened to find next to this abandoned truck. And there it was—the “Rambo look” was created before your very eyes!

According to IMDB, the canvas became such a “treasured prop” on set that Stallone kept it in his possession for years, at least presumably until it was auctioned in 2015.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982)

Who needs Burlington Coat Factory when you can just find old canvas rotting under an abandoned truck?

Rambo carries his famous knife (more on that later) in a light brown leather sheath with a snap-down retention strap that keeps the knife in place and an additional pocket with its own snap-closed retention strap where Rambo ostensibly keeps a sharpening stone. A large loop along the back of the sheath, behind the knife handle, secures the sheath onto Rambo’s belt with a rawhide cord just below the tip that can be knotted around his thigh for extra retention.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982)

The final piece of the “Rambo look” is a makeshift headband, evidently fashioned from a strip of the canvas he used to create the tunic.

The Knife

“Why would you be carrying a knife like this?” asks Sheriff Teasle, who initially disarmed Rambo of his sheathed Bowie knife. “Hunting,” grunts Rambo in response.

Teasle: Don’t be a wise guy. What do you hunt with a knife?
Rambo: Name it.

Rambo’s knife was crafted by Jimmy Lile, who was specifically chosen by Sylvester Stallone to create the 15½”-long survival knife featured in First Blood and the 1985 sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II. The bead-blasted blade has contrasting satin-finished edges and a series 15 serrations, nine of which are positioned along the double blade toward the base for a rugged, sawtooth-like cut. In addition to its dangerous blade, the knife was equipped with a hollowed-out handle, accessed by unscrewing the base that itself contained a compass. The handle could then be used to store useful materials in the field, such as a suture needle and thread as seen when Rambo treats his injured arm.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982)

You can see more details of the knife and sheath in this Prop Store listing for one of the original 13 Jimmy Lile knives made. Lile still manufactures First Blood-style knives, listed as the “Model FB” and available in both the Utility Series and the Presentation Cerakote™ Series.

The Gun

Rambo cycles through a few firearms over the course of his escape—first, the bolt-action Winchester Model 88 rifle he takes from the fallen Deputy Galt (Jack Starrett) and then an M16A1 from one of the deputies—but the weapon most famously associated with him in this first movie is the venerable M60 machine gun.

At knifepoint, Rambo hijacks a National Guard truck being driven by guardsman Robert A. Cathcart, dismissing the mild-mannered driver after learning that the cargo is an M60. Rambo crashes the truck into the town of Hope, where he straps on the M60 and takes two boxes of 7.62x51mm NATO belt-feeding ammunition before abandoning the truck that he set aflame next to a service station, causing a massive explosion that effectively calls out Sheriff Teasle and his remaining deputies.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982)

Dressed in criss-crossed ammunition bandoliers, Rambo prepares to make his assault on Teasle’s station with his deadly M60 and—hey, can anyone else really go for a Raleigh Light right now?

Inspired by German weaponry like the fearsome MG42 known among G.I.s as “Hitler’s buzzsaw”, U.S. Army Ordnance designed the M60 general-purpose machine gun that entered service in 1957 and issued to units two years later. The M60 fired the same 7.62x51mm NATO round authorized for the contemporary M14 battle rifle, fed from a disintegrating belt of M13 links. This feed system as well as the gun’s 23-pound mass (when unloaded!) made it primarily a crew-served weapon or mounted… far too heavy and unmanageable for one man, unless it’s a one-man army recruited into a private war like John Rambo.

“The M60 machine gun was a weapon that seemed fine in theory, but for soldiers in Vietnam terrible design defects were obvious,” describes The Complete World Encyclopedia of Guns by Will Fowler, Anthony North, Charles Stronge, and Patrick Sweeney. “The bipod and the gas cylinder were permanently attached to the barrel, so quick barrel changes after firing bursts of 200 rounds proved extremely difficult during a contact. To handle the barrel, the Number 2 on the gun required a heat-protecting mitten, which was often lost on patrol or in a contact. Finally, key components in the operating group, such as the firing pin, were prone to fracturing. Unsurprisingly, the gun came to be known by frustrated soldiers in Vietnam as ‘the Pig’.” Additional issues with the M60 included the lack of a gas regulator that could result in jams or the opposite, a “runaway gun” that continued firing even when pressure was taken off the trigger.

After decades of compounding issues, the improved M60E3 was developed in the late 1980s that reduced the weight and simplified the gas system. Unfortunately, many “improvements” also resulted in new problems such as a lighter barrel that was more prone to burning out after only just a few hundred rounds fired fully automatic. By this time, troops had enough and were happy to sacrifice weight for reliability with the M60’s heavier replacement, a military variant of the FN MAG general purpose machine gun designated M240.

How to Get the Look

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood (1982)

Before Sly strips down to the classic Rambo image of muscles bulging out of a tank top accessorized with a dirty bandana and ammo belts, he brings a military sensibility to simple ’80s street fashion with his field jacket, jeans, and combat boots.

  • Olive-green cotton/nylon M-1965 U.S. Army-issue field jacket with rounded collar (with zip-in hood), four flapped pockets (with covered snaps), epaulets/shoulder straps, and drawstring-cinched waist
  • Red cotton crew-neck raglan-sleeve sweatshirt
  • Light stone-gray cotton tank top, converted from sweatshirt
  • Light-blue denim boot-cut jeans
  • Dark olive cotton web belt with squared silver-toned buckle
  • Dark brown leather apron-toe derby-laced combat boots with mid-calf shaft
  • Brown leather knife sheath with snap-closed retention strap, belt loop, thigh lace, and sharpening-stone pocket
  • Silver U.S. Army-issue dog tags

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

They drew first blood, not me.


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