Friday, November 05, 2010

Rambo and the Revisionist Cultural History of Human Rights

Like its predecessors, Rambo is unapologetically unrelenting in its brutality. The film opens with a jumbled collection of news clips documenting the unrest in Burma (formerly Myanmar), and the government's respose to civil dissent.

This is quickly followed by Burmese soldiers turning dissident villagers loose in a minefield and forcing them to run. Those who aren't killed by landmines -- which explode in their unrelentingly grisly fashion -- are slaughtered with machine gun fire.

The beginning of the film finds John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) living in Thailand, where he works capturing snakes for a snake-fighting ring.

Rambo is approached by a group of missionaries hoping he'll guide them up the river into Burma, where they hope to put a stop to the fighting. They're going unarmed into a war zone. They don't stand a chance: of stopping the genocide taking place there, or even of surviving.

At first Rambo refuses to help them; he's attempting to put his days of fighting behind him. Following a passionate and idealistic appeal from Sarah (Julie Benz), Rambo eventually agrees.

If viewers have any doubt whether or not Rambo still has it, an encounter with a boatload of pirates erases any doubt.

Rambo's passengers are outraged by the casual alacrity with which he dispatches their assailants, even though he has saved their lives. He takes them the rest of the way up the river and leaves them to their task.

After Rambo departs, the village the missionaries are helping comes under attack by the Burmese army. Mortar and machine gun fire tear the villagers and missionaries alike to shreds, while flame throwers are used to burn the village out of existence.

The army spares no one. Men, women, children. The brutality of crimes against humanity is captured in what may be one of the most uncompromising and haunting portrayals in the history of Hollywood film.

After arriving back at his home in Thailand, Rambo already knows what happened to the missionaries. As he tries to sleep, his dreams are haunted with flashbacks to the things he has experienced during his life as a combat soldier.

Even now he knows he cannot "turn it off".

Days later, Rambo is approached by Reverend Arhur Marsh (Ken Howard), who asks Rambo to lead a group of hired mercenaries on a rescue mission.

Rambo is forced into battle once more, on a personal mission that will force him to confront the demons of his past, and finally bring him home.

As noted previously, popular theory holds that Rambo 2 represented a symbolic attempt to re-fight the Vietnam war so that the United States could emerge as the winner.

There's more to it than that, but there's also much in the film to support that interpretation.

In Rambo, however, this particular narrative takes a stark twist: now, instead of re-fighting wars the United States fought and lost, Rambo is confronting humanitarian abuses it chose never to fight in the first place.

It isn't merely the genocide in Burma that the film symbolically re-writes, it's also genocides in Rwanda and Darfur.

In this sense Rambo represents a revisionist cultural history in which the west is artificially granted reprieve for its failure to defend its own values abroad. After all, human rights are a western innovation that carries little weight in other parts of the world.

With a United Nations that allows countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China (among others) to pay lip service to this concept in exchange for membership in the international community, there is little reason for countries like Burma or the Sudan to take them seriously; particularly when they realize that the progenitors of these ideas won't fight for them.

Until the west musters the will to fight in favour of human rights anywhere and everywhere it becomes necessary, revisionist films like Rambo will be the last remaining outlet for these values.

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