Thursday, June 27, 2013

Rambo the revolutionary

More than a quarter century after his screen debut John Rambo, maladjusted veteran of the Vietnam War and roving ambassador for American militarism, has yet to win film critics to his bloody cause. Sylvester Stallone may have won admission to France's elite Order of Arts and Letters, but his most famous creation is still widely dismissed as a violent buffoon. The Guardian's Xan Brooks expressed the critical consensus when he slammed Rambo's 'boneheaded geopolitics' and 'preposterous' acting in the fourth and most recent film in the series.

But Rambo has always won plaudits from the right of the American political spectrum. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan's administration was heating up the Cold War with its Star Wars programme and its proxy wars in Nicaragua and Afghanistan, Rambo seem to embody American bellicosity. Reagan quoted John Rambo during a speech on tax-cutting in 1985, and a few months later treated Stallone to dinner at the White House. That terminally didactic punk band the Dead Kennedys summed up the American left's response to Rambo in their song 'Rambozo the Clown', which condemned the character as a Reaganite 'brat out of hell' who 'rewrites history with a machine gun'.

Rambo's habit of slaying Asians, Arabs and other non-white folk hasn't prevented him from winning huge audiences in the Third World. Many observers have lamented his popularity there, seeing it as an example of American cultural imperialism. In his 1988 book Video Night in Kathmandu, for example, Pico Iyer complained that Rambo had 'conquered' Asia.
But Iyer and the Dead Kennedys had forgetten that movies, like all forms of art, underdetermine their interpretation. Sylvester Stallone may have sought, for cynically commercially or sincerely patriotic reasons, to make propaganda for American imperialism, but his audiences have had their own priorities.

In her 1989 essay 'Rambo in Tonga', Christine Gailey explained the ways that audiences in the Friendly Islands turned Rambozo into a symbol of Tongan rather than American military prowess. As Gailey noted, many Tongans find it hard to stay still when they watch a movie. With encouragement from other audience members, an individual will often leap from his or her seat and 'enthusiastically interact with the characters on the screen'. Interaction will typically involve providing a running commentary on the film and both imitating and adapting the movements and speech of the film's characters. Gailey noted that the Tongan versions of films like Rambo often bear 'only [a] tangential relation to the film's intended narrative'.

In the kava clubs and lounge rooms of Tonga, Rambo ceases to be a 1980s Cold Warrior, and instead becomes an assistant to the Tongan Defence Force as it fights the Japanese Imperial Army through the mountains and forests of Melanesia during World War Two.

Writing in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 2009, Sarina Pearson amplified Gailey's points. In 'Video Night in Nuku'alofa', an essay whose title nodded ironically at Pico Iyer's book, Pearson argued that Tongans had 'localised and rehistoricised' Rambo and many other Hollywood and Bollywood movies.

When I discussed Pearson's text in my Modern Pacific History paper at the 'Atenisi Institute, the young film buff Miko Tohi* talked at length about the ways in which Tongans far from the bright lights of Nuku'alofa 'act out' foreign movies. "For a long time a lot of people in remote villages never got to see films, because of the lack of power" he explained, "but you wouldn't know that from listening to them talk. Often they'd received a very inaccurate version of a film from a fellow villager who'd seen it first-hand, then narrated and acted it for them." Miko had no doubts about the way his fellow Tongans viewed Rambo. "For a lot of Tongans, Rambo fights in the Second World War" he said.

The Tongans may have sent Rambo back to the 1940s, but for the people of Bougainville, the copper-rich island in the extreme south of Papua New Guinea, he is very much a contemporary figure. in 1989, after decades of unarmed protest against a huge mine that had capsized their gardens and poisoned their dams, the Bougainvilleans launched a guerrilla war designed to force the mine's Western owners off their island and to win political independence from Port Moresby.
The war on Bougainville pitted the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, which had been trained in Australia and which boasted helicopters, mortars, and heavy machine guns, against a thousand or so rebels equipped with homemade rifles so crude that they often jammed or split after firing their first shot. The Bougainvilleans added to their meagre arsenal by foraging for unexploded bombs which had been dropped fifty years earlier by the Japanese, and which lay like huge fossils under the rain forest's rubble of lichen-coated boulders and fallen branches.
The Bougainville secessionists did have one secret weapon. In Bougainville Campaign Diary, his detailed and emotional account of the first part of the war, Papuan Intelligence Officer Yauka Aluambo Liria explained that his opponents modelled themselves on Rambo. They watched Rambo movies for tips on tactics, and wore, in lieu of a proper uniform, the same red headband as Stallone's hero. Long before they named themselves the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, the island's guerrillas were known as the Rambos. The supposed epitome of American imperialism became the symbol of a struggle to drive imperialism from Bougainville.

A peace deal has given Bougainville a measure of autonomy from the Papuan New Guinean state, but the island remains an uneasy place, and its copper mine remains closed. Last year Axel G Sturm, a representative of the European investors in the mine, wrote an opinion piece in which he lamented attacks on Chinese-owned shops, illegal roadblocks, and the continuing refusal of a faction of rebels to recognise the authority of the Papua New Guinean government.
Sturm suggested that Bougainville needed something similar to the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI), the Australian-led armed force which has occupied Bougainville's southern neighbour for more than a decade. Ignoring the numerous criticisms that Solomon Islanders have made of RAMSI, and the failure of the force to impose its authority on a significant part of the country, Sturm went on to suggest that an Australian-led intervention force could be called RAMBO, or the Regional Assistance Mission for Bougainville.

Sturm's choice of the acronym RAMBO for his proposed force is no coincidence. He is well aware of the mana that Sylvester Stallone's character still possesses on Bougainville.

The second instalment in the Rambo series is one of the dozen or so films I'm going to show to students at the 'Atenisi Institute next semester, as part of a paper I'm calling Studying Sociology through Film. I was worried about whether a paper with a title like that was compatible with the sternly text-based pedagogical tradition at 'Atenisi, but Maikolo Horowitz, a long-time 'Atenisian, tells me that he taught a course with an almost identical name back in 2008. "Movies are a great way of bypassing the language barrier" Maikolo told me.

I asked Horowitz what Futa Helu, the late founder of 'Atenisi, reacted when he showed films in the classroom. "Futa owned a VCR player, which he kept in a locked box", Maikolo remembered. "Once a week he would produce a key and very solemnly open the box and hand me the player. After the lesson the machine would go back to its jail, so that it could not fall into the wrong hands and corrupt students."

I want to use movies not only to illustrate important sociological concepts - class, modernity, agency and structure, and so on - but to remind my students and myself of the way that different audiences can interpret the same work of art in very different ways, depending on their worldview and their interests.

I'm still trying to decide on which films to study alongside Rambo next semester. I'd be grateful for any suggestions left in the comments box.

*I blogged about Miko's own film project here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

2:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How does Bougainville Campaign Diary compare with Mister Pip?

3:05 pm  
Blogger Rachel Fenton said...

"Kes", and Lynne Ramsay's "Ratcatcher" will always make my top film list, along with "Bicycle Thieves" - depictions of working classes - metaphors for hopelessness/lack of agency.... - the role of fathers/patriarchy...

10:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


10:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lol the nutcases at Franklin E Local have graduated from their whites were in NZ before Maori crap to claiming UFOs visited NZ in 1956! and aliens secretly control the world according to E Local

1:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incident at New Brighton Pier – Christchurch - 10.15PM on a summer evening in1956

The following incident was related to me some years ago by a woman who, being a local artist, was able to sketch the main details of her experience. While she could not recall the exact date of the encounter, she believes it was in the summer of 1956. Oddly enough, she remembered the time, 10.15 at night.

She was in a car full of friends, stopped in the small car park overlooking the dunes, next to the old New Brighton Pier – a wooden structure in those days – that was replaced by a concrete structure in the late 1990s. Her first recollection was seeing what she thought was a small boat tied up at the end of the pier, with two people working to fix some part of it.
However, the more she studied the craft, the more she realised it wasn’t anything she’d seen before. It had a rounded top, of which a segment had been opened, and she observed two shadowy figures working on something inside it.
“Estimating the size of the people would be difficult. But considering the distance to the end of the pier at high tide, I would say they would be seven feet tall, or even bigger. The pier was approximately 15 feet above the high tide – this is at best a guess, as I have the recollection of over 20 years ago.” (ed: I would agree with this estimate, having seen the pier on many occasions myself)
“But the sight of the craft is as vivid now as it was then. I have told only close friends of the sighting, but most think I’m a little touched to have thought I saw something. The others (five of us) in the car deny they saw anything, the next day. But at the time they were frightened out of their wits!
“I have since read quite a few books on the subject but have never found a craft to correspond with mine. The nearest I have seen to humanoids was a photo a man took of his daughter on some cliffs in Cornwall, I think, which when developed revealed a man in a tight fitting uniform standing behind her. He had a crested head, just like I had seen.
“As we watched the craft, the open top closed down and it moved inshore towards us. It seemed to tip its leading edge revealing the underneath of the craft, showing lights that seemed to revolve around the base. It was then we realised it could not possibly be a yacht. We could see the water glow underneath the craft as it came towards us. The craft looked to be 18 – 20 feet in diameter and definitely saucer shaped. It hovered at the high tide mark for what seemed like many minutes and I had the overwhelming urge to get out of the car and walk towards the craft. When it was clear I was not going to do so, the craft rapidly ascended from tide and vanished into the night sky.”

1:33 pm  
Anonymous Stallone 2 said...

I had recently one of those rare (to me) lucid dreams where I was so involved and everything was so real.

The last time I had one of these dreams, I could fly and when I woke up I was fighting the urge to wake up so that I could record all of my Touch and Goes, my Take Offs, Landings and my Flight Time.

This dream was similar but very, very different, this time I am shooting through space... going the opposite direction of all of the Galaxies... I'm shooting for / aimed at the Big Bang and Ground Zero. (I don't know... I'm the passenger)

I think that the series "Through the Wormhole" may have set it off but the dream took me to things that I have never thought about and about things that I remember from Childhood.

Everyone knows about "Holograms" a piece of glass with a picture that looks like it is 3d and if you break it each piece has the complete picture, well I was flying through space in a window pane shaped hologram... I was the hologram picture... then the closer that I got to the Big Bang the pane of glass started melting until it was a Glass ball, then I was a marble, then I was a round grain of sand... then I blew up (Exploded) from the inside and all of the little pieces were exact copies of me (I'm a hologram) but here is the twist... the pieces closer to the center were older and the pieces towards the surface of my little sphere were newer... although all identical at the initial time they were all different the further away that they traveled from the "center" it was at that time I felt that I "KNEW" everything 'Past Present and Future' and if I changed particles it was a slightly different 'Past Present and Future'

Each particle (of Me) that I visited kept growing and then exploding and each of those particles contained a new copy of me 'Past Present and Future' just like the original hologram of me but changed slightly from the original then by the secondary explosion but I was still the same just in a different time and yet I was still the original 'Big Bang' as I was was recorded as in the original hologram. So in my dream I'm streaking through space, jumping from particle of me to another particle of me just "knowing everything" when the dream ended, I didn't hear any voice and it was different than the "knowing everything" feeling that I had it was a separate stronger feeling that is hard to describe but basically another different more emotional feeling that "Now you Know" (I didn't want to wake up)

6:48 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks very much for those recommendations, Rachel. I'm a big fan of Lynne Ramsay, and managed to find Ratcatcher despite having a terrible fear of rats!

It'd be nice to meet up next week: I'm down in Hamilton struggling with the weather at the moment!

2:06 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

Since I published the book in 1993/4, Bougainville island and its people (and Papua New Guinea, PNG) have gone through many significant and progressive events and changes. The civil war on the island has ended, assisted by a Peace Keeping Force; they have received a higher level of autonomy for over a decade; they had a referendum to decide on their political future and the majority voted to go their own way; and in the recent elections they have elected a former rebel fighter as their new President replacing the long-serving Hon John Momis who has retired.
There is peace on the island and they seem to be moving towards becoming their own country sometime into the future as the PNG government has not been active in trying to bring them back into the national fold.

3:18 pm  

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