Rambo the revolutionary
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.
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.
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.
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]