Now in my 15th year of teaching, I can look back on many fond memories of truly unique teaching and learning experiences in and out of the classroom. However, I’m not sure that yesterday’s experience will be easily matched.
As an 80s kid and movie buff, I grew up on an assortment of action cinema. Stallone and Schwarzenegger were staples of my VHS collection of movies recorded from broadcast television. With a mix tape of 80s action heroics, I would run home to revisit the likes of The Terminator (1984) and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (1985) with consistency. They were my homework.
In looking at character of John Rambo, specifically, it’s undeniable that he was a transformative American figure. As a kid growing up in Niagara Falls Canada and inundated with the Hollywood dream factory, the lure of such a national figure was all encompassing. From action figures to lunch boxes and Saturday morning cartoons, Rambo was entrenched with a global psyche as an American hero who will sacrifice his quest for redemption for the greater good. Rambo by all accounts was Reagan’s America.
As a kid watching the character of Rambo on television in the mid 80s, I would never have thought that I would have the opportunity to engage is such a deep critical study of the character as I did yesterday. I’ve taught about genre and Reaganite cinema through First Blood (1982) , Rambo: First Blood Part 2 (1985) and Rambo 3 (1988) for sometime now, but yesterday was a true education for me and my students.
Connecting with David Morrell via his website and Twitter, my students and I had the humbled privilege to chat with the First Blood author via Skype. What transpired was not merely an examination of his Rambo as an American national figure but importantly ourselves within a larger social and faith-based framework.
Morrell, a Canadian and American dual citizen, who was born and raised in Kitchener- Waterloo area, attended Catholic elementary, secondary and post-secondary schooling before heading off to Penn State to pursue his dream of being an author. This early learning experience shaped his cultural sensibilities as he shared with the students.
From the onset of the Skype conversation, he shaped a compelling narrative about the importance of stories, understanding time and setting and definitive moments of one’s life. All of this was in establishing what First Blood, his first novel, meant to him and the importance of Rambo, as a character shaped by the psychological depression experienced by the United States during the mid 1960s to late 1970s.
Rambo, like all great heroes is on a journey. For Morrell, this journey of self-discovery and redemption was shaped by being a Canadian in the United States a critical time for the country and observing from a distance, the impact war has on the soul of the individual and nation. As he shared “being born and raised in Canada influenced the writing of FIRST BLOOD because I was an outsider, an observer. If I’d been involved—eligible for the draft for example—I might have had a different perspective. There aren’t any politics in the novel. I think that’s one reason why it hasn’t aged and why it’s never been out of print in 47 years.”
Within the context of the novel, Morrell shaped a rich study of genre for my students. As I’ve shared in my Communications Technology classes and within media literacy PD circles, its critical for student producers to have a sound understanding of genre. This allows for media literacy to become an enabler of culturally responsive teaching and learning. This is to say that through genre, personal stories can be shaped and resonant with an audience.
Within the audio excerpt below, Morrell provides a rich framework for the novel First Blood and one that reinforces that popular culture is a mirror onto ourselves – a great social experiment to determine what we value at any particular time. In regards to First Blood and Rambo, the idea of war and consequence seems to be themes that unfortunately pass the test of time.
With all of this, Morrell provides all of us with a provocation to produce popular culture in the spirit of doing good. As he shared in response to the new film, Rambo: Last Blood, which has created controversy for its level of violence, “at this time in the world, do we want to promote rage or hope?”
For us in a Catholic school setting, the answer is always “hope.”