Ted Kotcheff on First Blood and how Rambo almost died

Earlier today news broke that after a series of false starts and different story ideas, a fifth Rambo film will indeed go into production soon, and Stallone will be back in the title role.

What better time, we thought, to share a few anecdotes director Ted Kotcheff told us about First Blood earlier this year. We were saving them for such an occasion, in fact.

The most notable of his tales, and most relevant to this news, is the story behind how the films could have stopped with First Blood.

Craig Skinner: The original ending of First Blood was very different, with Stallone’s character committing suicide.

Ted Kotcheff: That’s right. What happened was that the film was originally conceived of as a kind of suicide mission. Here is this guy that came back totally messed up from Vietnam and realised that there was no place for him any longer in American society. After being dumped by the sheriff out of town he turns and walks back across that bridge. He knows that he’s on a suicide mission, that this is going to end badly. Whatever happens and what proposes to do. It was written like that and the ending was that the Green Beret colonel was there to put him out of his misery.

And he [Rambo] says to him, ‘I know you got a gun in there colonel. Go ahead do it.’ But he can’t do it. The colonel pulls out the gun but he can’t shoot him. As the gun is being pointed, Rambo jumps forward and pulls the trigger. He blows himself away, commits hara-kiri. He fell into into the filing cabinets in the police station. It was always the way it was conceived, then Sylvester Stallone – who is a great populist – came up to me and he said, ‘Ted, we do terrible things to this character, they shoot at him, he’s wounded, he has to sew himself up, they sic dogs on him, he jumps off cliffs into trees. And now we’re going to kill him?’ He said, ‘the audience will hate us’. I said, ‘you got a point’.

I said, ‘We’ll start on you [Stallone] and the colonel coming out of the police station and we’ll go down the steps and over to the ambulance. And we’ll see the sheriff being put into the ambulance. We’ll know he’s still alive. And then we’re going to follow you down the street, through the town where everybody wants you destroyed and you get into the jeep and you drive off.’ And that’s how I did it.

And the producers…’What are you doing?! You’re over budget, over schedule Kotcheff! What are you doing? We all agreed this was the ending. We discussed it, we argued about it. He commits hara-kiri at the end. It’s suicide.’ I said, ‘just leave me, it will take two hours’.

Then we finished editing the film and you always test the film with real audience. It usually goes strange places, Colorado or somewhere. In this instance I think we went to a suburban theatre in Las Vegas. I’ve never heard audiences shouting at a screen like it. “Look out!’, ‘Oh my God!’ They loved the film. And then suddenly he commits hara-kiri and shoots himself. A dead silence in the theatre. And then a voice came out of the silence, ‘if the director of this film is in this movie theatre, lets string him up from the nearest lamppost!’ So I said to my wife, ‘lets get out of here before they lynch me’.

The producers collected all of the cards – because you have cards with the reactions – and card after card, ‘This is the greatest action film I’ve ever seen but who designed that ending!!’ One card after another was pulled out, all expressing the same sentiment. And I said, ‘well boys, in my back pocket I just happen to have another ending for this film’. [Laughs] An ending that you didn’t want me to shoot, that I think is perfect in this situation. And that, of course, is the ending that we used.

To think as well, if we’d used that original ending there never would have been the sequels.

CS: I like both endings but I actually lean a little more towards preferring the original ending myself. There’s something that hits you more in that ending. Do you prefer one over the other?

TK: Obviously both Sylvester and I liked that ending and we wrote it together and it worked in the script we wrote. But in the process of making it we had a different feeling towards the character. We fell for him more and I’d agree with Sylvester that after all we put the character through, he went through so much, and then we killed him. Maybe that was just the straw that breaks the camel’s back more than anything. But obviously yeah, we like the ending we have. I remember, I think Sylvester and I wrote sixteen different endings as to how he killed himself at the end. I remember counting them all.

CS: Are there any notable ones you remember?

TK: The police station is surrounded by the National Guard and the police and he goes over to the window with a gun. And he fires his gun into the air. And he’s riddled with bullets in the window. Because he didn’t want to hurt anyone. Obviously he invited people to kill him. That was one ending. I’ve forgotten the rest [laughs]. I think that was the most popular one.

The hara-kiri thing was interesting because of the colonel realising that Rambo was a piece of machinery that just wasn’t working anymore. And he was just going to help him put himself out of his misery.

I think finally though, I guess, the ending we had in the picture where he survives is probably the best. But only marginally, only marginally [laughs].

CS: One last quick question, out of curiosity, have you ever seen Son of Rambow?

TK: Yes, someone set it to me. It was a lot of fun. I saw it years and years ago. They said, ‘you’ve got to see this film, you’ll really love it!’ Which I did. I was very amused by it.

Thanks to Mr. Kotcheff for his time and his recollections.