First Blood, the first Rambo movie, is another exploration of hyper-masculinity. It did considerably better at the box office. To what do you attribute that success?
First Blood was different. John Rambo (played by Sylvester Stallone) was a man who was a trained engine of violence, who fought in the jungles of Vietnam and comes back to his country. We treated Vietnam Veterans so badly. The right wing thought they were a bunch of losers for losing the war, and the left wing accused them of being baby-killers and women-killers. They were totally rejected. I think the film succeeded because people were thinking, “Oh my God, what have we done?”
Brian Dennehy, who played the sheriff, Teasle, in First Blood, served two tours of duty in Vietnam, and his last night in country he had a horrible firefight and all his friends were being killed and he killed 10 Viet Cong who were coming in attacking the village. And then they said, “OK, your tour of duty is up Mr. Dennehy, get on the plane.” He got on the plane, they flew him non-stop back to San Francisco, and they dumped him out on the street at midnight. He didn’t have a place to go, there were no welcoming bands, and nobody even to help him find a place to stay. It was just appalling.
What Rambo feels is that there's no place for him in society. That’s why he comes back across the bridge at the end of the movie. That whole thing was a suicide mission. In the original ending, when the colonel comes in, Rambo says, “Go ahead, kill me. You made me, you created me, you trained me, now kill me.” Of course the colonel can’t do it, so Rambo reached for the gun and pushed the trigger and committed kind of a harakiri and he was blown backwards into the filing cabinets in the police office. That was always the intention, that when he crosses that bridge and comes back into the town he knows what he is doing that this is a suicide mission.
In the test screening, when Rambo committed suicide you could've heard a pin drop. A voice said, 'If the director of this film is in this movie house, he should be strung up from the nearest lamppost!'
How did the alternate ending come about?
We shot the suicide ending, and then Sylvester came up to me and said, “God, what we've done to this character, he jumps off cliffs, he’s chased by dogs, he’s shot and he has to sew up his own arm. After all of that, we're gonna kill him?” One thing about Sly, he always had a popular sense of what audiences wanted to see. I said, “We've always conceived of it this way.” He says, “Do you want to come back here three months from now when the distributor asks for a happy ending?” I said no. [Laughs.]
I had a great idea to cut out that scene with the colonel and Rambo comes down the steps, as we see the sheriff being loaded in to an ambulance, so we know that he's not dead, and he goes down the street of the city that he has totally just wrecked and gets in the jeep and he drives off with the colonel. The producer was like, "You are over budget! Why are you shooting this? We're not going to use it! It's a suicide mission—he's going to survive now?"
I shot it over their protests, and when they tested the film, the audience yelled and screamed and loved the film, but when Rambo committed suicide you could've heard a pin drop. A voice said, “If the director of this film is in this movie house, he should be strung up from the nearest lamppost!” [Laughs.] I said to my wife, “Let's get out of here before they lynch me!” When the cards came, every card said the same thing read: "This is one of the greatest action films I’ve ever seen. But the ending!" I looked at the producers and I said, “Well, boys, I just happen to have an alternate ending right here in my breast pocket.”
Do many people recognize you for Weekend at Bernie's?
Whenever people meet me and they don’t recognize my name and they ask what pictures I've done, the two that everybody has seen are First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s. Every man women and child I’ve ever met has seen that film. At Christmas time it still sells thousands of DVD’s. It is the most amazing thing.
I guess a comedy about death is fascinating. I love social comedy, like Fun with Dick and Jane, which I did with Jane Fonda and George Segal. There’s that iconic moment in Weekend at Bernie's when the girl comes up and goes, “C’mon, Bernie,” and she puts her hand in his pocket and pulls out some drugs and goes off and his corpse is just sitting on his sofa in his house. People don’t care whether you are alive or dead as long as you are of some benefit to them.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)