Just because Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo was aimed at a mature audience, that doesn’t mean there weren’t attempts to sell the character to children.
A quick peruse of the British Board Of Film Classification’s (BBFC) website confirms what wasn’t really in a fat lot of doubt: that every single one of the five Rambo films to date has come with an age-restrictive certificate. Oddly, the first two films are now rated 15 in the UK, with the latter three each sporting an increasingly-rare 18 certificate.
Unlike other Sylvester Stallone franchises – and I’m looking at you keenly in the eye, The Expendables – there’s never been any attempt to attract a family audience to the Rambo movies. Since the release of First Blood all the way back in 1982, this has been a series about violence, and quite a lot of it.
Come 1988, off the back of the Rambo and Rocky films, Sylvester Stallone was one of the biggest movie stars on planet Earth. As such, when independent company Carolco moved in to make and fund Rambo III, it’d be fair to say it threw cash at it. Costing what was then an eye-watering $60m, it was the most expensive film of all time to make by the time production wrapped.
When you’re an independent company spending that level of cash, then you’re going to try lots of avenues to get your funds back. Notwithstanding the fact that the critically-savaged film would gross $189m at the global box office – although it’d come up against stiff competition in the US from Crocodile Dundee II – its returns were still below expectations.
Not to worry, though. Running side by side with the cinema release of the third Rambo movie – it’s the one where he’s fighting pretty much the entire Russian army and helping Afghanistan, if you want to place it in history – was a bizarre attempt to cash in on the family market too.
Not with the film: but the associated merchandise and spin-offs.
There’s method to the madness to a small degree: the thinking that most children want to at some point want to watch the movies they’re told they’re too young for.
Still, take a look at this little lot…
The kids’ television cartoon
Cast your mind back to the very first Rambo adventure, First Blood. A tonally dark, serious and introspective look at the damage of conflict on a human being.
Many looked at it and were moved. Ruby-Spears Enterprises looked at that and its sequel, and figured that’s perfect fodder for a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon series.
It debuted on US TV shows the year after First Blood: Part II became the commercial highpoint of the franchise. Subtitled The Force Of Freedom, it saw Rambo sent on a special mission by Colonel Trautman – you can’t say it wasn’t loyal to the source material – to combat a paramilitary terrorist organisation (S.A.V.A.G.E., a name such a sod to type it’s going to be its last mention in this article) around the globe.
On the other channel: Care Bears.
Five initial episodes were produced, and that was enough to secure a full season order. 65 episodes later though, the plug was pulled and a second season renewal was rejected. The show, by November 1987, was ranked 56th out of 58 cartoon shows running on American television. The kids, for some reason, just weren’t getting it.
Joseph Ruby of Ruby-Spears was certainly disappointed. “He was more rounded as a character”, he insisted of the show’s take on Rambo at the time. “We gave him more of a sense of humour, feelings, sociability with other people. He wasn’t just a steely-eyed loner doing his mission”.
Because that just wouldn’t suit Rambo at all.
“We know parents everywhere will be disappointed”, said Ruby of the show’s demise.
Whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry did a pretty decent job of summarising the problem: “The cartoon generated a mild controversy at the production studio, with writers wondering how they could present a child-friendly main character who was created as a troubled Vietnam War veteran suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”.
You never got that problem with the Ewoks, did you?
The associated action figures
To tie into the family friendly Rambo cartoon, designed to introduce anklebiters to sweaty action cinema (never too early etc), Coleco Industries took out a licence for tie-in Rambo dolls.
The special action figure, I stress again aimed at the family market, came with its own rocket launcher, machine gun, ammo belt, movable arms and – yes! – battle scars on its chest. Look at ’em!
However, by the time Rambo III arrived in cinemas, Coleco had opted to cut its losses. As it told Premiere magazine back in July 1988, “last year there were so many action figures out there that no one, with the exception of G.I. Joe, really emerged as the leader”.
The statement from the company’s vice president of corporate communications added, mournfully, that “the kids weren’t in tune with [Rambo] in the way we thought they would be”.
No self-respecting action franchise dealing with bloodshed and issues of PTSD would have been seen dead in the 1980s without (checks notes) a children’s annual. In this case, not just one either. The Rambo annual popped up twice: in 1987 and 1988.
Back at my former home, the splendid Wil Jones dissected the storylines presented to the babs in the 1988 tome here.
Highlights? A weapons file explaining to kids the difference between a machete, a Beretta pistol and an AK-47 assault rifle (with child-friendly line drawings to illustrate them). Then there were several comic strips, and a board game to play too.
Christmas Day entertainment, crammed into one book.
The computer game
Finally, there was the inevitable computer game tie-ie (we called them computer games back then – none of this videogame nonsense). In fairness, the 80s was a golden period for did-they-really-make-a-game-out-of-that moments. The tie-in action game to Oliver Stone’s haunting Vietnam Oscar-winner Platoon was a commercial and critical hit.
They were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
In the case of Rambo III, this was a cartoony (as every game had to be, given the position technology was in at the time) action blaster. With very few games back then coming with age restrictions, this was sold slap bang with the rest of the family computer games of the time. Mind you, it’s hard to think it would have corrupted too many minds.
Here’s the full playthrough of the ZX Spectrum version…
Favourite section? Ruthlessly gunning down enemy soldiers running towards you, without a second thought. Get to the end, the game tells you you’re a real superhero.
It’d be fair to say that the messages of the first movie had long been diluted anyway by the movies at this point in history…
Sadly, none of these spin-offs would prove to be massively lucrative, and thus when Stallone came back to the role of John Rambo some 20 years after the third film, CBeebies was not at the front of the queue to enquire about further television adventures. A pity. He could have sorted those Night Garden mutants out for a start…
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