directed by Sylvester Stallone
Millennium Films, 2008
“I think there is a story that needs to be told,” Sylvester Stallone recently said of his latest movie. But the moral of that story is this: if Burma’s ruling junta is not confronted with the deadly force of arms, then, to quote the movie’s well-publicised tagline, “You’re not changing anything.” This is certainly the singular theme in the new film, the plot of which is not quite as deep as a sidewalk puddle. We follow Rambo’s journey ‘upriver’, to rescue ethnic Karen villagers being subjected to extrajudicial killings, rape and other grotesque forms of violence. But larger drawbacks aside, this tagline does indeed offer an opportunity to comment on the film’s depiction of a corner of Burma, as well as the current political impasse holding the country hostage. Luckily for its producers, Rambo was released only a few months after last September’s ‘Saffron Revolution’. The junta’s violent response to monk-led protests gripped audiences around the world, and Western journalists finally had something on which to report. But the battles and crises facing the Karen villagers in the eastern frontier of Burma (real or cinematic) are strikingly removed from the restricted Internet access, heavily censored press, and non-recognition of International Human Rights Day in Rangoon. Likewise, Rambo fervently takes the ‘saffron’ out of the real-life ‘revolution’, for which non-violence is the main resistance strategy. There is nothing in the film that suggests that non-violence could play any role in saving the Karen communities depicted here. There are no melodic voices of protesting monks chanting the Metta Sutra, the Buddha’s Discourse of Loving Kindness; nor any mention of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a staunch proponent of non-violent resistance. Perhaps viewers should not expect a Gandhian rendition from a movie that boasts around 2.6 on-screen deaths every minute. Stallone himself has explained the high level of violence in the production as an attempt to emphasise the ongoing conflict in Burma. “The exploits in the film are violent,” Stallone acknowledged recently, “but they don’t compare to what these people have gone through.” Rambo is the fourth instalment in the series that began in the early 1980s, and the first to emerge in 20 years. But John Rambo’s views on how to get things done clearly have not changed. The film forcefully delivers a message regarding the impotency of both the Karen resistance and the international community to protect the Karen population in the face of Myanmar Army provocations. Instead of joining forces with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed ethnic rebel group that, in real life, has engaged in an ongoing 60-year war against the junta, Rambo hooks up with a group of Western mercenaries to save Karen and Western lives, killing scores of troops in the process. Of course, most details in such a storyline get reduced to black and white. For instance, there is no attempt to deal with the high-profile split within the Karen community. Cemeteries along the Thai-Burma border attest to the bloodletting of the past decade between the rival armed outfits KNLA and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the latter maintaining a tenuous ceasefire with the junta. Only last month, members of the DKBA were thought to be behind the assassination of the KNLA’s general-secretary, Mahn Sha Lar Phan, in the Thai border town of Mae Sot – where Rambo happens to open.
Brawns over brain
The idea that violence is the only language the junta understands is, paradoxically, Rambo’s saving grace. While the film was largely welcomed by the Burmese in and out of Burma for graphically depicting the excesses and abuses of the Myanmar Army, Rambo also challenges – wittingly or not – the positions of the many who lauded the movie for bringing attention to the plight of Burma. As much as defying the junta’s spin on its activities in eastern Burma, the film directly questions whether an opposition policy centred on human rights, United Nations initiatives and calls to respect international conventions is not, in fact, a dangerously naïve assessment of the situation. This should not surprise anyone. Rambo is a product of the United States, the Cold War and the title character’s combat experiences during the Vietnam War. The first three Rambo movies dealt with either Vietnam or Afghanistan, the last marketed under the slogan “The first was for himself. The second was for his country. This time it’s for his friend.” The Rambo franchise has never been about concepts such as human rights. Rather, John Rambo is all about honour and the necessity of fighting for honour, invariably violently. With the end of the Cold War, the notion that the language of human rights can be used to secure liberties has made considerable headway; but on this count, too, Rambo disagrees. In his world, if rights and livelihood do enter the picture, they have to be fought for through brawn, not brains. Meanwhile, there is no mention of the group that has specifically been waging such a conflict in real life. But the fact is that the KNLA has consistently lost ground to the Myanmar Army for several years now, and has been reduced to a few isolated pockets of activity, mostly along the Thai-Burma border. Clearly it does not have the operational capacity to play the role of a Rambo figure, or play even a supporting role in Stallone’s script. In the end, the message from this somewhat selective portrayal of Burma’s volatile Karen state is clear: the Burmese junta listens to force, and Rambo delivers the requisite muscle and firepower where others have failed. Even for the Burmese, this is an exciting message at first, but one that leaves little to chew on after the lights come back on.