Tom Jolliffe looks back at Brian Dennehy’s iconic role in First Blood and how he stole the film…
It was very sad to hear the news that Brian Dennehy has passed away. Like many film fans, he’s a familiar face to me. A long and industrious career certainly had a share of highlights including cult favourites like Tommy Boy, F/X (really underrated film) and Cocoon.
For many, he’ll probably be most synonymous with his role as a bullheaded Sheriff in First Blood. I’ve seen the film countless time, and a feeling had crept up on me over the many viewings. The more I’ve seen First Blood, the more I appreciate Brian Dennehy’s performance.
First Blood is a film full of great performances. I’ve always been a big Stallone fan, particularly growing up absolutely loving this series and that little known boxing franchise he did that you may have heard of. Sly probably gives, bar the first Rocky, his best performance ever in First Blood. It’s fantastic, particularly coming at a time where he’d been in a post Rocky critical slump. Films like F.I.S.T (co-starring Dennehy) underwhelmed and people questioned an actor who was being billed in the same breath as Robert De Niro and Al Pacino after his Oscar-nominated performance in Rocky. Likewise it’s hard to ignore the theatrical scenery-chewing of the late Richard Crenna as Colonel Trautman. With a certain Shatner-esque delivery his role became iconic through the series (and as progressively silly as it got, easy to spoof in something like Hot Shots Part Deux).
As a story of a PTSD suffering vet who is unfairly slighted and then pushed over the edge after he reacts, Rambo’s story very interesting. Still, something about Dennehy’s journey through the film is so pivotal and just as engaging. A man he’s dismissed as another vagrant drifter, with his clear military background (in a time of real antipathy regarding the Vietnam war), breaks out of the jail house and goes on the run. As Sheriff Teasle, Dennehy is immense. This progressive escalation gets out of his control. He’s a guy that likes to be in control, for things to be simple. A drifter he assumes will antagonise people in town (by mere presence alone, maybe more), he just wants moved on quickly. There’s little time for empathy for him, but it’s his first mistake. Teasle isn’t a bad guy. He’s not the villain of the story (which is the beauty of this film in comparison to the more conventional hero/villain action approach of the sequels), he’s just overly protective of his quiet town and narrow minded.
By the time Rambo has escaped into the mountains and terrorised Teasle and his team (leaving one particularly cruel deputy dead, played with aplomb by Jack Starrett) the situation is way out of control. Having tried to rectify things himself he has to bring in military intervention. The gravity of the situation weighs heavy on Teasle.
Dennehy has a number of great scenes but it’s upon sitting down with Trautman with Rambo presumed dead where we see a burning regret. It’s not so much starting the situation to begin with, it’s the fact he couldn’t finish it himself. He wanted to be the one to take Rambo down. You can see it burn him inside (and just the same, you can get that sense from Trautman that he suspects Rambo is still alive). Their follow up when Rambo is spotted alive is similarly a great scene. To a few of the more snobbish critics, Dennehy and Crenna were considered ‘the actors’ of the film, whilst Stallone was occasionally dismissed as a physical entity (the film had a mixed critical reception initially). Still, Crenna and Dennehy did play exceptionally well off each other here.
By the end of the film Teasle is shot and falls through a skylight and left with severe injuries. This entire situation starting with this moment of weary frustration at seeing Rambo by the road side, and treating it as a routine case of vagrancy. Everything that happens is on his head and Dennehy carries that weight through the film beautifully, and ultimately, it becomes as interesting a story and character arc as that of John J’s. Given the initial critical response to this, and within the industry too, First Blood was entirely overlooked during award’s season. A shame when you consider the technical aspects, the iconic score, but indeed also when you consider the brilliance of Brian Dennehy’s performance. Then look back to a lot of the award contenders that year and not many stand among the most iconic films which came that year (a remarkable year in fact). Not least, First Blood.
What was your favourite Brian Dennehy performance? Let us know in the comments below or on our Twitter page @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.