The legacy of Vietnam in the 80's can be examined through popular culture. Mainstream films of the decade often had undertones or references to the war and the effects of American defeat, others such as 1982's First Blood were more obvious.
The plot of first blood described: 'John J. Rambo is a former United States Special Forces soldier who fought in Vietnam and won the Congressional Medal of Honor, but his time in Vietnam still haunts him. As he came to Hope, Washington to visit a friend, he was guided out of town by the Sheriff William Teasel who insults Rambo, but what Teasel does not know that his insult angered Rambo to the point where Rambo became violent and was arrested, as he was at the county jail being cleaned, he escapes and goes on a rampage through the forest to try to escape from the sheriffs who want to kill him. Then, as Rambo's commanding officer, Colonel Samuel Trautman tries to save both the Sheriff's department and Rambo before the situation gets out of hand.'
First Blood was a post-Vietnam War psychological thriller set in America, it portrays the after-effects of the Vietnam War on the nation and specifically the difficulties faced by American veterans attempting to re-integrate into society which was not examined in subsequent Rambo films. First Blood received generally favorable reviews, Stallone in particular, received much praise for his performance.
The Vietnam War only began to be examined on through film in the late '70s. Although many films of the late 60s and early 70s embodied the bitter aftertaste of the war, the conflict itself remained strikingly absent from the screen, as Hollywood, like the country as a whole, had difficulty adjusting to the grim legacy of a lost and troubling war. During the conflict, Hollywood produced only a single film dealing with Vietnam- John Wayne's The Green Berets.
Although America's active military participation in the Vietnam War ended in 1973, the controversy engendered by the war raged on long after the firing of the last shot. Much of the controversy centered on the returning veterans. Veterans were shocked by the cold, hostile reception they received when they returned to the United States. In First Blood John Rambo captured the pain of the returning veterans:
"It wasn't my war--you asked me, I didn't ask you...and I did what I had to do to win....Then I came back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting on me, calling me a baby-killer...."
'During the 1970s and '80s, the returning Vietnam War veteran loomed large in American popular culture. He was first portrayed as a dangerous killer, a deranged ticking time bomb that could explode at any time and in any place. He was Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a veteran wound so tight that he seemed perpetually on the verge of snapping. Or he was Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979), who adjusted to a mad war by going mad himself.
Not until the end of the '70s did popular culture begin to treat the Vietnam War veteran as a victim of the war rather than a madman produced by the war. Coming Home (1978) and The Deer Hunter (1978) began the popular rehabilitation of the veteran, and such films as Missing in Action (1984) and Rambo: First Blood II (1985) transformed the veteran into a misunderstood hero.
Where some films, like the Rambo series, focused on the exploits of one-man armies or vigilantes armed to the teeth, who had been kept from winning the war because of government cowardice and betrayal, another group of Vietnam War films--like Platoon, Casualties of War, and Born on the Fourth of July--took quite a different view of the war. Focusing on innocent, naive "grunts"--the ground troops who actually fought the war--these movies retold the story of the Vietnam War in terms of the soldiers' loss of idealism, the breakdown of unit cohesion, and the struggle to survive and sustain a sense of humanity and integrity in the midst of war.'
James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, Coming to Terms with the Vietnam War: Distorted Images (1993)