Placed next to First Blood and the unexpectedly long-lived Rambo franchise, Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow doesn’t seem so odd. More than 30 years after the original adaptation of David Morrell’s novel, we’re now looking at Last Blood, or Rambo No. 5, as Lou Bega might have called it. Although the original film represents some of Sylvester Stallone’s best acting work, it doesn’t necessarily have “action franchise” written all over it.
With that in mind, it’s not so odd that a family-friendly British comedy would position two 12-year-olds in 1980s Hertfordshire as the makers of an unofficial sequel. Released in 2007, Jennings’ film is an ode to how we interact with films as youngsters–specifically with a film the characters are definitely too young to see. This irresistible story follows shy, repressed Will Proudfoot (Bill Milner) and school bully Lee Carter (Will Poulter) as they’re wowed by the exploits of Stallone’s embattled Vietnam veteran and decide to make a fan film titled ‘Son Of Rambow.’
Maybe as movie fans, we’re easy marks for a film about the unifying power of cinema, but Son of Rambow is a truly singular slice of nostalgia, which takes in amateur filmmaking and 1980s pop culture and turns out a sweet, funny, and heartfelt film. Although it’s a low-budget film, it feels constrained only by the limits of its young characters’ imaginations.
Beyond the creative anarchy of inserting flying dogs and evil scarecrows into a DIY Rambo sequel, there’s a rebellious spirit that hinges on the characters’ more innocent reading of First Blood. Even looking back at how Jennings got the film made, there’s an almost rebellious independent streak running right through it.
Jennings saw First Blood when he was 12-years-old. Having loved films and started playing around with a home video camera in the year before, he was inspired to make an action-packed 10-minute film titled Aron Part 1, which he edited in-camera and submitted to the BBC’s Screen Test Young Filmmakers Competition.
Later in life, he co-founded the production company Hammer & Tongs with producer Nick Goldsmith and went on to create a range of acclaimed music videos in the 1990s, including Blur’s Coffee & TV, Fat Boy Slim’s Right Here Right Now, and Supergrass’ Pumping on Your Stereo. When the duo considered making their first feature film, Jennings’ childhood pursuits inspired the story.
Moreover, the film was storyboarded start to finish over about three months, in much the same way as Will secretly draws flip-cartoon adventures whenever he gets the opportunity. Although the film was in shootable shape by around 2001, the main obstacle was convincing financiers that the film would connect with audiences.
Indeed, Jennings recalled in a 2008 interview with Filmmaker magazine that one executive told him no adult would see a film with children as the lead characters… while sitting right in front of a giant poster for Billy Elliot.
While their efforts to obtain funding proved frustrating, their music video work got them another offer–Touchstone asked Jennings to direct the long-gestating film version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After reading Douglas Adams’ draft of the script, they agreed, and Rambow was put on the back-burner.
Whatever you think of the finished film, it went on to open at No. 1 on both the UK and U.S. box office charts, which opened doors for Son of Rambow. While every UK financier insisted the project was unmarketable, international investors like French company Celluloid Dreams put the funding together for the £4-million movie.
As well as being in keeping with the backyard filmmaking undertaken by the characters, the lower budget was a far cry from what was spent on the Disney-backed Hitchhiker’s Guide, which allowed Jennings much greater mobility once filming began. Once funded, the remarkably speedy production kicked off in late 2006 and the film was completed in time to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007, where it was duly acquired by Paramount Vantage.
Although the clearance of featured clips from First Blood slowed the film’s path to theaters, it enjoyed a great deal of acclaim on the festival circuit over the next 12 months. This included a rave review from one particularly high-profile fan, who was at that point preparing to promote his fourth outing as John J. Rambo.
“When I first heard about [Son of Rambow], I assumed it was going to be a very broad and stylized joke-a-minute comedy at Rambo’s expense,” Sylvester Stallone told the Los Angeles Times. “The fact that it was so heart-warming is the result of brilliant filmmaking by its creators.”
While Son Of Rambow is far from an autobiographical film, Jennings uses the same inspiring experience of seeing First Blood as a launchpad for the kids’ journey together. At the start of the film, they have completely different relationships with their local cinema–Lee is inside, pirating First Blood on a VHS camcorder while Will and his family are outside, protesting the corrupting influence of the film with the evangelical Plymouth Brethren.
Lee is inspired enough by the film that he wants to base his Screen Test entry on it and later press-gangs the much meeker Will into being his stuntman by claiming the headteacher has tortured him (like Rambo in captivity) for an early bit of mischief. Earlier in the same sequence, Lee echoes Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, bouncing a ball against the wall after being sent out by a teacher.
While Lee already has a frame of reference for his opus, Will is utterly transformed by his exposure to the film. We see him surreptitiously drawing cartoons wherever he can, from the pages of his bible to a bathroom stall, but the pirate copy of First Blood is the first film he’s ever seen in his life. Rather than corrupting him, it awakens him.
Granted, neither kid has much of a grasp of the film’s underlying themes and they never once acknowledge how it ends. Heck, even the title of their fan film is misspelt by Will, who has never seen ‘Rambo’ written down. Frankly, all copyright issues aside, it’s not that out of keeping with the later franchise’s berserk title scheme.
Still, the film captures both of their imaginations for various reasons. One of the only things the two young filmmakers have in common is their absent fathers–Lee’s dad left before he was born and Will’s dad has recently passed away as the result of an aneurysm. While Will’s mother Mary (Jessica Hynes) is a loving single parent, she’s also a devout member of the Brethren, whose reserved piety doesn’t give the poor kid much of a chance to express himself.
Making matters worse, a stuffy suitor named Brother Joshua (Neil Dudgeon) is trying to assert himself and the church’s patriarchal values into the family. It’s no wonder that Will not only sneaks out to work with Lee but also risks life and limb performing amateur stunt work.
Though impressed by his enthusiasm, Lee is initially baffled that Will wants to play the son of Rambo rather than Rambo himself, resulting in Eric Sykes’ oblivious care home resident playing Stallone in a typically ridiculous aside. Nevertheless, the story of a son saving his dad in a way that he couldn’t in real life creates the emotional undercurrent of their fanciful DIY sequel.
Elsewhere, that childlike tendency toward projection is also reflected in the film’s main subplot–the meteoric arrival of a Patrick Swayze-obsessed French exchange student named Didier (Jules Sitruk), who smokes, snogs girls, and ultimately wangles himself a major supporting role in ‘Son Of Rambow.’ To Will and Lee’s classmates, his foreign and exotic nature makes him the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to their dreary school.
Didier’s involvement drives a wedge between Lee and Will and an ambitious and extremely dangerous recreation of a scene from 1953’s The Wages of Fear almost gets them both killed when it goes wrong. Finally, the punchline to Didier’s character arc puts a nice button on the idea of culture being lost in translation for youngsters, but it also suits the film’s rambunctious comic energy quite nicely.
But in the center of it all, it’s the unlikely friendship between the two leads, which sees a quiet and shy kid and a boisterous class clown become best friends and “blood brothers” over a shared love of film, that seals it. Coupling an authentic childlike fearlessness and a more nostalgic detachment from reality, the film is in equal parts absurdly hilarious and genuinely moving.
Do it Yourself
From the project’s inception to the film’s heartwarming finale, Son of Rambow is a fond celebration of the same sort of do-it-yourself spirit that gets movies like this one now made outside of the studio system. Where films like this can sometimes come off as twee, especially where child actors are involved, it boasts a vital sense of recklessness and a tangible connection with its movie-loving inner child.
Perhaps most impressive of all, it marks the screen debuts of both Milner and Poulter, a cracking pair of actors whose endearing rapport makes this daft caper sing. To discover one of these young talents would be impressive enough, but that Jennings discovered them both and put them together feels nothing short of miraculous.
Jennings told Filmmaker magazine, “Their enthusiasm – they’re like, ‘Wow, we get to swing off a crane!’ – is infectious to all of us. The crew had seen it all, they’ve been on The Bourne Supremacy for nine months, they’ve done it all, but these children reminded them why they got into it in the first place.”
It shows in the finished film too. While it’s easier for kids to make films using consumer technology these days than it was in 2007, never mind the 1980s, it’s only got harder for small independent features like Son of Rambow to get made unless the filmmakers already have a big hit under their belts.
As a testament to the feature’s inspiration, Jennings’ Aron Part 1 can be seen as a special feature on the home media releases of Rambow. Beyond its weird inherent appeal, the story of the film, both in front of and behind the camera, gives heart to filmmakers and film fans of all stripes.