Is it just me, or is Rambo's cliff jump peak action cinema?

Sylvester Stallone in First Blood (1982)
(Image credit: Studiocanal)

"Could this possibly happen? Absolutely," says Sylvester Stallone on First Blood’s DVD commentary. And therein lies the secret of the 1982 film’s most heart-stopping action sequence. Well, that and the fact we’d never seen the like before.

You know the scene; it’s iconic. But let’s recap anyway: Vietnam vet John Rambo (Stallone) has been arrested for vagrancy while passing through the mountain town of Hope, Washington. Savagely mistreated by Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) and his men, he busts out of the police station and is pursued into the woods, tracked by cops and dogs until he’s hanging from a cliff face. 

Sadistic Deputy Sergeant Art Galt (Jack Starrett) arrives in a helicopter and starts taking pot-shots… and then, shockingly, Rambo pushes off the cliff and plummets down, down, down, into a tree, its branches breaking his fall enough to result in severe injury (cue hugely influential self-surgery scene), but not death.

Watching the movie in the 1980s, no one expected him to jump. However desperate the situation, it was just too outrageous, especially in an action drama with a grounded tone. Now, when not just superheroes but John Wick, the Fast family, and every Liam Neeson character are indestructible, such a stunt is obligatory.

Achieved in three takes, with stuntman Buddy Joe Hooker performing the plunge and Stallone dropping through the final third of the tree (he broke a rib on take three), it’s perilous stuff. "It was easy to act the pain," winces Stallone as he recalls hitting the turf. 

You just don’t get that danger, that horror, that awe, watching CGI – and even Tom Cruise’s real-deal set-pieces can’t replicate the jolt of seeing such a thing for the first time. This was ‘mission: improbable’ back when Tom was starring in teen sex comedy Losin’ It.

There are, of course, far more impressively choreographed action scenes by the likes of Kurosawa, Peckinpah, Hill, Woo, Cameron, Mann, and more. But there’s never again been a thrill to match Rambo’s leap, your jaw dropping in sync with his descent. Or is it just me?

Editor-at-Large, Total Film

Jamie Graham is the Editor-at-Large of Total Film magazine. You'll likely find them around these parts reviewing the biggest films on the planet and speaking to some of the biggest stars in the business – that's just what Jamie does. Jamie has also written for outlets like SFX and the Sunday Times Culture, and appeared on podcasts exploring the wondrous worlds of occult and horror.