The ’80s were a weird time for everyone. Not only was there an abundance of awful hairstyles and shocking clothing on every corner, but every film had a tie-in animated series as well – including properties that you’d never expect. The most bizarre animated show of the time was Rambo: The Force of Freedom, which was released in September 1986. Now, we don’t know about you, but making a cartoon about one of the most brutal characters in cinema sounds like a fight with parent and censor groups waiting to happen, right? Yet, somehow, the green light was given and the show aired for a whole 65 episodes.
It was too expensive to get Sly Stallone to voice the titular character, so the hero was voiced by Neil Ross. Surprisingly, even the head writer and story editor of the show, Michael Chain, couldn’t believe that it actually got made. He explained how a two-minute trailer was used as a pitch, and then three months later the production began. Obviously, there are many more tidbits and secrets about this animated series lurking around and that’s why we’re here. We’ve uncovered 15 of the juiciest morsels, so take a look below – and remember, you don’t mess with Rambo!
15. COLONEL TRAUTMAN AND… SKELETOR?
Next to Rambo, the other most recognized person from the franchise is Colonel Sam Trautman. In Rambo: The Force of Freedom, Trautman is the group’s commanding officer. That said, he wasn’t averse to accompanying Rambo in his missions and getting his hands dirty as well. In the film series, the character was portrayed by the late, great Richard Crenna; however, someone else voiced Trautman in the cartoon: Alan Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer is best known for his work on Filmation’s programming throughout the ’70s and ’80s, but his most famous voice role is that of Skeletor in He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Still to this day, he’ll always be remembered as the definitive voice of He-Man’s greatest adversary. And admit it: you hear Oppenheimer’s voice whenever you see Skeletor memes.
14. RAMBO’S PTSD WAS GONE
Look, in all fairness, it would be quite the conversation for parents to explain to their young children what post-traumatic stress disorder is and how it impacts many soldiers who return from war. Then again, it begs the question: why make an animated series about a character whose PTSD is a fundamental part of his storyline?
While there are rumors that a child psychologist advised the creators from including the PTSD angle due to the effects it would have on the children, Michael Chain denied these claims in an interview with The Robot’s Voice. “There were no rewrites on my stuff. I hired all the writers. Everything was rewritten to fit the format, and we put it on the air. There were no child psychologists involved. We had no edicts from above.”
13. RECREATED SCENES FROM FIRST BLOOD PART II
In 1985, John Rambo returned in Rambo: First Blood Part II where he was tasked with finding POWs in Vietnam. While it wasn’t beloved by critics (bunch of snobs!) as much as First Blood was, it had many moments of action brilliance and memorable scenes. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Rambo: The Force of Freedom recreated a few of these moments in the series.
That said, the showrunners didn’t exactly show Rambo knifing anyone or strangling an enemy to death, but a lot of the visuals were definite odes to the movie. Remember, in the animated series, Rambo couldn’t go on a killing rampage, so he used non-lethal force and his smarts more than anything else. Think of him as the Batman of army veterans here.
12. REAL-LIFE ISSUES
It’s not unusual for children’s programming to address the issues of the time in a covert way – and this animated series was no different. Granted, you didn’t exactly see Rambo dealing with the Cold War, apartheid and genocide – all of which were major global issues at the time — but they might’ve been a bit too much to get past the censors and parent groups.
What we did see was the action hero taking on forces from fictional places such as Namboola, Tierra Libre, and Bagdinia. It isn’t too difficult to figure out which real-life places and issues these places hint to. Aside from these locations, a lot of real cities, such as Venice and Las Vegas, and countries, like Haiti and England, were also used for settings. We do wonder if Rambo ever managed to find the magical land of Nambia in Africa, though.
11. NO ONE DIED
Rambo is known for accumulating a hefty body count. Heck, he’s a one-man army who takes Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” lyrics to a new level. So, it’s rather surprising to know that his kill count on the animated series was a big fat zero. Yip, he didn’t kill a single soul.
Despite the use of heavy-duty weapons and vehicles, we didn’t see anyone die on the show. Maybe some of the guys died of a heart attack from the surprise of seeing Rambo rather than the bullets being shot at them, but that was off screen. Naturally, there’s a good reason for the lack of death: it’s a children’s TV show after all. Can you imagine what the parents would do if the characters were being torn limb from limb by Rambo and friends?
10. THE RATED-R SUPERSTAR
You know, R-rated properties and children don’t go together. They’re two completely different demographics that shouldn’t gel. Well, Rambo broke the mold and set a new precedence, becoming the first R-rated film to be turned into an animated series. All things considered, though, don’t expect Fifty Shades of Grey to become a cartoon anytime soon.
Rambo wasn’t free from the controversy, however, as it became a talking point at the fabled “He-Man Workshop” at New York’s Christ Church Day. At this event, a group of parents got together to air their concerns about the state of children’s television, which they felt had become too violent. This proved to be an ongoing concern and the series did meet its demise due in part to the fear that it was too violent for children.
9. K.A.T. WAS A REWORKED CO-BAO
One of the most heart-wrenching moments of Rambo: First Blood Part II is when Co-Bao is killed. She was meant to be Rambo’s chance at a new life, and he’d promised to take her with him to America to start afresh. But nah, the Vietnamese soldiers decided to kill her and end their happily ever after.
In a twisted way, the character was resurrected in Rambo: The Force of Freedom as Katherine Anne “K.A.T.” Taylor, an Asian-American master of disguise, gymnast and expert martial artist. Also, K.A.T. had a clear crush on Rambo throughout the show, much like Co-Bao did in the movie. Obviously, since this was a cartoon, we didn’t see them develop their romantic relationship and it played off more like a schoolyard crush.
8. MAD DOG WAS ORIGINALLY SPIKE
As with any animated series, a plethora of bad guys were created for Rambo to beat up. These useless rogues had ridiculous names – such as General Warhawk, Sergeant Havoc, and Mad Dog – and proved to be more adept at screwing up their own plans than anything else. Mad Dog, in particular, was a real gem.
Voiced by Frank Welker, this bad boy was the leader of a biker gang, sported a Mohawk, and had a S.A.V.A.G.E. logo tattooed on his chest. In other words, he was about as much an edgelord as Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad. Interestingly, in the episode “Battlefield Bronx,” he was referred to as Spike, but then renamed to Mad Dog for the rest of the series. Maybe Spike was his mother’s maiden name?
7. THE SHOW RIPPED OFF G.I. JOE
In the ’80s and ’90s, cartoons loved to plagiarize each other. If an original idea popped up, it would have 20 variations by the next summer. Rambo: The Force of Freedom wasn’t entirely original, either. Apart from the fact that it was based on an established property, it “borrowed” a lot from G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Short of Rambo saying, “Yo, Joe,” these shows were mirror images and we’re surprised there wasn’t a copyright infringement lawsuit at some point.
For one, the notorious loner Rambo now had a team, with specific skill sets and Colonel Trautman acting like the General Hawk of the group. Second, the bad guys wanted world domination and were called S.A.V.A.G.E. – reminiscent of Cobra, don’t you think? And finally, both of these shows were created to sell the popular toylines.
6. JAMES AVERY VOICED TURBO
Before voicing the Shredder and playing Will Smith’s Uncle Phil in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the late, great James Avery provided the voice for Rambo’s ally Edward “Turbo” Hayes in the animated series. Out of all the supporting characters on the show, his performance was arguably the most memorable of the lot because of his distinct voice.
Even as Turbo, you could tell that Avery had a flair for the dramatic and his love for all things Shakespearean shined through in his performances. Behind the scenes, he was quite the character and Rambo’s voice actor, Neil Ross, fondly remembered Avery for his tremendous talent and how he’d always take off his shoes when he hit the studio. Still, with his shoes off, he’d tower over all the other voice actors.
5. THE NAME’S RAMBO, JUST RAMBO
If you asked the average person on the street what is Rambo’s first name, it’s unlikely that many people would know. His surname is more powerful and transcends all language barriers as the mere mention of the word is enough to strike fear into the heart of internet trolls everywhere. In fact, “Rambo” is even a recognized word on the online Oxford Dictionary, where it’s listed as a noun with the description of “an exceptionally tough, aggressive man.” Sounds about right.
In the animated series, he went mostly by the name of Rambo, too, with mention of his first name (John) being scarce. We doubt that many people were upset by this since John is the most vanilla name around, but Ram? Now that’s the name of a warrior!
4. THE MORAL OF THE STORY
Decades ago, there was an ongoing debate about cartoons and what value they brought to children’s development. There were question marks about their educational merits and whether they were appropriate for viewing. In the ’80s, many shows circumvented this by attaching moral lessons to each episode. While it looks cheesy and pandering in retrospect, it was one of the few ways to get around the censors and parents.
Rambo wasn’t immune to this, either. Not only was the violence toned down to meet Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decency standards, but moral lessons were also included in episodes. Suddenly, kids had Rambo teaching them about what’s right and wrong in life, and ensuring they stayed on the straight and narrow. Yeah, the ’80s were a weird time for everyone.
3. THE TOYLINE LASTED LONGER THAN THE SERIES
Look, let’s be frank here: the only reason Rambo: The Force of Freedom was created was to sell a bunch of toys to kids. That’s pretty much the sole purpose of any animated series from the ’80s. Thus, to the surprise of no one, the toyline continued long after the cartoon came to an end. That money doesn’t print itself, you know.
While the cartoon aired from September to December 1986, there were two toyline series released in 1986 and then in 1987. As expected, it featured all the popular characters and a plethora of vehicles for kids to collect and empty their parents’ pockets. Interestingly, the second series was a lot harder to find than the first one and seemed to fare better in the overseas market than in North America.
2. THE VIETNAM WAR WAS NEVER MENTIONED
While the Vietnam War played a critical part of Rambo’s backstory (and mindset) in the film series, it was a subject that wasn’t touched upon in the animated show. It makes sense, though, since the whole controversy and anti-war sentiment around it could’ve led to some complaints from parents, hence it being avoided like the plague. Also, wars are violent and the showrunners tried to keep that aspect almost non-existent here, because war flashbacks of torture and death certainly would’ve terrified the kids.
Considering the time and setting of the cartoon, it’s safe to assume that Rambo did fight in the war, but it’s never outright said. In hindsight, maybe it was a good decision because we don’t think it would’ve gone down well in a kids’ show.
1. WHAT SOURCE MATERIAL?
By now, it’s obvious that Rambo: The Force of Freedom was nothing like the film series. Besides a few elements borrowed here and there, it was mostly its own individual thing sharing only the name. That said, even the films deviated from the original source material, First Blood, which was written by David Morrell in 1972. It was an acclaimed book that even Stephen King used as a textbook when he taught creative writing at the University of Maine.
The novel was a story of a broken man who struggled to adjust to the American way of life after the Vietnam War, and not the underdog narrative that the film pushed. Unlike in the movie, Rambo actually dies after his battle with Teasle. Naturally, you can see how this would’ve changed the franchise’s trajectory had it stuck to the source material.
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