Beirut — In a darkened theater on Hamra Street, the Lebanese audience burst into appreciative applause as Rambo, ``the pure war machine,'' freed American prisoners of war from their Vietnamese and Soviet captors. Most of the audience were Shiite Muslim militiamen wearing khaki uniforms and packing pistols.
They and other Lebanese have helped ``Rambo: First Blood Part II,'' a super-macho movie starring American actor Sylvester Stallone, break all box-office records in Lebanon since its release here a few weeks ago.
The irony of Rambo's popularity is that the Lebanese thronged to see it even as a real-life American hostage drama riveted the world's attention on Beirut for two weeks.
This reporter sat through a showing of Rambo last Friday, while TWA Flight 847 was still sitting on the Beirut airport tarmac, just a few miles south of the movie theater. Inside the airliner, three American crewmen endured filthy conditions and threats from their captors, who often trained guns on them.
In many ways, the hostage drama that ended Sunday with the release of all 39 hostages became one of the most protracted manifestations of Lebanon's love-hate relationship with the United States.
The Lebanese were both horrified and fascinated by the hijacking. As the hostages were released Sunday, one of the questions Western reporters covering the release asked most frequently was: ``What will America do now?''
President Ronald Reagan and his top officials had made the possibility of retaliation seem quite likely -- so likely, in fact, that it was the fear of retaliation that delayed the hostages' release 24 hours, according to Amal leader Nabih Berri. Mr. Berri said the Lebanese had sought guarantees that neither the US nor its ally, Israel, would retaliate militarily against Lebanon. 2 The American gesture that eased Lebanese fears came from the State Department in the form of a statement issued Saturday night.
``The United States reaffirms its long-standing support for the preservation of Lebanon, its government, its stability and security, and for the mitigation of the suffering of its people,'' said spokesman Pete Martinez.
But on Sunday, before the hostages were released, an Amal spokesman indicated that the organization still was not sure there would be no retaliation.
``Maybe Mr. Reagan will do something after the hostages are there [in Damascus],'' said Abu Rabayah, head of Amal security. ``But he will never succeed.''
The hijackers of Flight 847 were members of one of the most extreme Shiite fundamentalist organizations -- Hizbullah, the ``Party of God.'' Hizbullah members are fanatic, virulently anti-American, pro-Iranian Muslims. Their grievances against the US include its backing of Israel, the shelling of Beirut in 1982 by the USS New Jersey, and the host of plots many Lebanese believe American intelligence operatives routinely carry out to further destabilize this ravaged nation.
And yet the Lebanese, even many strongly anti-American Shiites, are careful to spell out to the American press that their grievances are not with the American people, but with their government.
``America good, Reagan bad,'' one particularly fierce-looking Amal militiaman said to a reporter, succinctly summing up a distinction the Lebanese seem to want to cling to.
Throughout the hostage drama, one of the primary concerns of Berri and his aides was public relations with the American public.
Berri, who is also Lebanon's minister of justice, repeatedly insisted that he was only acting as a negotiator on behalf of the hijackers and was not involved with the original hijacking. Berri said he did not agree with hijacking an airliner filled with innocent people, but he said that Americans should understand the underlying causes that would lead to such a desperate act. The hijackers, he said, acted to gain the freedom of 766 of their comrades who they believed were being held hostage by Israel.
Berri's Amal militiamen, members of the largest militia operating in Lebanon, provided almost daily opportunities for the hundreds of photographers and journalists to meet with the hostages. They arranged press conferences and staged public lunches and dinners where the hostages were seen chatting amicably with their captors. 3 Reporters who flooded Beirut after the TWA plane landed here for the third time on June 16, were able to travel to southern strongholds of the Shiites, to the airport, and all over mostly-Muslim west Beirut with impunity.
Just before the hostage crisis began, virtually no American reporter felt safe if he dared to venture into the Muslim sector of town. Hizbullah and another fundamentalist group, Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War), had issued warnings for Westerners to leave and had backed those warnings with a rash of kidnappings.
However, the temporary sense of immunity during the hostage crisis was shaken a few times. Some reporters recounted tales of being stopped at roadblocks that are set up all over Beirut and being hassled by militiamen who told them they were only letting them go ``because you are not Americans.''
Amal, carefully monitoring the daily news clippings and television reports, withheld press passes from some reporters who had displeased it and granted special access to others who it thought had reported well.
And all along there was an acute awareness among the press that the situation could change in an instant if the US carried through with the Reagan administration's oft-repeated threats to not let acts of terrorism go unpunished.