At the end of the seventies, thanks to his first Rocky movie, Sylvester Stallone was at the top of his popularity and critical acclaim.
In the same years, David Morrell’s universally acclaimed novel ‘First Blood’ was one the many Hollywood projects lost in ‘development hell’.
In the ten years following the book’s release, its screenplay version has been rejected by the most famous actors of its age (Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, just to name the most famous).
All of these actors refused the project fearing the consequences of acting such a violent and controversial character, or were rejected by producers for various reasons.
Only when Stallone expressed interest in the project, Hollywood finally found the star a project like this really ‘needed’. So, after almost ten years spent in development hell, the project finally received green light.
THE IDEA OF THE KNIFE
In Morrell’s book their isn’t any survival knife at all. The idea of introducing it – as a way to show both Rambo’s military training and survival expertise – came from Stallone himself, because he was a real knife enthusiast.
After some discussions, the idea was approved by producers and Stallone met with Arkansas knifesmith Jimmy Lile to design a brand new knife for the movie.
A LITTLE HISTORY OF MILITARY KNIVES
The first knives ever used in modern warfare (from WWI and on) were the ‘fighting knives’.
A ‘pure fighting’ knife, is a very slim knife whose primary (and almost only) purpose is thrusting. Slashing is a secondary purpose for the fighting knife, to the point that the very first versions of the famous Italian ‘stiletto’ knife weren’t edged at all.
WWI saw a wide usage of very long and narrow blades that couldn’t be used for any other usage than fighting (they were no more that thin bars with a point on one side and a handle on the other).
In the years following WWI, the fighting knife became double-edged to let the fighter slash in any direction, making it even MORE difficult to use for any other task than fighting.
For example, the legendary Fairbairn-Sykes dagger knife was so appreciated that it earned a place inside the symbol of the S.A.S., the famous English special forces.
Anyway, in its many variants the fighting knife never lost its usual and very slim blade that was both its trademark and the feature that finally led to its ‘extinction’ from the military world.
Because – despite many movies saying the contrary – soldiers don’t spend most of their time fighting, but doing really less interesting things – as cooking, installing tents, digging, etc.
So, the fighting knife left its place for the more ‘modern’ (and useful) ‘military’ knife.
The military knife is a knife that is more useful as a field tool – which is its primary purpose – but that can be used to fight also.
In order to do so, its blade is larger (to be sturdier for field tasks), but with some attention to the point too, that must be good for thrusting also (during fights).
Another important feature of the military knife, is that it’s only single-edged, so that the user can grip the blade higher, without hurting himself, during difficult tasks.
The Gerber Mark II was the last really successful ‘pure fighting’ knife in the U.S. Army.
It was never officially issued but during the Vietnam war it was privately bought by so many soldiers that it became some kind of ‘unofficially issued’ item.
The reason so many soldiers liked it, was that they thought that the recently introduced Ka-bar wasn’t ‘powerful enough’ during close quarters combat.
It’s also interesting to note that the Gerber had (and still have) a so ‘vicious’ look that in the seventies it was shown by people marching against the Vietnam war as proof of ‘how ‘dirty the U.S. involvement had become in South East Asia’.
Whatever the initial opinion of soldiers, in the following years the Ka-bar became – and still is – one of the best military knives ever, while designs similar to the ‘Gerber Mark II’ have largely faded away from both the military and civilian market.
THE SURVIVAL KNIFE
The survival knife comes from the military world and is initially meant for military usage.
It is a ‘kind’ of military knife designed to also accomplish (and stand) some particular survival tasks as chopping trees, sawing, cooking, etc.
The first survival knives weren’t different at all from other military knives but as the years went by, they started to sport brand new ‘added’ features as reinforced tangs, sawback blades or ‘survival’ hollow handles to store matches.
Nowadays the survival knife is a category on its own and designers of survival knives usually teach people what they can do with their knives in a survival situation (so that users don’t have to understand on their own).
For example, the famous ‘tracker’ knife is one of the very few modern knives far different from any others before.
For example, the ‘tracker’ knife, according to its instruction manual, is made to “chop, split, carve, hammer, scrape, saw, engrave and break metal wire.”
And by the way, in its latest versions it sports a sawback identical to that of Jimmy Lile’s survival knives.
JIMMY LILE AND STALLONE AT WORK
Stallone choose Arkansas knifesmith Jimmy Lile to make the new knife for the movie.
Lile could surely just make a ‘bad-ass looking’ movie prop, if he would, but a ‘knife-guy’ like him would have never put his name on a pure movie prop.
So, the actor and the knifesmith spent countless hours in discussing a design that had to be new, big and mean-looking, but really useful in the real world too.
It had to be a ‘real’ knife, not a movie prop.
Stallone focused his attention on look, Lile to details and real usefulness.
Since Stallone’s wish was to show the survival knife usage in a real wilderness situation, Lile thought that the best choice would have been a hollow handle knife with a sawback blade.
So, he turned his eyes to the best one of that kind that was ever made, the Randall 18.
Even if never officially issued, the Randall 18 was really used by some special forces soldiers during the Vietnam war, so it also fit the character as well.
Having finally found the perfect ‘kind’ of knife for the movie, Lile started to re-design the Randall to make it more modern, bigger, better and – most of all – much more ‘bad’ at the first glance.
The result, was one of the most original knives of its time, and one of the most misunderstood also… Just like the character who carried it.
In my modest opinion, this knife places itself on its own category, as a ‘survival fighting knife’ which is exactly the situation the character finds himself in.
This is a knife made to fight and survive only, and is not meant as a working tool or for heavy-duty field tasks.
The blade is long, longer than that of the average survival knife, but not so large (considering it’s length) to make it a ‘military’ knife. length and width together, gives the knife the real intimidating look Stallone wished.
The second eye-catching feature is surely it’s sawback, with its teeth that looks so similar to those of a chainsaw.
Note that its particular tang construction makes it much sturdier than people usually think, and the saw is really useful, which makes it a ‘real’ survival knife.
Overall, even after all of these years, real knives experts know that an original Lile knife has nothing to do with its cheaper, ‘official licensed’ versions.
1) 14” overall length
2) 9” long blade with bowie point.
3) 5 single teeth
4) 9 double teeth
5) screwdriver handguard (phillips and standard) with lashing holes
6) waterproof-cord wrapped hollow handle
7) pommel with compass
THE CAMERA TURNS ON
The First Blood movie was ‘troubled’ from the start because after the huge success of Rocky, Stallone had the power to change the script, and he did a lot.
The most important message hidden inside Morrell’s book, was that it was the U.S. that made Rambo become a psycho killer. But ‘whoever the fault he deserves to die anyway’
Stallone ‘ruined’ the book (in the opinion of almost everyone working at the movie) by making the character less violent and by turning one of the cops into the usual stereotyped-big screen-‘bad guy’.
He also changed so much Col. Trautman’s character, to the point that Kirk Douglas left the set, because – said Douglas – he ‘had spent months preparing for a completely different role’. And his words were confirmed many years later by actor Richard Crenna (Douglas replacement), when he said in an interview that “I was chosen at the very last minute, so I acted with no preparation at all. I was given the lines, and simply told them in front of the camera”
THE MOVIE RELEASE
A knife that wasn’t even mentioned in the book became almost important as the main character.
It’s first appearance is legendary itself, with the sheriff discovering the knife on Rambo and confiscating it as a ‘concealed weapon’. Than the Sheriff pulls it out from its sheath and clearly show surprise for its dangerous dimensions and look (just like the public is surprised too, thus enhancing the impact of the scene).
Rambo than escapes and uses the knife many times in the movie, and for many different tasks: for building booby traps with sticks and ropes, for land navigation, to stitch his wounds, to open drums and to fight also.
He even makes a spear of it and go hunting.
AN UNBELIEVABLE SUCCESS
The movie and it’s knife had such a worldwide success that they both changed the knife industry for ever.
Knife shops were flooded with people desperate do get their hands on anything barely similar to what they had seen in the movie.
Even nowadays, it’s really easy to find collectors whose first knife ever was some kind of hollow handle, sawback survival knife, because ‘you know, that first movie was so good….’
…AND SOME NOT-SO-GOOD CONSEQUENCES
After the amazing results of the first movie, the story didn’t went on so well and – strangely – both the knife and the movie character shared the same destiny.
They both got misunderstood.
Crazed people started to buy the biggest and less useful survival knives they could find.
They started to see knives as pure collector’s items with no use at all, and bought them mostly because of their overall look, without any knowledge about their steels, constructions or possible usages.
Most of all, since Randall-Lile’s tang construction was too much expensive for the general public, the market was flooded with cheap, easy to break Rambo copies that had nothing to do with Lile’s original.
These useless, too big and too cheap copies became indeed so popular, that even nowadays you can hear most knife enthusiasts use the name ‘Rambo knife’ as some kind of insult, or that ‘high quality hollow handle knives doesn’t exist at all’.
This is not true… But a millions of bad knives later, who believes that?
Strangely, Stallone’s character in the movie followed a really similar path.
Because in the second movie, Stallone took away any ‘post traumatic stress disorder’ issue from the mind of his character, and made him become a ‘bodybuilding killing machine’ killing dozens of enemies on his own.
Than he made a third movie too, following the very same path, thus increasing even more the ‘hate’ some people had for this new version of the character.
And suddenly it was over… Everything was over
The respect both the knife and the character once had, was now gone for ever.
IN THE END
Nowadays, we find ourselves are in a paradox situation.
What was once the object of a very large, almost universal following, has now became something to like on your own, without saying it too loud to other people.
If you are a Lile fan nowadays, pay attention to the people who you say it aloud: you at risk of spending countless hours trying to explain the different ways of tangs construction… To people who doesn’t want to believe you.
But if you are like me…
Keep enjoying the secret cult of high quality hollow handle survival knives, because they exist.
And most of all… Don’t mind the rest of the world.
Take the Schrade’s ‘extreme’ survival knives, for example. They are the true ‘sons’ of Lile’s work.
They are ultra modern, hollow handle knives sporting a one piece patent-pending construction that Lile himself should surely be proud about.
No one laugh about them… And they also are a lot cheaper than a Lile’s nowadays original.