David Morrell is most famous as the creator of John Rambo, the traumatised Vietnam vet anti-hero of Sylvester Stallone's hugely successful five-film franchise. He first introduced Rambo in the acclaimed 1972 novel First Blood, published whilst he was a Professor in the English Department at the University of Iowa. Morrell also wrote the novelisations for RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD, PART II (1985) and RAMBO III (1988). He is also the writer behind over thirty bestsellers, encompassing many genres - titles that include the spy novel The Brotherhood of the Rose (1986), which was adapted into a hit 1989 TV mini-series starring Robert Mitchum; the creative fiction memoir Fireflies (1988), inspired by the passing of his son; the comic books Captain America: The Chosen (2007-08), Spider-Man: Frost (2013-14) and Savage Wolverine: Feral (2014), and his latest works, the Victorian mystery thrillers Murder as a Fine Art (2013), Inspector of the Dead (2015) and Ruler of the Night (2016), all featuring the real-life literary figure Thomas De Quincey. Morrell has 18 million copies of his books in print, and his books have been adapted into 30 languages. In the first part of a two-part interview, I spoke with Morrell about the TV series that inspired him to become a writer; how his First Blood novel and the De Quincey series came about; how he approaches each project he embarks upon; his feelings on the Rambo movies and the legacy of the character, and about the rejected fifth Rambo film he and Stallone worked on.

You have said you wanted to become a writer after watching the TV series Route 66 (1960-64). What was special about that show?
Well, first, it was very unusual. It was attention getting because it was shot entirely on location. It was maybe the only series to ever have every episode be shot on location. The two characters in the show travelled from town to town in their Corvette, trying to find the United States and also find themselves. They drove from here to there at a time when the United States was not integrated with the Interstate system the way it is now, so little off-roads could take you to towns that hadn't been made the same as every other town the way they are now. That's what attracted me, but I also identified with these two characters. I was a troubled teenager at the time, and the series inspired me to believe that their quest was worthwhile trying. I watched the show as if I were the guys in the Corvette. I later realized that the writer Stirilng Silliphant, with whom I became friends eventually, wrote the scripts on the road as if he were the characters. He was always five weeks ahead of the production, and he would pull into a place, scout the location and spend three days writing a script. Then off he'd go off to the next location. Stirling had been raised in the back seat of a traveling salesman's car, so that was life as he knew it. He often talked to me about how he felt he was always on the road and discovering things all the time.

I sent him a letter, hand written because I couldn't type at the time. A librarian found the address for Screen Gems, so without that librarian's help I wouldn't have had a career. Stirling encouraged me to write and write and write, which is what I did. We became pen pal friends and then years later, we actually met. NBC bought my novel The Brotherhood of the Rose and wanted to turn it into a mini-series. Stirling was hired as the executive producer. Between 1985 and 1989, when we worked on the show, we met and talked often, and he became one of a group of mostly writers who provided me with the male authority figure I had missed growing up after my Dad had died in combat. It was terrific to work with him, to get to know him personally and be at his home and have dinner with him for those four years. It was really a rewarding time.
Given your love of THE YAKUZA (1974), did you have anything to do with the casting of Robert Mitchum in THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE ROSE mini-series?
No, I didn't. The initial idea was that Gregory Peck was going to be Eliot, and that would have been fine, but I heard from Stirling that one of Peck's conditions for signing on was that his son would have a significant role in the series. For reasons that were never made clear to me, NBC balked at that. They had a very limited list of older prestige actors, and Mitchum agreed to do it. Without him, it never would have gotten made.

I re-read FIRST BLOOD for the first time since RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD, PART II (1985) came out, and I found it so engrossing that I read it in a single day. I was struck by how beautifully, vividly and excitingly you handled the action and the geographical space.
Well, it's not a long book. It's only 300 pages. At the time, that was considered an average length. I was trying to write an action book that didn't feel like a genre book. When I was working on my Masters degree at Penn State University, Hemingway's style was the topic of my thesis. I don't write like Hemingway, but what I noticed was that he was an action writer in many ways. He certainly wrote a lot of action books, To Have and Have Not (1937), for example, and I noticed that his approach to writing action was to write it as if it had ever been written before, as if he was doing it for the first time. I was wondering if, in a parallel way, I could do the same thing.

First Blood is a very immersive, sensual book. I wanted readers to feel they’re truly in the story. I think that quality and the alternating viewpoints of Rambo and Teasle are the important aspects of the book. When I started writing First Blood in the late 60s, the United States was split apart over the Vietnamese War. It seemed to me that both sides were so entrenched that maybe if they just talked sensibly to each other, some resolution could be found. Nowadays the United States is not violent the way it was in the late 60s, but it still has that same kind of rigid separation, which in my opinion is anti-American. We should work to get along and not separate. In any case, these were my themes, and the alternate viewpoints were my way of saying them without ever having to state them.

When you write any book, is it mostly you trying to come to terms with how you feel about an issue or is it you wanting to simply tell a good tale?
 For me, it’s about what I’m feeling and thinking at the time. At the start of every project, I write a letter to myself, asking, ''Why is this project worth at least a year of my life?’ I write every day, usually for eight hours. Occasionally I take weekends off. There's no guarantee that the book I'm writing will sell, or that I'll find a publisher for it. So I'm on a high wire as it were, and the book has to be really important to me to justify the time I’m putting in.

I'm not a political writer. There aren’t any politics in First Blood. That novel is about human beings and how they got themselves in a terrible mess. With each book, what interests me is some topic that's related to what's happening inside me. A really good example would be my three recent books, which are Murder as a Fine Art, Inspector of the Dead and Ruler of the Night. All three are Victorian mystery thrillers set in London in 1854-55. Why did I write them? The answer is that my 14-year old granddaughter Natalie died in 2009 from a rare bone cancer called Ewing's Sarcoma. She was very, very ill for nine months. She had her left pelvis surgically removed, but the cancer wasn't stopped. This was on the heels of my 15-year old son Matthew dying in 1987 from the same disease. Only 200 people get the disease in the United States each year. That’s how rare it is. His left rib cage was surgically removed, but the cancer couldn’t be stopped. When Natalie died, my wife and I were in a spiral of grief, and I got interested in Thomas De Quincey, who lived in the 1850s and invented the concept of the subconscious. Freud essentially lifted the idea from him. As an escape, I became fascinated by the idea of a story set in the mid-1800s. The Scotland Yard Detective Division had been founded only twelve years earlier, and they think it's wonderful that they do plastic casts of footprints at a crime scene. Along comes De Quincey to tell them that the human mind is composed of chasms and sunless abyssses and layers upon layers in which there are secret chambers where alien natures hide undetected. I wondered what Scotland Yard would have thought of this guy as he teaches them the truths about the criminal mind.

I got lost in researching the Victorian era in the 1850s as an escape from my grief. De Quincey had a daughter in real life named Emily. At the time of the novels, he was 69 and she was 21. 69 was old in those days. Emily took care of him. A bookseller here in the United States named Barbara Peters pointed out to me that in a way Emily was my granddaughter Natalie, and that was maybe why I was writing these books. I was writing a series of mysteries, or thrillers, about a man who had invented the word 'subconscious', and at the same time I was writing these books unknowingly going into my own subconscious. That's the sort of thing I like to do. Someone said that if you read my books in order, they are like the autobiography of my soul. Yes, they are popular books, but they are serious at their core. In sequence they basically represent who I was when I wrote those books.

Has your relationship with the character of Rambo changed since you created him?
Rambo, in my novel First Blood, is a very angry man. He went to war. He discovered something about himself that made him bitter - that he was good at killing. I have a journalist friend here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I live, named Robert Nott. He's writing a series of articles about war veterans. The article he's working on right now is about a helicopter pilot who was in Vietnam, who has PTSD and has had serious psychological repercussions from that war. He told Robert that it took him a long time to admit that in war he enjoyed killing, that if he didn't embrace killing, he was going to die. That contradiction has haunted him for the rest of his life. That's Rambo. I modeled him on Audie Murphy, who was America's most decorated soldier of WW2, and whose citation for the Medal of Honor makes anything Rambo did in fiction seem like child's play. Audie Murphy didn't adjust to peace time very well. He kept a pistol under his pillow and sometimes woke up, screaming and shooting. The term PTSD didn’t exist back then, but he sure had it. I imagined what would have happened if Audie Murphy came back from the Vietnam War and (like Rambo) grew long hair and a beard as many young men did then, and was hassled by the police, as often happened to young men with beards and long hair. I imagined Audie’s angry reaction. That's Rambo in the novel. I have an essay about this in Rambo and Me: The Story Behind the Story, which is available as an e-book

FIRST BLOOD (1982) took a while to reach the screen.
There were 26 scripts for the movie and four different studios. Steve McQueen was going to be Rambo at one point, and Sydney Pollack was going to direct it. This was in 1975. But then someone realized that Steve was in his mid 40s, too old to be a Vietnam veteran at the time. A company called Carolco eventually made the film, and the producers – two wonderful guys who I loved hanging out with named Andrew Vajna and Mario Kassar – decided to modify the character for the big screen, to make him less angry and more of a victim. They actually killed him in the first cut of the movie, but the test audience objected, so Andy and Mario decided to reshoot the ending, leaving Rambo alive. The movie was a hit, and they realized that, by accident, they could do sequels. RAMBO II and RAMBO III further changed the character, making him jingoistic. President Reagan often referred to that version of Rambo in his press conferences. He once said that he’d seen a Rambo movie the night before and now he knew what to do the next time there was a terrorist hostage crisis. This is not the same character that’s in my novel or the film adaptation.

Before RAMBO IV (2008) came out, Sly phoned me and told me that now, in hindsight, he was troubled by the second and third films because they seemed to glamorise war. He wanted, in the fourth film, to make a Sam Peckinpah Rambo film, that would have all the bitterness and anger that was in my First Blood novel. While that fourth movie is weakened by over-long action sequences, there are nonetheless many terrific speeches in it, with Rambo saying things like ''Old men start wars, young men fight them, and nobody wins. '' There's another terrific speech where Rambo is forging a weapon and he says to himself something similar to what that Vietnam veteran told my journalist friend Robert Nott: ''Admit it, you didn't kill for your country, you killed for yourself, and for that, God will not forgive you.'’ Critics didn’t pick up on this. Mostly they had a standard reaction: ''Oh, here's another shoot 'em up.''

So we now have the Rambo of my novel First Blood, the Rambo of the film version, another version in 2 and 3, a throwback version in 4, where he’s sort of the guy in my novel, and now an extremely different version in 5. In all the Rambo films until the fifth one, there was a template and this was it: Rambo hates himself for what he discovers about himself in war. He wants to retreat, but something happens that is so powerfully personal, that against everything he has to access that dark side again of himself, hating himself all the while for doing it. That's Rambo.

I had no problems with the Rambo series until LAST BLOOD (2019), which has problems with logic and is less a Rambo film that an exploitation film from the 1970s. Compare LAST BLOOD to a James Mitchum exploitation movie TRACKDOWN in 1976, and you’ll see what I mean. It bothers me that some fans are saying it's the best one. It isn't. And the fact that they didn't see the difference makes me wonder if what they really wanted all along was merely the violence. The character in LAST BLOOD could be John Smith, not John Rambo. The character has been turned into a vengeance-seeking machine without redemption. I can only imagine what some Vietnam veterans are saying after seeing the movie. The character has been changed so that instead of hating what he learned about violence, Rambo gleefully wallows in it. It doesn’t help that there are plot problems. In RAMBO II, Rambo says that the mind is the best weapon, but in LAST BLOOD, he stupidly confronts what might be a hundred armed men and then seems surprised when they nearly beat him to death. He has a concussion that leaves him unconscious for four days. He then wakes up and bounds into action as if a concussion is a headache. A bad guys cuts an X in his cheek, obeying orders to make it really deep. Of course that would have meant cuts THROUGH his cheek, because there’s hardly any flesh in that area—and yet the deep cut through his cheek heals in a matter of days. A doctor is in the film. But Rambo doesn’t take his injured niece to that doctor. Instead he drives her to the United States. It’s hardly a surprise that she dies along the way, and an argument can be made that Rambo was culpable in her death. The plot has many similar problems.

Is it true that you and Stallone discussed developing a very different fifth film?
In February of 2015, Sly was in Philadelphia making CREED (2015). He phoned me and said he wanted to make a new Rambo film. He emphasized that he wanted it to be soulful, "like the first movie." He and I talked every weekend for seven weeks, for as long as ninety minutes at a time, working on this soulful story, but when he took our ideas to the studio, he told me, “They don't want to do that. They want a movie about human trafficking.'' A little while after that, Sly made a public announcement that he was no longer going to make Rambo movies. To me, he seemed to be saying, if he couldn't make a soulful Rambo movie, he wasn't going to make them anymore. Then last year I learned he was making LAST BLOOD. I emailed him, asking, ''Hey, is this what we talked about?'' and he didn't respond. Usually he'd respond right away. When I saw LAST BLOOD, I understood why he didn’t answer my email. Not only is the film not soulful—it has no soul at all. I don't understand how he switched from the beautiful story we talked about and went in the opposite direction. I was in shock. Most reviewers disliked it also. Hollywood Reporter even put the film on its "ten worst" list of 2019. I really like Sly. Our conversations have always been interesting and smart and creative. Movies are made for all sorts of reasons, and it's not always the actor who is behind those reasons. There are many forces behind the making of a movie. Maybe one day I'll find out what happened with LAST BLOOD. 

Part two of the interview. 

David's website. The site has links to sites where you can order his books.  

His new book, the anthology Before I Wake, can be ordered here.  

The Rambo films are all available on disc and digitally.  

Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2020. All rights reserved.

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