The town where one of Hollywood North’s first blockbusters was filmed now has a permanent red cedar reminder of the industry’s beginnings. And the carving, of Sylvester Stallone’s character John J. Rambo, is officially Sly-approved according to the man himself.
On Instagram, Stallone posted that he was very proud of the “massive” Rambo statue installed in Hope, “exactly where we shot First Blood.” He also gave a shout-out to carver Ryan Villiers, who was commissioned to take on the reincarnation of Rambo’s iconic look in red cedar.
Villiers, a full-time Edmonton-based chainsaw carver, has made a name for himself in the industry by taking on lifelike carvings of Don Cherry and Norm from Cheers. It was these carvings that caught the eye of Victor Smith, who commissioned Villiers for this project.
Villiers began carving in 2017. He got into the art after watching Carver Kings and transitioning from work as a heavy duty mechanic. His first portrait carving was of his grandfather, who passed away in 2018.
Villiers said it’s been “a lot of sleepless nights” throughout the six weeks he was working on the John Rambo carving. The process began with a lot of Googling of Rambo in different angles – Villiers estimates he had 300 screenshots on his phone. Then it was about scaling, getting the proper proportions which he has modeled on his own frame.
Meanwhile, Victor was busy getting a red cedar log cut and sent to Edmonton for Villiers to begin the process of blocking – mapping and cutting out the basic structure of the carving. It’s Communities in Bloom’s biggest project yet Victor said– a $10,000 sculpture not counting all of the volunteer hours as well as products and services donated by local businesses.
Using various sizes of chainsaws, dremel tools, die grinders and a lot of hand sanding to smooth the features, Villiers went from log to final wood sculpture.
The detail is critical for him – the sling of bullets Rambo carries over his shoulder and around his frame are real bullets from an army surplus store, his red headband is carved from cedar to look like it is fluttering down his shoulder and Villiers spent a lot of time on the carving’s jaw line and pronounced cheeks. Because of the cedar’s soft consistency during the detail work on Sly’s face, the carving’s eyelids were flaking away and Villiers had to remove the head and begin again. “His old head is hanging on my garage wall,” he laughed.
Villiers kept in touch with fellow Alberta chainsaw carver Marina Cole as his second set of eyes on the project. “She was actually my psychiatrist going through this one,” he laughed. “Just for his face in particular and looking at proportions, we bounce off each other all the time.”
Throughout the creative process, Villiers heard from Sly’s agent and ended up sending him photos of the carving in its bare wood phase. Stallone was shown the photos and loved it, the agent told Villiers, “so that was icing on the cake for me.”
The only question the agent had, allegedly from Sly himself, was around the stature of the art piece. The carving, Villiers answered, stands 6 foot 1 inch tall.
The placement of the carving is important, both for fans of Rambo and for those interested in the beginnings of Hope’s chainsaw carving culture.
One of the opening scenes of First Blood, of Sheriff Teasle exiting the police station, was shot where the carving now stands.
The carving also stands on top of where Hope’s first ever chainsaw carving stood, a Pete Ryan eagle carved out of a stump still rooted into the ground. “So we dug it out last week and put the concrete in,” Smith said.
Smaller unveiling amid COVID-19
Another B.C. celebrity, and a self-professed Rambo fanatic, on hand for the unveiling was Global BC’s chief meteorologist Mark Madryga. Growing up in Kamloops, Madryga said his interest started when he heard of the filming happening in the winter of 1981. He and his son, both fans of the film, eventually made it to Hope for the Rambo walking tour organized during milestones of the film’s release. He’s been back several times since, to watch the film at the Hope Cinema, outdoors at a screening and for other community events.
“It was one of the first and I love Sylvester Stallone, no doubt about it,” Madryga said. “It’s just a really good action film and he’s such a superstar.” The carving, Madryga said, is “like (Rambo) is standing right there.”
Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl was on hand for the unveiling. “We know now that if someone like John J. Rambo showed up here, he’d be welcomed as a veteran. We’d love for him to stop and have something to eat,” he said. Strahl praised the volunteer work of Victor Smith, Communities in Bloom and those behind the Rambo walking tour.
Also giving kudos to Victor Smith and the Communities in Bloom group, who were behind the effort to get the carving commissioned and installed, was Brian McKinney. “If it wasn’t for him and…the group, this wouldn’t even be happening,” he said.
“First Blood fans have been waiting for this moment for almost 30 years,” McKinney said, adding that fans of the franchise always wonder where the Rambo carving is amongst the town’s many chainsaw carvings.
And with the carving up, McKinney is also able to push back against the digs from his friends in Philadelphia who have their own bronze statue of Rocky Balboa installed in their city.
“This day is for the fans, the millions of them, that are around the globe and I’m not lying, it’s a little bit of an emotional day for sure,” McKinney reflected. “We often like to say…the co-star of this film is Hope, B.C. and a lot of the fans, they come to our town because of the way the town looked on screen.”
The view from Rambo’s perch at the edge of Memorial Park along Wallace Street hasn’t changed significantly, not geographically nor structurally, since the 1981 filming McKinney said.
“Today’s for the fans and I know they are excited. My inbox and all my messages have been going crazy from Simon over the pond and JohnRambo9 and a lot of guys and gals south of the border, Germany,” he said. “Sometimes these fans come into our community, and they know more about Hope, B.C. than some of the people that have lived here pretty well all their lives.”
“I’ve always said that these fans are crazy, but they’ve become some of the best long-time friends that I’ve ever been fortunate enough to have. This is a big day for Hope,” he said.
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