SODOM, THE DEAD SEA — Sylvester Stallone was in his Rambo get-up, seated on the steps of his trailer in afternoon heat of 120-plus. It was a curious image: Instead of brandishing his glistening "survival" knife, Stallone was wielding a fly swatter.
Never missing a beat during an interview, he idly swatted at flies that landed on his pants and bare chest. And he whapped at flies that settled on the khaki-clad legs of the interviewer alongside him. "Did you meet this one?," Stallone said. "I'm gonna keep him as a pet and name him 'Killer.' "
As tenacious as these hordes of flies might be, fly swatting belied the mood of this particular mission. As Stallone noted, with a nod to a bodyguard who lounged against a nearby trailer, "This is a pretty serious place to be. There's a sense of danger here. . . ."
In war-weary Israel, where military checkpoints dot the country, gun-toting soldiers are everywhere. Visitors can't help but be apprehensive.
The sense of tension is one reason that Stallone chose Israel to make "Rambo: First Blood Part III."
But there's another reason. The isolation of the country's rugged landscape fits the mood of lonely, dispirited Vietnam vet John Rambo.
Not coincidentally, it also fits the current mood of Stallone, whose personal life is in the midst of upheaval.
Budgeted at $31 million, "Rambo III" will shoot through November at locations including Eilat and caves near Jerusalem. Filming, which will wrap in December in Thailand, is currently under way in Jaffa (near Tel Aviv), following three weeks in the hills above the Dead Sea.
In this sequel to the monster hit "Rambo II," which grossed about $375 million worldwide, Israel's breathtaking vistas are doubling for Russkie-infested Afghanistan.
That's where Vietnam vet Rambo reluctantly journeys when his mentor, and only true friend, Col. Sam Trautman (again played by Richard Crenna), is kidnaped and held prisoner.
The storyline, co-scripted by Stallone, finds Rambo befriending a young Afghani boy and teaming with moujahedeen tribesmen (Afghani freedom fighters) to fight the Soviets.
Said Stallone: "For a while, we talked about doing this movie in Arizona or Nevada. But then I thought, hey, what's everyone going to do--hit the crap tables every night after filming?
"That's not quite the state-of-mind I thought we should have for a movie like this."
Morocco, Australia, Italy and Utah were also considered. In Mexico, some $5 million worth of sets were built, and later dismantled.
Then came a location visit to Israel: "I got off the plane and said, 'Yeah, this is it,' " said Stallone. "It feels like the kind of place where you should make 'Rambo'--you know?"
As Crenna noted: "We drive through a military checkpoint each day to get to the set, then get into our soldier costumes and 'go to war.' Then, when the jets fly overhead, we look up and wonder where they're going--or where they've been."
He is a character who touched a nerve that was felt the world over.
John Rambo, the former "special operations" GI, has played to record-breaking audiences in countries ranging from Japan to Australia to France to the Philippines. And too many others to list.
Relating to John Rambo doesn't require that audiences relate to the Vietnam War. Or to American patriotism. At least that's what cheering audiences in places such as Israel, South Africa and the Arab world would seem to indicate. (Wire reports from Lebanon told of gun-toting moviegoers who jumped up and down in their seats, applauding Rambo's gung-ho actions.)
First introduced to audiences in the realistic and downbeat "First Blood"--in which he was forced to fight his own countrymen (who tried to run the long-haired drifter out of their sleepy community)--Rambo became a screen legend with "Rambo: First Blood Part II."
Stallone attributes that to "the great pipe dream that was 'Rambo II' "--a reference to the storyline that found Rambo returning to Vietnam and rescuing MIAs.
In that film, Rambo became a larger-than-life screen character rooted in lore.
Explained Stallone: "He doesn't take on challenges for money--or for glory. What he's doing is grabbing at a second chance, trying to eradicate mistakes, trying to exorcise his demons.
"He has one foot in the dark, one in the light. And so he vacillates, he's uncertain which way to go.
"But, in the end, he usually makes the right decisions.
"Audiences know that his methods are extremely simplified--he's a man who believes that actions speak louder than words. And he has little faith in negotiation.
"Still, he can be counted on."
The "Rambo III" cast and crew of more than 250 was put through rigorous paces during the first weeks of shooting in the Dead Sea region.
Foremost among the challenges: the heat.
Temperatures in Sodom, the seaside resort area where cast and crew were ensconced, run about 120. But in the craggy hills above--where a Russian-occupied fort had been constructed in "Afghanistan"--they run about 10 higher. And then some.