Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the December 1994 issue of BLADE. Read more from BLADE‘s extensive archive here.
Again and again, when knives hit the silver screen, they become characters unto themselves. Some knives take that more literally than others. Here’s one example.
A Movie Knife with Tibetan Influences
The Phurba, the knife from the 1994 motion picture, The Shadow, breaks new ground for movie blades because it’s the first to take advantage of new computer-generated special effects. For the dagger in The Shadow, that means the creation of a living, breathing character, so to speak.
“It growls a couple of times, flies through the air, sprouts legs and even bites Alec Baldwin’s hand,” United Cutlery’s Kit Rae said of the knife. “They used a lot of computer graphics so the face on the handle moves, and the handle twists around.”
Designed for the movie by Joe Nemec III, the Phurba – or “Phurbu” as it is also spelled – is based on an actual Tibetan exorcising knife or “ghost dagger” used by lamas (Buddhist monks) to drive out evil spirits. The Phurba dovetails with the theme of The Shadow since the movie begins in Tibet.
A Three-Sided Blade
According to A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor, by George Cameron Stone, the original Phurbas had, “a three-winged blade and a hilt made up of lamaistic symbols. The pommel is usually a head with three faces crowned, with an animal’s head and neck projecting from the top. Thunderbolts (vajras), dragons and dragon’s heads are frequently present. Usually the blades are made of iron and the hilts of brass; sometimes the entire knife is of brass, and occasionally of wood.”
Nemec couldn’t get an authentic Phurba, so he based the movie knife on research, Rae said. The movie Phurba is true to the original knife in looks, right down to the three-sided blade. The main difference is in the number of faces on the handle, which was sculpted by Nemec. Where authentic Phurbas have three faces, the movie version has but one.
“[The movie’s officials] decided on a single face because it fit in with the idea that the knife was a living character,” Rae said.