What follows is something of a Fasano specialty—an article tracing the use of a particular firearm in TV shows and cinema. Here John takes a look at the iconic AK-47, which, as John shows, adorns not just countless militaries worldwide, but plenty of TV shows and movies, too.
“This is the AK-47 assault rifle, the preferred weapon of your enemy, and it makes a very distinctive sound when fired at you, so remember it.”
Action movie fans will recognize that as Clint Dirty Harry Eastwood ‘s character Gunnery Sergeant Highway teaching his squad of Force Recon Marines how to recognize the sound of a 7.62x39mm AK in the movie Heartbreak Ridge. Clint’s Gunny pops out of the underbrush and empties an AK magazine at them as they scramble for cover. There’s no doubt that the AK-pattern rifle, developed in the waning years of World War II by Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, has become one of the most distinctive weapons of the last century. Given away to Soviet satellite states like shrimp at a wedding, the AK and its variants have also become some of the most used and recognizable firearms in motion picture and television history.
Long before I saw Clint’s 1986 Grenada-invading potboiler, I was introduced to the distinctive AK by the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, written by my friend and NRA board member John The Wind and the Lion Milius, who came up with the title after being sick of seeing lapel pins that said “Peace Now.” Originally supposed to be directed by a young George Lucas, who decided instead to make a little film called Star Wars, Milius gave Apocalypse Now to his mentor Francis Ford Coppola to direct. This 1980 epic nearly killed star Martin Sheen and director Francis Ford Coppola, but resulted in one of the most powerful war movies ever made. I will never forget the image that met Sheen’s Captain Willard when he finally arrived “up river;” Colonel Kurtz’s American deserters armed with Chinese Type 56 rifles.
These days, many Hollywood action films are actually being filmed in Eastern Europe to control costs. In places like the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, the AK rifle is a common as liberals in San Francisco. That means good guys as well as bad guys toting Kalashnikovs. In 2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration, filmed in Sofia, Bulgaria, Dolph Lungren and Jean-Claude Van Damme share the screen again, with scope- and laser-mounted ARs and AKs used by both sides. The Bulgarian version of the AK rifle can be seen in last year’s Liam Neeson feature Taken 2, and the Jason Stathem movie Transporter 3. Producers went to Malta to make 2011’s The Devil’s Double, where Dominic The Avengers Cooper plays duel roles in the story of the Iraqi man chosen to pretend he’s Saddam Hussein’s son Uday for public appearances, and gets to live his ultra-rich, ultra-violent life. Man, those Iraqi’s sure love their gold-plated AKMs!
In the coolest scene in Nicolas Cage’s Marvel Comics-inspired Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, just before he “flames out” a giant earth mover and squishes the bad guys, they open up on Cage’s “demon of justice” with AKs.
While the title sequence of 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine showed Hugh Jackman’s Logan and his brother Sabertooth fight in wars from the Civil War up to Vietnam, by the time the mutant Wolverine takes on Zastava M70b1 and M70B-2 toting Nigerian Soldiers in what appears to be the 1980s, he’s abandoned firearms for his bone claws. However, that doesn’t explain how they have an HK G36 there, years before it was invented…
Similarly, X-Men’s Professor Xavier and Magneto have to face Russian enemies armed with AK rifles during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 2011’s big screen X-Men: First Class. As a master of metal, Magneto turns the soldiers’ AKs against them, reducing them to components! History buffs may note that it was the Cuban Missile Crisis that prompted President Kennedy to OK issuing the M16 rifle, which, for some reason, is carried by Navy troops here instead of M14s or M1 Carbines. Luckily, we go to this new generation of comic book-inspired films to be entertained, not to get history lessons!
Attention To Detail
Movies that do try to do military history justice are few and far between, but when they make them, we can tell someone cared. Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace and his two-time Oscar-winning star Mel Gibson made 2002’s We Were Soldiers, the gripping true story of the U.S. Army’s battle in Vietnam’s La Drang Valley. This dramatization of an early phase of the Vietnam War accurately showed the enemy armed with both AK and SKS rifles.
When director Stanley Kubrick took on the Vietnam conflict in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket, he brought his acute attention to detail, especially in the first half of the movie that focused on the Marine recruits’ training. Kubrick made the 7.62mm M14 rifle a character in the film. The first half’s only cinematic hero. But, when Matthew Modine’s Private Joker and Arliss Howard’s Cowboy get to the ancient city of Hue, they now have the 5.56mm M16 at their side and are facing a whole lot of AKs.
“While AKs are used by the enemy in most of the fake Hollywood war movies, it was the heroic Colorado high-schoolers in…Red Dawn who picked up the Egyptian-made Maadi ARMs of their fallen Soviet and Cuban enemies …”
In 2012, the government collaborated with filmmakers to show the story of the hunt for and eventual killing of Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow’s award-winning film Zero Dark Thirty. The SEAL Team Six heroes of the film had to face Pakistani terrorists’ AKMS and AMD-65 7.62x39mm rifles. Eleven years earlier, Ridley G.I. Jane Scott’s 2001 film Black Hawk Down paved the way for the gritty look of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, with our downed American airmen surrounded by a Somalian city full of Norinco 56-1 type AKs.
Oscar-winning star of The Godfather and Manhattan Diane Keaton got trigger time behind her AK when her American actress character is trained by the Mossad to carry out a real counter-terror operation in 1984’s thriller The Little Drummer Girl. While AKs are used by the enemy in most of the fake Hollywood war movies, it was the heroic Colorado high-schoolers in writer/director John Milius’ original (and still brilliant) 1984 Red Dawn who picked up the Egyptian-made Maadi ARMs of their fallen Soviet and Cuban enemies and used them to turn back the invaders. Milius put his cast through a live-fire boot camp and it shows; the original cast, male and female, handle their AKs like their had carried them since junior high school.
Last year we saw what I believe to be an ill-advised remake of this classic, with secret weapon sub plots and nothing to recommend it except seeing Avengers and Thor: The Dark World star Chris Hemsworth taking on North Korean invaders with AKMs modified to look like current issue AK-103 rifles.
Speaking of the The Avengers, the 2013 TV spin-off Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has their super covert operative Ward (played by Brett Dalton) taking on Peruvian rebels armed with AKMs in the episode “0-8-4” and a WMD factory full of Georgian separatist rebels armed with AKs in “The Hub.” AKs are also in good supply on Showtime’s Homeland series—as CIA and terrorists go at it, you don’t know who to root for in this unpredictable drama.
AKs and their variants have been popping up on shows all over the small screen. The great James Gandolfini played with a lot of guns as Tony Soprano in the HBO series bearing his name. The Sopranos also showed the star sitting out in his back yard at night and waiting for the bear that was night-raiding his garbage pails with a Chinese-made Norinco Type 84S in his lap.
“The dystopian future series Revolution uses Norinco Type 56 rifles and even features an AK in its opening title sequence.”
Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer went to the Romanian AK in 24: Redemption. Each week sci-fi fans can watch Noah Wyle takes on aliens with AK-74Us in Falling Skies. In the Reagan-era show The Americans, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell pretends to be a real 1980s American husband and wife while they’re really Russian spies, and Keri (TV’s Felicity) has her Dragunov SVD sniper rifle tucked away next to the ironing board. The dystopian future series Revolution uses Norinco Type 56 rifles and even features an AK in its opening title sequence.
Crossing Every Border
Back at the multiplex, the AK is literally everywhere on the African continent as it has made appearances in many Africa-centered action films. 2011’s Machine Gun Preacher starred Gerard Olympus Has Fallen Butler as a real-life former badass biker who goes to the Sudan to protect children who have been forced into combat. The 2006 drama Blood Diamond had Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio in the African bush fighting Revolutionary United Front rebels with a captured AK. And a year earlier, Ghost Rider himself, Nicolas Cage, plays every arms dealer’s fantasy of themselves as he sells AK-47s, AKMs, Norinco 56-1s and vz.58 rifles while schooling African warlords on the life of the AK cartridge in 2005’s Lord of War.
Oscar-winning director and gun owner James Avatar Cameron makes 1994’s True Lies one of the most entertaining James Bond-type films. Super agent Arnold Schwarzenegger is sure to use an AKM in each hand against the movie’s Middle Eastern terrorists.
While Cameron invented the Terminator saga, he sadly had little to do with the 2003 sequel, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. In fact, I believe the only cool moments in the film come from Claire Danes as she opens fire on the female terminator T-X played by fashion model Kristianna Loken. Danes’ weapon of choice is a nice custom AKMS underfolder with a clamp-mounted, inverted mag.
I cannot end this piece without remembering my all-time favorite use of an AK rifle in a film or television series. James Bond films, with their Soviet counterparts to Bond, have been a treasure trove for Kalashnikovs. Timothy Dalton faced AKMS-firing Bratislava soldiers and got help from AKMS-carrying Mujahideen in The Living Daylights. Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond spent most of his time running away from AK-47 fire that always hit just behind him in films from 1995’s Goldeneye to 1999’s The World is Not Enough. But Bond’s greatest moment comes in one of the hero’s weakest films, 1983’s Octopussy.
In the assault on villain Louis Jourdan’s island stronghold, Roger Moore’s Bond (and Q in a freaking hot-air balloon!) take on Jourdan’s AK-firing private army. Bond grabs one of the baddie’s folding stock Czech vz.58V and mows down the bad guys as he slides down the long, curved marble bannister, which is cool enough until he realizes that is a large ornate knob at the end of the bannister that his groin is headed for at full speed. He swings the AK’s muzzle at the end of the railing and blasts the knob off with a full-auto burst before it can do a similar job on him. It wasn’t the first time an AK rifle saved the hero, and it won’t be the last as long as movies and television stories need reliable rifles!