By: Peter Suciu
The AK-47 is one of the most iconic modern firearms. It’s been a part of countless films, mentioned in dozens of hip hop songs, and since 1983, has been featured on the flag of Mozambique.
The AK has become famous, even infamous, yet, until the 1990s, the weapon wasn’t so well known. The reason for the gun’s former obscurity is that the United States government had a ban on all weapons imported from the Warsaw Pact nations during the Cold War (1947-1989), and as a result, AKs weren’t present even in some of the earliest films about the Vietnam War.
Not a single AK-47 is pictured in The Green Berets, the 1968 John Wayne film, and such is the case for many of the early Vietnam War films that followed.
The AK-47s used in Apocalypse Now were actually Chinese Norinco Type 56 copies of the AK-47, and until the late 1980s, the Chinese versions were as close as most western filmmakers could get.
The AK-47’s first appearance in a movie came in 1955 in a flick few outside of Russia would hear about until the end of the Cold War. This most iconic of Soviet small arms was seen briefly in the Soviet-made romantic comedy, Maksim Perepelitsa, when the title character serves in the Red Army.
What makes the AK’s inclusion in this Soviet film so remarkable is that it came out a year before the Budapest uprising of 1956, and that event has largely been credited as the first time western military analysts were able to take note of what had been a rumored Soviet automatic weapon. It would also be more than two decades before the AK-47 appeared in any movie outside of the Soviet Union.
While the U.S. ban on Warsaw Pact weapons kept the AK-47 from getting its close-up even in films about Vietnam, the Israeli Defense Forces managed to capture thousands of the assault rifles in the Six Day War of 1967 and the subsequent Yom Kippur War of 1973. Many of these firearms were lent or sold to the country’s film industry.
Thus, the first “western” film to feature a true AK-47 was the 1977 feature Operation Thunderbolt, which chronicled the daring Israeli commando raid on the Entebbe Airport on July 4, 1976. This was actually one of three movies made about the raid – and the only one that accurately depicted the Ugandan military being equipped with the AK-47. There is now another film about the raid in production, and from the initial trailers, it appears to feature real AK-47s.
As a side note, John Wayne might not have been seen on screen with an AK-47 in The Green Berets, though he probably was the first American actor to use a Military Armament Corporation Model 10, more commonly known as a “Mac 10,” on screen. The distinction of being the first American star to use an AK-47 goes to Kirk Douglas, who was briefly seen with one in the 1979 Brian De Palma horror thriller, The Fury. Scenes were filmed in Israel, and again, captured firearms were provided by the film’s armorers.
Throughout the 1980s, American filmmakers typically made do with the Norinco Type 56, and it is often easy to spot these, since many featured a folding bayonet – something true AK-47s never had. The overall shape of the gun was probably considered good enough for many filmmakers.
The first American production to feature the real deal was the 1986 Chuck Norris film Delta Force, which also called upon Israeli armorers. For the same reason Rambo III, released in 1988, featured real AK-47s – however, both films still featured Type 56 stand ins as well.
After the Cold War
In 2005, the AK-47 was probably best summed up in the Nicholas Cage film Lord of War, where in the opening sequence Cage offers the following monologue:
Of all the weapons in the vast soviet arsenal, nothing was more profitable than Avtomat Kalashnikova model of 1947. More commonly known as the AK-47, or Kalashnikov. It’s the world's most popular assault rifle. A weapon all fighters love.
One irony is that while the AK-47 is seen on screen at various points in the film, in one pivotal scene, to director Andrew Niccol chose not to use AK-47s or even Type 56s or other copies. The film shows SA Vz. 58 automatic rifles, which were produced in the Czech Republic. Externally similar in design to the AK-47, the two weapons actually feature no common parts – not even the magazine.
The reason for these substitute guns standing in for AKs is the fact that the scene – which is set in the Ukraine in 1991 – was actually filmed outside of Prague in 2004. According to Niccol in the movie’s DVD commentary, these were real guns rented from a real arms dealer, because it was cheaper for the production to rent 3,000 real guns than to rent 3,000 blank converted props.
The AK Goes Primetime and Beyond
By the 1990s, the AK-47 was so iconic that it is no surprise that it was used in various TV shows. Carmela can be seen wielding one on the pilot episode of The Sopranos. It has since made appearances in Breaking Bad, Tyrant, and The Night Manager.
Thanks to the abundance of variations within the AK family, including the AKS-47, the AKM, Norinco Type 56, Yugoslavian-made Zastava M70, the Romanian AIM, and WASR, amongst others, this weapon has become one that is hard to miss. In many ways, it has become a bigger star than some of the actors who held it on the big screen.
Peter Suciu is a freelance writer based in Michigan. Contact him at email@example.com.
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