There have been countless Hollywood biographies focused on musicians, politicians, activists, and even some notable inventors. However, in the latter category the story of gun makers has been far and few between to say the least. In fact, apart from 1952’s Carbine Williams starring Jimmy Stewart as the bootlegger/murderer turned gun innovator, there have been few biographies about any American firearm maker.
In fact, about the only time any American gun maker’s life has even been chronicled was in The National Geographic Channel’s American Genius series, which had an episode devoted to Samuel Colt. Moreover, while The History Channel has shared stories of other American inventors and business leaders in its various documentaries, there has been almost nothing on the men who made the guns that tamed the west and ensured victory over our enemies.
While we’ll likely have to continue to wait (likely in vain) for any bio pics on the lives of John Browning, John Thompson, John Garand, and Eugene Stoner, last year filmmakers in Russia produced a feature-length film on Mikhail Kalashnikov’s efforts to develop the AK-47.
The film, fittingly titled Kalashnikov, and released this year in America as AK-47 Kalashnikov, offers a concise snapshot of how the uneducated Russian peasant, while recovering from injuries received as a tank driver during the Second World War, went on to create the most infamous firearm in history. Yet, as a complete biography, the film seems lacking. Apart from some flashbacks to his youth, where he is shown to be a tinkerer, little is offered about the man. Instead, it is almost like a propaganda film on the origins of the Kalashnikov, the weapon.
Recreating The Myth
For firearms enthusiasts who know the “official story” of Mikhail Kalashnikov, this film is very much a by-the-numbers take on how he had little formal training, left school at a young age, was conscripted into the Red Army, and after being injured at the Battle of Bryansk, he went on to develop a primitive submachine gun, which caught the attention of Soviet officials.
The film focuses primarily on his time at the Central Scientific-Developmental Firing Range for Rifle Firearms of the Chief Artillery Directorate of the Red Army, where he designed a new carbine, which eventually led to the development of the AK47. As a dramatic biography, the AK-47 Kalashnikov movie is a simple and straightforward story — and unlike many American films, it does lack the adversity that the primary character must overcome.
This isn’t so much a criticism, yet a fact, as it is the official story. And perhaps that is where the film comes up short.
The truth is that Kalashnikov, despite living in the Soviet Union when the wrong action could result in a bullet in the head, really didn’t have all that much to overcome, according to the film. Never is he seriously in danger of the NKVD or his superiors. It seems as if the state just knew he was truly destined for greatness even when his initial designs weren’t all that innovative.
If there is an issue, it is the story that simply repeats the accepted narrative: that an untrained peasant, while recovering, went on to develop a spectacular weapon. Yes, the film humanizes Mikhail Kalashnikov by demonstrating how he met the love of his life in wartime and even includes some of her contributions along with those of Alexandr Zaitsev, yet it also fails to note how much input Germany’s Hugo Schmeisser — inventor of the StG44 — played in the AK47’s development.
Even today, official documents on the design of the AK47 remain largely classified, but the movie fails to acknowledge that the USSR had obtained technical documents from Nazi Germany, while Schmeisser was also forced to work for the Soviets for seven years. There are numerous similarities in the designs as well, a point that failed to even be mentioned. The film would have you believe the AK47 was revolutionary when most firearms historians would take the view that it was far more evolutionary of a design.
The film also fails to question how an uneducated, untrained individual was able to study manuals while recovering — a point that seems suspicious today as the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, was known to arrest people for far less. This issue has been questioned in recent years, and even later in life, the real Mikhail Kalashnikov offered clues that the official story wasn’t quite so accurate.
Not surprisingly, the film simply sticks entirely with the myth. Yet many biographies take significant liberties with the facts. The result is still a good story that should be enjoyed by those interested in the history of the AK47.
The bigger issue is that this is more of the history of the weapon than the man. We don’t see how Kalashnikov was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union yet was forced to live a modest existence for much of his life. We don’t see his efforts to perfect his designs, or how he eventually became wealthy from his invention only in later life. In fact, those uninformed would have simply thought he made one famous gun and disappeared into oblivion.
Where the AK-47 Kalashnikov movie truly stands out is in its attention to the small details. Today, war films have been taken to a new level when it comes to the accuracy of equipment and uniforms, and Russian filmmakers truly have raised the bar. The uniforms are largely spot on, and as a collector and researcher on the subject, this reporter was really impressed. The attention to early war vs. late war insignia and uniform pattern was impeccable, and the same was true of the small arms, tanks, and other vehicles. Russia went to great lengths to obtain wartime T-34s for use in films, and it appears a few were included.
While not technically a war film, at least not an action-packed one, the few combat scenes are also visually impressive.
As the film’s focus is on the development of Soviet weapons — including the PPS-43 and SKS — it is a true treat to see those in their respective stages of early production alongside the AK-47. Even if the story plays too close to the myth, it is fascinating to see the evolution of Soviet small arms during and immediately after the Second World War.
Which AK-47 Kalashnikov Movie Version to Watch?
Today, access to foreign films isn’t really all that challenging, and the AK-47 Kalashnikov movie has been officially released in the United States on DVD and Blu-ray, while it is also available for rent/purchase on Amazon Video. The problem however is that this international version, while it has the same running time with no scenes added or cut, is only available with a dubbed audio track.
For those who hate subtitles, this might not seem to be a problem.
However, the dubbing is hideous beyond words. In addition to barely syncing up with the actors’ mouths, the dialog is so flat and unconvincing that it makes the film barely watchable. It also ruins the rest of the audio track, completely overpowering the sound effects. But even more annoying is that the dialog seems to be changed — at least based on the original Russian version, which for some reason isn’t available on the international DVD/Blu-ray.
Fortunately, there is a Russian version available online for sale, which is in Russian with English subtitles. At issue is that some of these copies may be region coded, requiring a region-free DVD or Blu-ray player. Other copies — including one obtained by this reporter — are region-free and play on any DVD player or computer drive. The first copy I obtained however had issues with the chapters locking up, yet subsequent copies seemed to be fine. This is worth mentioning, and hopefully for most viewers there won’t be any playback issues.
As a film and history buff, this reporter prefers films with subtitles, but this is really a matter of personal taste. The story isn’t especially dialog-heavy, so some may find the dubbing acceptable, but reading the subtitles didn’t detract from the viewing experience.
Whether you see the AK-47 Kalashnikov movie as a “war film” depends on perspective. There are moments of combat, but it is really the story of an inventor — one whose story is known to firearms enthusiasts and few others. The story really doesn’t fully explain what drove Kalashnikov, yet it still shares the myth of the self-taught tinkerer who created the most innovative weapon of all time and does so in less than two hours.