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'Lord of War': An Arms Dealer as Hero


From the airline industry to the much more lucrative arms industry, here's a scene from a new movie opening today called "Lord of War." It stars Nicolas Cage playing an arms dealer. He's being pursued by an Interpol agent played by Ethan Hawke.

(Soundbite of "Lord of War")

Mr. ETHAN HAWKE: (As Jack Valentine) Nine out of 10 war victims today are killed with assault rifles and small arms like yours. Those nuclear missiles? They sit in their silos. Your AK-47? That is the real weapon of mass destruction.

Mr. NICOLAS CAGE: (As Yuri Orlov) I don't want people dead, Agent Valentine. I don't put a gun to anybody's head and make them shoot. I admit, the shooting war is better for business, but I prefer people to fire my guns and miss, just as long as they're firing.

CHADWICK: This film was written and directed by Andrew Niccol. He also produced it. He had to get independent financing because the studios wouldn't buy his idea. He's been interested in arms trafficking for years and the people behind it, who, he says, sell AK-47s like they're vacuum cleaners.

Mr. ANDREW NICCOL (Director, Producer): We might say to them, `You're responsible for tens, hundreds of thousands of deaths,' and they would say, `I'm responsible for no deaths, because I never pull the trigger.'

CHADWICK: `I just sell it because people want it.'

Mr. NICCOL: Yeah. `I'm supplying a demand.'

(Soundbite of "Lord of War")

Mr. CAGE: (As Yuri Orlov) I've supplied every army but the Salvation Army.

I sold Israeli-made Uzis to Muslims.

CHADWICK: How do you go about researching a film like this? I mean, you can read a lot about it, but beyond that?

Mr. NICCOL: It's hard to get these guys on the phone, you know, arms traffickers. But in the making of the film, I encountered a lot of arms dealers. I mean, there's a scene in the film where there are 50 ex-Soviet tanks lined up on a runway.


Mr. NICCOL: And they're all owned by one private arms dealer in the Czech Republic.

CHADWICK: Those tanks belong to an actual arms dealer?

Mr. NICCOL: Yes. The man in question said, `Well, I need these back by December because I'm selling them to Libya.' And in fact, when--we had so many tanks that we had to inform NATO because 20 satellite photographs had looked as if there was some sort of weapons build-up in the Czech Republic. The plane that you see featured heavily in the movie belongs to one of the most notorious arms dealers in Africa, also Russian.

CHADWICK: This is a transport plane.

Mr. NICCOL: Right.

CHADWICK: And toward the end of the movie, Nic Cage is flying in this set of weapons into an African country, and he's ordered to land unexpectedly. He thinks he's got protection.

(Soundbite of "Lord of War")

Unidentified Man #1: This is your last warning. Drop your wings if you intend to comply.

CHADWICK: The plane sets down and things happen. That's an actual arms dealer's plane?

Mr. NICCOL: Right, coming--you're in Africa. You're looking for something that will represent and arms dealer's plane, and oddly enough, you end up with an arms dealer's plane. And that same plane was running real guns into the Congo the week before I was filming fake guns. And the Russian crew would say to me, `Oh, it looks authentic.'

CHADWICK: Did you become...

Mr. NICCOL: An arms dealer? Yeah.

CHADWICK: I--I heard Andrew actually became an arms dealer in this.

Mr. NICCOL: Yes. The crazy thing was I needed a scene with a lot of weapons, a lot of AK-47s, and how do you get those weapons? I actually found it was cheaper to get real guns than fake guns. So I had--I bought 3,000 actual Kalashnikovs, and I--I wouldn't make much of an arms dealer because I sold them back for a loss. So it was an elaborate rental. But the fact that I could buy 3,000 Kalashnikovs was a little sobering.

CHADWICK: This character, the Nic Cage character, Yuri Orlov is his name...

Mr. NICCOL: Right.

CHADWICK: ...in the film. Were you at all concerned about making him too funny?

Mr. NICCOL: Well, I wanted the devil to be charming.

CHADWICK: He is charming.

Mr. NICCOL: Right. And so--and even these arms dealers that I met--I liked these guys.

CHADWICK: They're salespeople, aren't they?

Mr. NICCOL: Right.

CHADWICK: If you're in sales, people have to like you.

Mr. NICCOL: Right. And, you know, I had to sort of remind myself, `Oh, he's selling these things to Libya, you know, next week.'

CHADWICK: But the film kind of goes back and forth where this guy is in danger. He's shot at one point. And then in the next scene, he's exchanging witticisms or he's just narrating observations that are funny.

(Soundbite of "Lord of War")

Mr. CAGE: (As Yuri Orlov) In my experience, some of the most successful relationships are based on lies and deceit. So as that's where they usually end up anyway, it's a logical place to start.

Mr. NICCOL: In some ways, I think I'm almost testing the audience to see when will you stop liking him. He was perfect for this role in some ways, but I loved also the way the character and these men in general compartmentalize their lives, the way you can take a toy gun from your child's toy chest and toss it away and so you're protecting your own family, but then the next scene you're in Africa and you're causing carnage to so many other families. And the fact that you can separate those two things is fascinating.

CHADWICK: How do you pitch this film? When you were going to the studios to say, `Hey, I've got a script I want you to look at,' what did you say this film was, and isn't it important to categorize things?

Mr. NICCOL: It's not important for me, but it is--you're right--for certain people, and so you perhaps play up the thriller aspect of it. Nicolas Cage's character is always being pursued by Ethan Hawke's character, who plays an Interpol agent. You know, you play up the action of the film, but there is that underlying dramatic element and the fact that you are--your star of your film is an anti-hero, which is always a difficult sell. I mean, I wouldn't know exactly how to categorize it. I mean, it's going to--if it's in the video store in the arms dealing section, it'll probably be the only film there.

CHADWICK: But if--you're the director and the writer, do you really not know how to categorize this film? Or are you reluctant to say it in an audience because you don't want to scare people away from going to see it?

Mr. NICCOL: No, no, no. It's not that at all. It's just that I don't think in terms of genre like that. I just write what occurs to me, so I'm never sure where things will end up. You can tell me.

CHADWICK: Andrew Niccol is writer, producer and director of the film "Lord of War," which opens today in theaters around the country.

I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us. There's more just ahead on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Chadwick
For more than 30 years, Alex Chadwick has been bringing the world to NPR listeners as an NPR News producer, program host and currently senior correspondent. He's reported from every continent except Antarctica.