In the Soviet Union there was a very specific kind of subversive movie that was popular. The movie appeared to the censors to applaud the status-quo while at the same time skewering it to someone who could read between the lines.
The Lords of War is exactly that kind of movie. On the face of it, the movie is about Yuri Orlov, played by Nicholas Cage, a disaffected bored young American who stumbles on the gun trade as a way to make money. The story follows the expected arc. Yuri discovers the gun trade. Yuri becomes successful in the gun trade. Yuri gets the babe and fortune and a little bit of fame. Babe convinces Yuri that the gun trade is evil. Yuri abandons the gun trade. Yuri tries to go for one more score that goes hopelessly awry. Yuri loses everything.
Except The Lords of War is not that film. What the film really is about is how the world sat and watched while guns were rapidly distrbuted throughout the thirld war after the collapse of the Soviet Union. How those guns were used by maniacs like the imaginary Andre Baptiste Sr., leader of Liberia, to fund their bloody wars.
We think that the movie’s purpose is teach us to hate the gun merchant because he is evil.
And Yuri understands that we think he is evil. When Jack Valentine, the Interpol Agent who has been pursuing Yuri finally has him arrested, they have the following exchange:
Yuri Orlov: Enjoy it.
Jack Valentine: What?
Yuri Orlov: This. Tell me I’m everything you despise. That I’m the personification of evil. That I’m what- responsible for the breakdown of the fabric of society and world order. I’m a one-man genocide. Say everything you want to say to me now. Because you don’t have long.
So we do. We the audience, outraged by Yuri and his actions call him all those horrible things. And we think that that’s the point of the film, that there is a scourge, the gun runner, and if we got rid of him the world would be a better place. We eagerly wait to find out what number we can dial to help the heroic Jack Valentines of the world.
And Yuri understands that too. But he turns to Jack and to the audience and says:
Yuri Orlov: The reason I’ll be released is the same reason you think I’ll be convicted. I *do* rub shoulders with some of the most vile, sadistic men calling themselves leaders today. But some of these men are the enemies of *your* enemies. And while the biggest arms dealer in the world is your boss–the President of the United States, who ships more merchandise in a day than I do in a year–sometimes it’s embarrassing to have his fingerprints on the guns. Sometimes he needs a freelancer like me to supply forces he can’t be seen supplying. So. You call me evil, but unfortunately for you, I’m a necessary evil.
And then we realize that, the gun merchant is not evil. The gun merchant is merely a middle man between the gun manufacturer, the gun owner and the victim. He is what makes them possible.
At that point we understand the subversiveness of the opening sequence and of the true purpose of the film. The opening sequence begins with Yuri, transitions to a factory that manufactures AK-47’s and ends with a bullet in a child’s brain. The point is that we’re all to blame. It’s not just the killer, and it’s not just the middleman but it’s also the guy building the guns. And that we can not escape our own moral responsibilities by blaming the problem on them.