Monday, 16 December 2013

The Wild Geese (1978)

The Wild Geese, released in 1978, is a full-blooded action adventure movie. The Wild Geese is also a movie about mercenaries in Africa. This subject matter made it highly controversial at the time although needless to say most of those who objected to the movie hadn’t bothered to see it. If they had they would have discovered that the movie’s message was the complete opposite of what they had assumed.

Mercenary leader Colonel Alan Faulkner (Richard Burton) is hired by wealthy industrialist and merchant banker Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger) to snatch a deposed African leader named Limbani (Winston Ntshona) from his prison cell. Matherson is trying to negotiate a copper concession with the man who deposed Limbani. The new president wants Limbani dead but Matherson’s plan is to double-cross him and get Limbani out of the country.

Faulkner knows the men he wants for the mission but getting some of them could be difficult. Lieutenant Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore) has a Mafia contract on his head, but Matherson assures him he can get the contract lifted. Captain Rafer Janders (Richard Harris) has given up the mercenary business to concentrate on raising his young son Emil. Janders is a different kind of mercenary from Faulkner. Faulkner has always been happy to work for anyone who will pay him, but Janders is an idealist who will only work for the good guys.

These difficulties are overcome and then the rest of the team is assembled. They will need a fourth officer and ex-South African security policeman Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Krüger) knows the bush as well as anyone and is an obvious choice. Faulkner will also need a sergeant-major to get the men into shape and R.S.M. Sandy Young (Jack Watson) is as tough as they come.

Four sergeants and a medic as well as forty other ranks will also be needed. Witty (Kenneth Griffith), an alcoholic homosexual but under his effeminate exterior he’s not only a good medic but a very tough soldier and he seems an ideal choice as the medic.

Rafer Janders will plan the mission. Planning is his speciality and Faulkner has complete confidence in him.

The mission goes like clockwork but then the mercenaries strike a small snag. An aircraft was supposed to extract them after they had completed their mission but it takes off without them and they realise they have been double-crossed. Now they will have to fight their way out, fifty men against a whole army.

Euan Lloyd was an independent producer but he had a knack for raising the money for big-budget movies like this. With a generous budget to work with director Andrew V. McLaglen delivers plenty of thrilling action scenes. Action was something that director McLaglen was particularly good at. Jack Hildyard was one of Britain’s best cinematographers while editor and second unit director John Glen would go on to helm several Bond movies. The movie looks as impressive as you’d expect with personnel like this involved. To ensure accuracy the most famous mercenary of them all, Colonel ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare, was brought in as technical and military advisor.

The cast is equally strong. If ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare was impressed by Richard Burton’s performance as the mercenary leader who am I to argue with him? Richard Harris is careful not to make his character, the mercenary with a conscience, irritating. Roger Moore plays a rather more ruthless character than usual and does it splendidly. The supporting cast is a veritable galaxy of great British character actors all of whom excel. The cast also includes quite a few real mercenaries like Ian Yule as Sergeant ‘Tosh’ Donaldson (who does a fine job).

Reginald Rose wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Daniel Carney. It’s a fine screenplay. Its one minor weakness is the political angle, with ex-President Limbani doing a bit too much speechifying (and Winston Ntshona’s excessively earnest performance doesn’t help). The political subtext feels a bit like it was tacked on to placate those who might have objected to a movie about mercenaries filmed in South Africa. Fortunately this proves to be only a temporary distraction from the movie’s main focus which is on the mercenaries themselves, their varying motivations, their military ethos and their response to the very nasty situation they find themselves in. This is (apart from the action scenes) the movie’s strength and the fine performances and the subtle characterisations carry it through.

By 1978 standards the violence in this movie was considered to be rather graphic. By today’s depraved standards it seems to strike the right balance, being graphic enough to be convincing without going overboard. As you might expect from a movie made in 1978 it has some rather politically incorrect moments as well, making it a refreshing change from the mealy-mouthed conformism of today.

Severin’s Blu-Ray release boasts a superb anamorphic transfer and a host of extras. These extras include a commentary track featuring producer Euan Lloyd, editor and second unit director John Glen and star Sir Roger Moore, a making-of featurette, a documentary on Euan Lloyd’s career and another on director Andrew V. McLaglen and an interview with ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare himself (Hoare has particularly fond memories of working with Richard Burton).

The Wild Geese is a boys’ own adventure in the best possible sense. Immensely entertaining and highly recommended.

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