The Wild Geese (1978), directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and starring Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore as aging ‘soldiers of fortune’ fighting in Africa, is a worthy addition to the subgenre of ‘Men on a Mission’ war\action picture.
In 1968, British thespian, Richard Burton teamed up with then up and coming American star. Clint Eastwood, to make the WWII-set “Where Eagles Dare,” in which Burton played the leader of an Allied commando team on a mission to infiltrate a German castle in the Swiss Alps and rescue an important American POW. The film turned out to be one the best and most popular ‘Men on a Mission’ Action\adventure films ever made. Ten years later, Burton was back again as the leader of another Commando team – this time consisting of mercenaries and set in contemporary times – in the War\Actioner, “The Wild Geese (1978),” directed by American journeyman director Andrew V. McLaglen. “The Wild Geese” is not as famous as “Where Eagles Dare,” maybe because it did not get a proper US release, because its Stateside distributor Allied Artists went bankrupt at the time of the film’s release. Also, the film was mainly made up of British stars – apart from Burton there was also Richard Harris and the in his Bond-prime Roger Moore, but it didn’t have a big American star that appealed to the audience in US. The film was a big hit in the rest of the world, especially Britain where it became and continues to be one of the most popular films ever. However, through subsequent home video releases and showings on Television Networks, the film has managed to amass a worldwide cult following. Though set in the ’60s\’70s international\African (real & political) landscape and made at the end of the ’70s, it’s not a revisionist or seriously political take on the genre; and the film is much more similar to WWII Actioners like “Where Eagles Dare” and “The Guns of Navarone (1961)”- the mother of all Men on a Mission War adventures- in its characterizations and plot mechanics. Though keeping in with the times, the action\violence is much more gritty and graphic.
The Simba rebellion that took place between1963 and 1965 in the eastern parts of Congo against the then Congolese government lead by Prime Minister Moïse Tshombe was one of the bloodiest in modern African history. The Simba rebels were initially successful in capturing much of eastern Congo, and proclaiming a “people’s republic.” But in a major offensive launched by the Congolese government in 1964, the rebellion was crushed. Tshombe’s counter-offensive was spearheaded by battle-hardened white mercenaries, lead by an Ex-British army officer living in South Africa named Michael “Mad Mike” Hoare. “The Wild Geese” is a thinly disguised version of a rumored story relating to Hoare’s mercenaries attempts to rescue Tshombe after the latter was deposed in a coup by Mobutu Sese Seko. The Simba rebellion has been a backdrop for one of the most violent and cult ‘Men on a Mission’ movies ever made- the Jack Cardiff directed “Dark of the Sun (1968),” starring Rod Taylor and Jim Brown. That was a far too dark and morally ambiguous take on the tale of greedy, trigger-happy white mercenaries fighting in Central Africa- reflective of the countercultural times in which the film was made. In contrast, “The Wild Geese” has a strong moral center, and a very simplistic “White hat\Black hat Western”-like take on the subject. This should not come as a surprise because Director McLaglen was a disciple of famous ‘Western’ director John Ford; McLaglen himself made 5 Westerns with Wayne, which are as traditional as you can get- and that too at a time when Westerns were undergoing major revision at the hands of directors like Sam Peckinpah. McLaglen had also previously made a WWII Men on a Mission film, “The Devil’s Brigade (1968),” starring William Holden. Though McLaglen was always dismissed as a journeyman director- who made entertaining films efficiently, but with nothing artistically remarkable about them, he was really good at two things: handling big (aged & over-the-hill) stars, and shooting big-scale action adventure films set in majestic outdoors; and these two qualities maybe the reason why he was hired to shoot this film by independent producer, Euan Lloyd.
The film’s screenplay, written by Reginald Rose, was based on an unpublished novel titled “The Thin White Line” by Daniel Carney. The film was named “The Wild Geese” after the Wild Goose flag and shoulder patch used by Michael “Mad Mike” Hoare’s Five Commando, ANC, which in turn was inspired by a 17th-century Irish mercenary army. In the film, Richard Burton plays Allan Faulkner, a character loosely based on Michael Hoare, who was also a military advisor on this film. The film begins with Faulkner, a former British Army colonel turned mercenary, being hired by a powerful British merchant banker, Sir Edward Matheson (Stewart Granger) to rescue Julius Limbani, the imprisoned President of a southern African nation who is due for execution by General Ndofa. Sir Edward has interests in the copper mines of the country and intends to negotiate with Limbani. President Limbani is held in a remote prison in Zembala, guarded by a regiment of Ndofa’s Simbas; and Faulkner is to take a batch of 50 mercenaries into Zembala, infiltrate the camp, rescue Limbani and bring him back safely. After accepting the mission, Faulkner goes about recruiting a 49-member team. He manages to recruit close military friends. Lt. Shawn Fynn, (Roger Moore), Capt. Rafer Janders (Richard Harris) Lt. Pieter Coetze, (Hardy Krüger) and Sargent Major Sandy Young. (Jack Watson). Soon enough they all start training for the mission. The sergeant rides these old soldiers really hard; the training process takes a heavy toll on everyone including Faulkner . And then suddenly they get the call to begin the mission.
The Wild Geese manages to complete their mission successfully and rescue Limbani, but then there is a twist in the tale, which is fairly obvious and, even though this is more than three decade old film, i don’t want to reveal it and spoil it for viewers who have not seen the film, and for whom twists like these matter. Suffice to say that though “The Wild Geese” is widely considered to be the prototype for Sylvester Stallone’s “The Expendables” series, i think it was an even bigger influence on Stallone’s “Rambo: First Blood Part II.” The plot twist that would leave the mercenaries stranded in enemy territory and fighting for their survival as well as the final coda where the betrayed confront the betrayer is almost exactly replicated in “Rambo.” Of course, it’s hard to imagine gaunt, quinquagenarian, Shakespearean actors like Burton and Harris in the same mold as Stallone; one of the chief criticisms the film faced was regarding the average age of the actors playing mercenaries; but that’s precisely the point of the film. The film is basically about a bunch of men who served in WWII and , after retiring from the army, they failed to adapt to civilian life. They are after money and the thrill of action, and are now willing to sell their services to the highest bidder in any part of the world where their services would be required. Though this is not spelt out loudly in the film, we can see passing references made to the pathetic condition that ex-army men find themselves in, once they are out of service. Some are disinterestedly doing random household chores while itching to get back into action, some don’t even have enough money for a haircut. Some have become criminals, some alcoholics and some dysfunctional family men. Harris’ Janders promises to spend Christmas with his son; when Faulkner comes with the offer to join the mission, Janders turns him down repeatedly, but still, the lure of getting back into action proves too much for him; and even when he realizes that he is going to miss spending holidays with his son, he choose to go along with Faulkner.
The first hr. of this approx. 135 minutes long film is pretty much action less, and concentrates more on exposition and setting up the characters, once the action starts, it’s relentless; and for the most part the action is well-staged. Though a low-budget film, McLaglen manages use the jungle locations and the choreography of the action sequences to give the film an epic feel- something he’s really good at. He’s not very good at directing intimate scenes between the actors, and most of the dialogue scenes looks unremarkable and pedestrian; it’s left to the wonderful actors to make them work, which they do without allowing the film to become overtly mawkish, even though this a very sentimental tale. So, despite the big action set-pieces and its epic feel, the actors, especially the three main leads are the main attraction of this film. A 53 year old Richard Burton (who looks like a man in his mid’60s) may not be the first person that comes to audience’s mind when thinking of a commando leader fighting Simbas in Africa- and frankly, I would have preferred a more physically fit actor of the same age to play the role, someone like Sean Connery, Connery and Moore in the same film would have been dynamite. But once you are willing to buy this conceit of over-the-hill soldiers fighting once more, or one last time- for pride, for glory, for money, or for the simple fact that this is the only thing they are good at doing, then the casting of the film looks very plausible. Burton and Harris were old buddies and part of a group of hard-drinking, hard-living actors, nicknamed ‘Hellraisers’ that also included other British thespians like Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed; and, frankly, the producer and director of this film deserves some kind of medal for actually finishing the shooting of this film on time and budget with both stars on board. While shooting the film, both Burton and Harris were on the wagon- mainly because they had to deposit half of their salary in an Escrow fund as insurance for covering any additional expenses caused by their drunken shenanigans. This is the only time Burton and Harris had acted together in a film (interestingly enough, Burton had played King Arthur in “Camelot” on stage, while Harris played Arthur in the play’s film adaptation) and though both are acclaimed Shakespearean actors, they have very different acting style; while Burton is more of a ‘vocal’ performer, always letting his magical voice do much of the heavy lifting, Harris was much more of a physical performer. This is very much evident in this film as well- Burton as the leader who do all the commanding and negotiating, though in one scene he’s seen carrying the actor, Winston Ntshona, who plays Limbani, on his back. The real life friendship between the two actors add a lot of poignancy to their onscreen scenes, especially in the final scenes were Burton is forced to shoot Harris to save him from falling into the hands of the savage Simbas; Burton’s Faulkner later adopts Harris’ son and the film’s closing line is again a very poignant tribute from one friend to another. Roger Moore, who was actually three years older than Harris and just two years younger than Burton, looks almost a decade younger than these two. Moore made this film between two of his most successful Bonds, “The Spy who Loved me” and “Moonraker” and was by then a veteran of the action\adventure genre. Apart from bringing his cool, laidback ‘James Bond’ charm to the role, Moore also shows that he could be quite serious and tough if needed be, particularly in a scene where he forces a mobster to swallow Strychnine laden cocaine. Moore has fewer lines compared to the other two- something he demanded in his contract out of deference to the veteran Shakespearean actors – and spends most of the film chomping on a cigar and blowing away the bad guys.
The rest of the supporting cast is also formidable: Stewart Granger, although generally known for his swashbuckling roles in “Scaramouche” and “King Solomon’s Mines”, is at once very slimy and dignified as the two-faced aristocrat who hires the mercenaries. Jack Watson as the aging trainer adds some spice to the proceedings with his screaming, cursing drill sergeant act. Hardy Kruger gets the more complex role in the film- a racist South African who’s prejudiced against black people. Since the person he has to save and escort to safety (literally carrying him on his back) is someone whom he consider less than a human being, he is forced to come to grips with his racism. There are many scenes in the film between Kruger and Winston Ntshona (giving perhaps the best performance in the film as the sick and dying Limbani) where they argue their respective point of views. These scenes are also some of the most problematic in the film- the conversation between these two on race relations are extremely simplistic. Apart from some of its cheesy visual aspects, it’s the handling of the racial politics in the film that dates it badly for a modern audience. I wish they had just concentrated on making a B-War\Actioner in all its purity and completely avoiding the political aspect of it. This is a story about a bunch of white mercenaries entering an African country and butchering a lot of Black people to rescue a black leader. Any which way they cut it, the politics of it is always going to be very problematic. It’s better if it’s treated as a straightforward action picture; and to be fair, for the majority of its running time it actually is a sincerely made and straightforward rollicking Action adventure- there’s humor in the picture, but there’s no irony; that’s why it became so popular and continues to be so popular. Only a few aspects of the film where it tries to be serious and socio-politically relevant comes across as jarring. The fact that it was shot in apartheid-era South Africa also made the film controversial for its time; Michael Caine, who was supposed to do a role in the film, backed out because of that; and there were also angry anti-apartheid activists picketing the film upon its release. But that did not dent the popularity of the film. The film turned out to be so popular that Richard Burton was hired to do a sequel, titled “The Wild Geese II”. But Burton passed away just weeks before filming was to start. The film was later made with Edward Fox in Burton’s role. If Burton had done the film, then it would have been the first time he would have shared screen with his friend and fellow British thespian, Sir Laurence Olivier.