My notes on The Wild Geese (1978)
‘There’s a special clause in my contract that says my liver is to be buried separately with full honours.’
Probably the apex of the genre of British machismo which strings out between the oeuvres on paperback racks and film of Alistair MacLean and Andy McNab, this 1978 epic from producer auteur Euan Lloyd and hired gun helmsman Andrew V. McLaglen is an endearing, if ramshackle mix of the shoddy and the exciting. Films like this always had posters featuring paintings of big, battered movie star heads five times the size of the explosions, aircraft and battles. That approach pays off with iconic, if ridiculous turns from the overqualified but boozy likes of Richard Burton and Richard Harris, breezy and insufficiently hard Roger Moore (who has a cigar in lieu of a character trait) and happy-to-be-in-the-company Hardy Kruger (qualifying the picture as international), while the most memorable turns come from the lower ranks, with Kenneth Griffith enthusiastically terrible as a stereotype gay battlefield medic (the camp is shrill, but it was modestly innovative to include a gay character in the macho rainbow alliance along with blacks, jocks, cockneys, etc) and Jack Watson giving the all-round best performance as the shouty drill sergeant.
A British-based copper company run by a smooth baddie (Stewart Granger) with government ties (Patrick Allen, Barry Foster) recruits Colonel Allen Faulkner (Burton), who’s a hopeless alkie except when he has a mission, to assemble a mercenary team and parachute into a made-up African nation to rescue the imprisoned president (Winston Ntshona) so a wicked usurper can be ousted. Naturally, once a surgical strike has liberated the Mandela-like leader, the copper company comes to an arrangement with the usurper, and the mercs are left to be cut to pieces by the elite ‘Simba’ regiment, and suffer the expected losses while trying to get out of the country to the safety (!) of Rhodesia. Part of the excruciating appeal is the film’s attempt – courtesy of script input from Reginald Rose – to come to grips with African politics, which includes a few pithy, prophetic exchanges between the South African racist who reforms (Kruger) and the ailing black politician he has to carry piggy-back across the country. Naturally, this co-exists with Boys’ Own paper stuff in which the handsome, smiling whites (with a few token black soldiers) take out African sentries with poisoned crossbow bolts or sudden throat-slitting, cyanide is puffed into the mosquito netting of enemy troops and hordes of black extras are mowed down or blown up. We’re told that the Simbas are responsible for all manner of atrocities, so that’s all right then – and Faulkner is really, really upset when he has to shoot his wounded comrades so they won’t fall into the enemy’s torturing hands (it’s the gay guy who gets macheted to pieces).
Burton and Harris are, of course, ideally cast as sotten has-beens desperate for one last shot at glory, but McLaglen isn’t the man to spur these talents into rising from their career troughs to deliver the blazing work they were capable of even when things weren’t going well. And Moore is just out for a lark. Also on board: Ronald Fraser (as ‘Jock’), Frank Finlay (as a fighting Oirish bush priest), Rosalind Lloyd (the producer’s daughter), African regulars John Kani and Ken Gampu, Percy Herbert, Brook Williams, Terence Longdon, Patrick Holt, Valerie Leon (as a croupier), Jeff Corey and David Ladd (as the mafia), Ingmar Bergman’s daughter Anna (as a hooker), child actor Paul Spurrier (who grew up to write and direct the Anglo-Thai horror P), Suzanne Danielle and stunt supremo Bob Simmons. McLaglen had done a lot of okayish Westerns (Chisum, etc) and knows how to strafe a bridge or stage a gun battle, but the moments of gore and realism don’t really lend weight to the basic tosh of the storyline, and whenever the film tries to be significant it just turns gigglesome.
Michael Bonner Greatest film ever made.
J.L. Benét I love that film.
Phelim O’Neill Yahooooo!
David Hyman I’ve always had a soft spot for this one, right down to the Joan Armatrading theme song. It was hilariously parodied in Harry Enfield’s 1989 mock doc ‘Norbert Smith – a Life’ as ‘Dogs of Death’ starring fictitious boozehound actors Richard Smashed, Oliver Guinness, Dick Booze, and Peter O’Pissed.
Carl Ford Yes, I like THE WILD GEESE too! My school rugby team were used in the scene where Harris says goodbye to his son – filmed in Twickenham. I’ve just finished reading Roger Moore’s MY WORD IS MY BOND autobiography which contains some nice anecdotes from the making of the film too! Amongst my top 10 war films.
Kim Newman I think The Wild Geese is like the Pretty Woman of bloke films – indefensible on any level, but it bypasses critical faculties. Now, I must take another look at The Sea Wolves, North Sea Hijack, Who Dares Wins and Wild Geese II.
Michael Brooke A video shop once accused me of having Who Dares Wins out for months without returning it. I forget how this was resolved, but I think a glance down a list of the kind of things I normally rented was enough to exonerate me.
John Ninnis The Wild Geese is a great film with great actors. Ok it’s politically incorrect, where the women are just ‘lovely girls’. But it a great escapism piece of entertainment.
It’s a shame that Who Dares Wins hasn’t had a tidy DVD release as it was big film of 82. Great woman fight scene with Ingrid Pitt and Rosalind Lloyd “You’re going to do for a hiding”.
Richard Harland Smith Not long after I saw this, I got to see Winston Ntshona and John Kani in a South African take on WAITING FOR GODOT and it’s their inflections I still hear when I remember the dialogue.
George White The thing about it is that it is a film, like many of Lloyd’s films built on tax breaks. Lloyd was a bit like an upper echelon Haarry Alan Towers, and this even used money from Towers’ rival/fellow Franco employer Erwin Dietrich in exchange for Swiss/German distribution rights.
John Ninnis I still think that Stallone was influence with this film for The Expendables. Stallone also gets veteran stars in these films.
I’ll have to hand in my bloke’s credentials, I think this is total rubbish. The “KILL ME!” bit at the end is very funny, though.